I was listening to NPR and heard a short clip about the new blog Between the Bars: Human Stories from Prison. The person who created this wanted to give prisoners a way to express themselves and also a way for them to connect and share with the outside world. It piqued my interest so I went to the website and read the first entry. It was written by a gay male who told of his love for another inmate in which the feelings were reciprocated. Unfortunately other prisons learned of this romance and began harassing both of them. They verbally abused the two men and threatened them with physical assault and rape. They specifically said they would make them their sex slaves. The man who wrote this blog had been pleading with the guards for help and the guards did nothing.
This made me curious about the experiences of LBGT people in the prison system. I knew there was no way the experiences of these men were an isolated incidents. And they are not. LGBT prisoners are often verbally, physically, and sexually assaulted. A national survey of violence in prison found that sexual orientation was the single greatest determinant of sexual abuse in prisons, with 18.5 percent of homosexual inmates reporting they were sexually assaulted, compared to 2.7 percent of heterosexual prisoners. A study done in California prisons showed that a shocking 67 percent of non-heterosexual inmates reported that they had been sexually assaulted by another inmate during their incarceration. When the abused try to get help from the guards and staff they are victimized further: many have been raped by guards; many are told that if they allow others to rape them, they must be enjoying it consensually.
Here are just two examples of this atrocious reality: Carl Shepard, a gay Mississippi man serving time for larceny and a narcotics offense, who was anally raped by his cell mate during a prison lockdown, tried to report the rape to a unit administrator, a major, and a warden. “When those three were questioning me, they actually made fun of me. The major said that since I was gay, the sex must have been consensual. He said I got what I deserved.” Shepard had previously been denied medical attention even though he was bleeding from his anus. Timothy Tucker, a gay HIV-positive man raped by another male inmate in a federal prison in Virginia, reported, “After I was raped they asked me if I had learned my lesson . . . [Guards] said that since I am gay I should have enjoyed it.”
I cannot express how egregious it is for this to go unaddressed. It is not just the psychological and emotional devastation these LGBT members are enduring; for these prisoners it is a life or death situation because rates of HIV in prison are five times higher than in the general population and are the number two killer of prisoners (prisoners are not allowed access to condoms). Further, it is not just LBGT people; it is anyone who is perceived as gay or weak. Still, legislation for protection of LGBT prisoners is not getting passed. In September of last year, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have protected LGBT people in the California prison system from violence. He had no appropriate reason for vetoing it.
One of the articles I read said that the interwoven pieces of power, dominance, and sexual exploits are entrenched and are an intractable part of the prison system. Where is the accountability in this system? Where is the oversight? How is it that the very people who are supposed to be protectors of the social order, the guards and staff, are perpetrators and criminals themselves?