Week 3: Incarceration is a Queer Issue. This is not up for debate.
Mass incarceration profoundly impacts the most vulnerable people in our communities. Jails and prisons can be traumatizing spaces for everyone; however, they are especially dangerous for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer individuals, and anyone who doesn’t fit into gender stereotypes. From discriminatory profiling and unwarranted arrests to over policing and harsh sentences, LGBTQ individuals are more likely to end up behind bars. Once in the system, they’re more likely to face humiliation, physical and sexual abuse, and increased fear.
Incarcerated transgender individuals often lack access to medically necessary healthcare and are in many cases, forced into facilities according to their assigned birth sex, thus placing them at a higher risk of harassment and assault. Study after study has resulted in the overwhelming confirmation that the criminal justice system fails LGBTQ people, especially LGBTQ people of color.
Despite disproportionate contact with the justice system, both queer youth and adults have demonstrated resiliency, creating families of choice, networks for support, and, “not only surviving but thriving.” Fortunately, there is an ongoing movement to end harmful practices while combating mass incarceration as a whole. Grassroots organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Movement Advancement Project are actively working to educate the general public and dismantle a system that has been ineffective by design.
If you’re interested in ensuring incarcerated queer youth and adults have the necessary resources during their time in prison/jail check out LGBT Books to Prisoners, “a trans-affirming, racial justice-focused” volunteer-run organization that sends free books and other educational materials to LGBT-identified people in prisons across the United States.
Statistics to Know
- Scholars at the Williams Institute-UCLA found the incarceration rate of queer individuals to be three times the general population.
- In 2017, the Movement Advancement Project found that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Exact numbers, however, are difficult to obtain.
- There is a strong link between incarceration and homelessness among formerly incarcerated individuals. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, queer youth compose 40% of the homeless youth population and remain at an increased risk of incarceration and criminalization.
- As reported by the National Center for Transgender Equality, queer incarcerated individuals face horrifying rates of sexual abuse and other forms of violence by prison staff and other incarcerated persons.
- Federal data indicated the rate of sexual assault in the past year was 3x higher for “non-heterosexual persons” and 10x higher for transgender individuals in prison facilities.
Terms & Definitions
criminalization: the act of turning an activity into a criminal offense by making it illegal
solitary confinement: a form of imprisonment distinguished by living in small cells with little or no contact with other incarcerated individuals or prison staff. Although solitary confinement is primarily used for those who are considered security risks to other inmates, it has often been used as a measure of protection for inmates whose safety is threatened by other inmates. Queer individuals are disproportionately kept in solitary confinement.
prison rape elimination act of 2003 (PREA): following reports of rampant sexual abuse of LGBTQ individuals in detention facilities, Congress unanimously passed the act with a goal of preventing abuse in confinement. PREA rules apply to prisons and jails; short-term police lockups; juvenile detention centers; and community confinement facilities (halfway houses, rehabilitation centers, etc.)
Who to Follow
Andrea J. Ritchie, a self-described Black lesbian immigrant, police misconduct attorney, and organizer performing research and advocacy around the criminalization of women and LGBTQ people of color. She recently published Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color.
Piper Kerman, a philanthropist and formerly incarcerated author of NYT bestseller Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. She teaches writing in two state prisons as an Affiliate Instructor with Otterbein University.
Evie Litwok, a self-identified formerly incarcerated aging New York Jewish lesbian feminist and founder of Witness to Mass Incarceration, a project that seeks to shed light on “injustices in prison against women and the LGBTQIA+community.” She also strives to decarcerate elderly individuals.
National Center for Lesbian Rights, the first national LGBTQ legal organization founded by women. The NCLR has a commitment to racial and economic justice and provides advocacy guidelines and policy proposals regarding women’s correctional facilities.
‘I had to undo eight years of being a woman’: how LGBT prisoners are lost in the system, The Conversation
The Forgotten Ones: Queer and Trans Lives in the Prison System, The New Yorker
Standing with LGBT Prisoners: An Advocate’s Guide to Ending Abuse and Combating Imprisonment, National Center for Transgender Equality
A Guide to Understanding the Issues Facing Transgender Prisoners and their Legal Rights, National Center for Transgender Equality
The Unspoken Horror of Incarcerated LGBT People, The Advocate
Book: Safe Space- Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, Christina B. Hanhardt
Book: Queer (In)Justice- The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, Joey Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock
Next week’s topic: Are Prisons Obsolete? Exploring what happens behind bars (food availability, phone calls, healthcare, etc.)
Candice is a graduate student studying incarceration and human rights at Columbia University. She holds dual degrees in Criminology and Communication Arts and Sciences from Penn State and abides by a personal motto, “change the narrative.”