On Friday, the prison pen pal organization Black & Pink released the results of what is being billing as the largest-ever survey of LGBT people behind bars. The report, "Coming Out of Concrete Closets," provides a detailed, data-driven account of the experiences of LGBT prisoners—which apparently include endemic physical and sexual violence, limited access to gender-affirming care, and months and even years spent in solitary confinement.
"I was raped in 2007 by another prisoner, and placed on self-harm observation status because I was feeling suicidal," wrote one respondent. "The guard assigned to observe entered my cell after turning the security camera off and coerced me to perform oral sex on him. He promised to protect me, and gave me food and tobacco products."
According to the report, a significant majority—70 percent—of LGBT prisoners surveyed had experienced discrimination or verbal harassment from prison staff, while a third of respondents had been sexually assaulted by another prisoner. Nearly all the prisoners who filled out the survey reported being strip-searched, sometimes daily.
"I was raped by a jail guard in Sedgwick County, Kansas, and am currently in a lawsuit against that county," wrote another prisoner. "I feel horrible every time I think about it and wonder what I could have done to avoid it."
The survey was distributed to prisoners who receive Black & Pink's monthly newsletter, and as such, the data does not necessarily offer a representative sample of LGBT people behind bars. About 1,200 people completed the survey, nearly all of whom (98 percent) were in state and federal facilities rather than local jails.
Lack of gender-affirming medical care was another highlighted issue. A little under half (44 percent) of transgender, nonbinary gender, and two-spirit respondents said that they had been denied access to hormones. Just a fifth of respondents (21 percent) noted that they had access to gender-appropriate underwear and cosmetics.
Three-fourths of survey participants said they'd been held in jail before trial because they could not afford bail. Over half of those people added that they spent a year or more year behind bars before they had even been sentenced for their crime.
One of the most shocking findings in the report is the frequency with which LGBT people are apparently placed in isolation. An overwhelming 85 percent of respondents had spent time in solitary confinement; of those individuals, just under half had been placed in the box for two years or more. (Recent estimates put the total number of Americans officially in punitive segregation at between 80,000 and 100,000.)
The report also shows ways that LGBT prisoners try to keep themselves safe, even when these efforts are stymied by prison staff. Only 2 percent of respondents reported that they were allowed access to condoms – yet 22 percent still found ways to use condoms or some form of barrier when engaging in sexual activity. Some prisoners who participated in the survey noted that romantic relationships and friendships with other LGBT prisoners were an important source of strength. "We are both transgender women, imprisoned in different states," recalled one respondent. "We fell in love by mail, and have stayed in love as committed partners since 2006. The power of love and suspension of disbelief allows us to stay strong."
Meanwhile, there are some signs that conditions for LGBT behind bars are improving, at least in spots. On Wednesday, California prison officials announced that they have established the first-ever standards guiding when and how prisoners should receive sex reassignment surgery.
Ashley Diamond, whose experiences as an incarcerated trans woman were chronicled in a series of articles in the New York Times, joined a media call Wednesday about the report. "I actually took this survey while I was in prison. Not only did I take it, I encouraged all the other LGBT inmates that were within my radius to do the same," she said.
"I think if we don't get uncomfortable with these findings, then there's something wrong with us," Diamond added. "Liberation is something we all need and we all deserve."
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