Prison Justice is an LGBT Rights Issue

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CrimJustSystem-graphicFor the millions of LGBT people incarcerated each year, the sentence is only the beginning. Oftentimes, what happens behind bars is worse than what the state mandates.

Five percent of LGBT people in America have been incarcerated in the past five years. That rate is almost double the 2.7 percent incarceration rate for the general public and points to a major crisis in justice for LGBT people in the U.S. And within the LGBT community, certain groups remain particularly vulnerable.

A survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian task force revealed that a whopping 16 percent of transgender people – and 47 percent of Black transgender people – have been incarcerated.

Lack of family support, homelessness, and social and economic discrimination – all issues that disproportionately oppress LGBT people – conspire to put LGBT people in conditions that often include physical and verbal aggression, and sexual abuse.

The effects of incarceration on this already-vulnerable population are devastating.

“From every angle, the justice system is broken for transgender and gender nonconforming people,” the authors of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey wrote in a 2011 report. “Instead of administering justice, it perpetrates injustice.”

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2009 Handbook on Prisoners With Special Needs puts it more bluntly: “Transgender and intersex (TGI) people experience extreme physical, sexual and emotional abuse and brutality while imprisoned,” the report says.

Police discrimination

The injustice that incarcerated LGBT people face starts before they enter police custody. Many LGBT people do not have trusting relationships with law enforcement, and according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, as many as 22 percent of transgender people reported police harassment due to discrimination.

For LGBT people of color – and particularly Black and Latino transgender people – this risk skyrockets with 38 percent of Black transgender people report being harassed by the police.

6 percent of transgender people have been physically assaulted by the police; 2 percent have been sexually assaulted.

LGBT inmates are harassed and physically assaulted in prison

When incarcerated, LGBT people face anti-LGBT harassment and physical assault from other prisoners – and from the very guards charged with keeping them safe.

Transgender inmates are often classified and housed according to their assigned gender, rather than the gender with which they identify, making them particularly vulnerable to aggression from other inmates. Transgender women housed with men may be targeted for having feminine characteristics, while transgender men are often harassed and assaulted by guards.

In the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 37 percent of transgender inmates reported harassment by prison guards themselves – with 44 to 56 percent of inmates of color having experienced harassment. The survey explained that 21 percent of incarcerated transgender women and 11 percent of incarcerated transgender men have been physically assaulted by other prisoners and staff.