Lovisa Stannow, Op-ed: Protecting LGBT inmates from sexual abuse, The Washington Blade, July 3, 2009, 2009

Earlier this month, the Associated Press broke a story that advocates had been talking about for months – inmates at Virginia’s largest women’s prison were being segregated for not looking “feminine” enough. While prison administrators denied the practice, current and former staff and inmates all told the same story of a separate unit derisively called the “butch wing.”

This punitive practice was ostensibly intended to end prohibited consensual sexual activity and to protect others from predatory inmates, illustrating how misconceptions about gay and lesbian prisoners continue to thrive in the prison setting. In fact, academic research studies have found that lesbian, bisexual and transgender inmates in women’s prisons are at heightened risk of sexual victimization. Similarly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has identified sexual orientation to be the single highest risk factor for becoming the victim of sexual assault in men’s facilities.

Sexual violence causes terrible harm to survivors and creates unsafe prisons for staff and inmates alike. Fortunately, the Virginia Department of Corrections has taken steps to address the issue, such as developing new policies to evaluate prisoners before they are housed together, thereby decreasing the likelihood that predators will share a cell with vulnerable inmates.

Reports received by Just Detention International following the Associated Press article also indicate that the segregation of gender non–conforming inmates at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women has ceased, which would be a good thing.

Virginia prisons now have a new, powerful tool available to eliminate sexual abuse – a tool that would not exist had it not been for the commitment of U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) to end prisoner rape. Last month, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission released the first–ever binding national standards aimed at preventing and addressing sexual abuse in U.S. prisons and jails. Mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which was co–sponsored by Wolf, and developed with input from corrections officials, prisoner rape survivors and advocates, these standards can help finally to put an end to sexual abuse in our nation–s prisons.

Attorney General Eric Holder now has a year to encode the standards as part of binding federal regulations. The standards spell out requirements for staff training, inmate education and sexual assault investigations. They mandate that facilities provide prisoner rape survivors with access to medical and mental health care services, even if they are too afraid to name their attackers.

In addition, they call for prison housing decisions to take into account whether an inmate belongs to a known vulnerable population (such as being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender). It is a remarkable step forward for federal standards to acknowledge the existence of LGBT prisoners and to instruct that their safety needs be addressed with careful consideration.

These are crucial measures, and the attorney general should act swiftly to enact the standards without diluting them. Once they are regulation, the standards will immediately be binding on all federal detention facilities. Virginia and other states will have one year to certify their compliance with the standards or will lose a portion of their federal corrections–related funding.

When the government removes someone’s liberty, it takes on an absolute responsibility to protect that person’s safety. The Department of Corrections in Virginia, and its counterparts in Maryland and the District, should support the enactment of strong standards to end sexual assault behind bars.

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