For people who do not fit the norm, prison can be hell. Faced with regular abuse, assault, and a systematic erasure of identity, the LGBTQ community suffers greatly in the prison-industrial complex. From having higher rates of homelessness pre-incarceration to the injustices they suffer as inmates, they are disproportionately disadvantaged every step of the way.
The school-to-prison pipeline — the way in which youths from poor and minority neighborhoods disproportionately end up in the prison system — is often contextualized by race; however, it sweeps up gender and sexuality non-conforming individuals as well. According to the True Colors Fund, LGBTQ youth make up 20-40 percent of the homeless despite making up less than 5 percent of the population. Many are thrown out by their families or drop out of school to avoid harassment. “Going back, I’ve had my share of being in the closet and being afraid to come out, with gender identity and sexuality alike. And there were many times I’d have to lie about being cisgender because I felt I wouldn’t be accepted otherwise,” said Rebecca Patsenker, a Wayland High freshman.
This uncertainty can leave kids on the streets early in life. They struggle to get services and space in shelters, so many turn to illegal activities for survival. In Out of the Concrete Closet, a study done by Black and Pink, an LGBTQ inmate advocacy and prison abolitionist organization, 39 percent of inmates stated they have traded sex for survival.
Instead of aid, many find themselves targets of “quality of life” policing, in which law enforcement criminalizes practices that might be necessary for survival. Sex workers, drug dealers, and addicts face a variety of risks, but most are afraid to go to the police for help.
“The fact that there is a vested economic interest for society to have lots of prisoners...ensures that the system cannot truly be just, because the system is not about helping society or ending crime,” said Felix Flax, a Newton South junior. “A working criminal justice system should lead to less criminals, not more.”
Discrimination ensures that even innocent people will see the inside of a jail cell. According to a 2012 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 47 percent of black trans women will have been arrested at some point in their lives, many on the basis of not having an ID that matches their gender presentation.
Just Detention reports that 59 percent of transgender women were sexually abused in men’s prisons, as opposed to 4 percent of cisgender inmates. Coming Out of the Concrete Closet has shown that LGBTQ inmates are strip-searched at higher rates. Moreover, regulations on recognizing gender can vary across prisons, meaning it can be difficult to build legal cases to be transferred to a prison of preferred gender.
85 percent of LGBTQ inmates will spend time in solitary confinement. While this measure is sometimes presented as necessary for the protection of those individuals, it is almost always more harmful as the alternative. Being denied human interaction and variety in scene in activity is extremely harmful to a person’s mental health. A study done in California showed that inmates held in solitary confinement are 33 times more likely to commit suicide. It has been denounced by the UN as torture, yet it remains a common practice in US prisons.
In addition to physical abuse and extremely harmful punitive practices, transgender prisoners are faced with the systematic erasure of their identities.
“Policies regarding respectful treatment of transgender prisoners vary widely across states; the vast majority of policies are awful,” said Black and Pink’s Reed Miller. “Trans prisoners are more often than not placed in facilities that don't align with their gender identity, aren't allowed access to clothing, hairstyles, and accessories in alignment with their gender identity, and are often denied requested hormone treatment therapy. Abuse, harassment, and physical and sexual assault are commonplace.”
`“It hurts, like trying to move after being beaten up hurts,” said Flax, of having to hide one’s identity. How can we expect broken people to be able to make positive changes in their lives?
Ultimately, there needs to be a major set of prison reforms. There must be a shift of focus from retaliation to rehabilitation and a movement to respect all inmates’ identities. Countries such as Norway, which have shown their prisoners respect, have seen outstanding results.
“A lot of people's mindset on prison is to make sure that criminals are away from other people, but we also have to make sure that prisoners, after they leave prison, have good morals and are not planning other crimes,” said Elisa Mezhirov, a Lexington High junior. In this sense, rehabilitation centers are a very important part in the purpose of the criminal justice system and prisons.”
Unfortunately, the public often ignores the imprisoned population. They are out of the spotlight and there is a sense that we have less moral responsibility to those that have already done wrong. Most people have some idea of what the prison system should do, but many do not understand the reality of the situation, and this ignorance and lack of advocacy on behalf of our nation’s more vulnerable people is doing real harm.
“Students can raise awareness about the prison industrial complex and the school to prison pipeline,” Miller said. “I became an activist in high school and organized campaigns — you all can too!”
We need to have these conversations with our friends, our classmates, and our families. You can volunteer with Black and Pink here in Boston, and educate yourself. Someday, those slighted by the justice system should be able to count on a support net of educated, passionate activists.