News Human Rights

Report: LGBTQ People Targeted, Brutalized by Criminal Justice System

Kanya D’Almeida

The report examines the ways in which stigma and discriminatory policing pushes LGBTQ people into disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system.

Ky Peterson, a Black transgender man, was brutally raped in October 2011 on his way home from a convenience store by a man who hit him over the head and throughout the ordeal yelled transphobic slurs at him. With the help of his brothers, who happened to be in the vicinity, Peterson managed to throw off his attacker.

When the assailant charged forward again, Peterson shot him with the gun he had carried for protection since the first time he was raped. He’s now serving a 20-year sentence in Georgia’s Pulaski State Prison.

Peterson, taking the the advice of an overworked public defender, pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and is serving time in a women’s prison, where he is routinely misgendered and frequently mocked, harassed, and verbally abused by the staff. He struggles with depression and often experiences delays in accessing medical care, including asthma medication.

Peterson’s story, which lies at the intersections of race, sexuality, gender, poverty, and incarceration, occupies a central place in a report released Tuesday examining the ways in which stigma, biased law enforcement, and discriminatory policing pushes LGBTQ people into disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system.

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Two national think tanks, the Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project, in collaboration with several civil rights groups, penned the report. Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails LGBT People, builds on years of work by grassroots advocates to lay bare the scale of criminalization of LGBTQ communities, particularly low-income LGBTQ people of color, and the impact of incarceration on an already marginalized population.

Today, 3.8 percent of American adults identify as LGBTQ, a number that more than doubles for incarcerated adults: according to the report, 7.9 percent of people in state and federal prisons, and 7.1 percent of those in city and county jails, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

As has been pointed out in numerous studies examining mass incarceration, LGBTQ people confront a tangled web of oppression in which isolation, poverty, and homelessness increase their risk of interactions with law enforcement personnel or the prison system.

One study from the Center for HIV Law and Policy revealed that one in five transgender people locked up in men’s prisons in California had been homeless prior to incarceration, while the Unjust report states that 90 percent of transgender youth and 70 percent of youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer have reportedly been bullied, according to service providers working with young, homeless LGBTQ people.

Discriminatory laws such as the criminalization of people with HIV, and harsh policing strategies that target transgender people, often end up spiking arrests and conviction rates among the LGBTQ community. Some studies suggest that 73 percent of LGBTQ people and people living with HIV have had contact with the police.

One story highlighted in the report involves an 18-year-old Latina transgender woman named Bianca, who was stopped by the police while walking with a friend in a Chicago suburb in 2011. After forcing them into a police car, the officers verbally harassed Bianca, accusing her of having a “dick between her legs” and threatening physical violence, according to the report.

Once inside the system, LGBTQ people must again confront the hurdles of bias, discrimination, and brutality. Citing a survey of LGBTQ youth engaged in “survival sex”commercial sex work undertaken in order to meet basic survival needsin New York City, the report said that 44 percent of respondents had suffered negative experiences within the courts, including being misgendered or mocked.

LGBTQ people are more likely to be placed in isolation once in prison. Twenty-eight percent are punished with isolation, compared to 18 percent of heterosexual inmates. The Unjust report points out that an estimated 24 percent of transgender prisoners report being assaulted by another inmate, nearly 12 times the rate of inmate assault experienced by the overall prison population.

These statistics are borne out by the stories of people like Nicoll Hernandez Polanco, a transgender woman asylum seeker from Guatemala who spent six months in a male detention center in Arizona, where she endured routine harassment by inmates and sexual abuse by guards who groped her “multiple times a day,” according to the report.

Even those who manage to extricate themselves from the prison system are not free from the cycle of targeted abuse.

Recidivism rates are high among the LGBTQ community, while support services tend to be limited. Probation and parole systems are seldom attuned to the needs of LGBTQ people, and prison re-entry programs suffer from a lack of “cultural competency” when it comes to addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people, the report says. Studies also have shown that LGBTQ individuals are disproportionately food insecure, with some 2.4 million LGBTQ adults experiencing food insecurity in 2014.

Evie Litwork, a white queer woman who was incarcerated at the age of 60 and emerged at the age of 63 “penniless and homeless” has documented her struggle trying to rebuild a life amidst the “Kafkaesque” rules of halfway houses, employment barriers for formerly incarcerated people, and the trauma of enduring years of homophobia at two federal correctional institutions, where she claims queer women were the targets of “security witch hunts.”

Her story echoes those of many LGBTQ people who face an uphill battle in finding housing, jobs, and stability after incarceration.

The report notes that “the system is not necessarily broken at all, but rather working exactly as it is intended to. Put another way, policing and punishment along the axes of race, poverty, ability, gender and sexuality are intrinsic to the operation of the criminal legal system at every stage, and have been throughout its history.”

“Of course this understanding should not keep us from working to reduce the harms worked by the system on individual lives and communities, for instance by advancing the recommendations of this report,” Andrea J. Ritchie, senior Soros justice fellow and co-author of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, writes in her preface to the report.

These recommendations, tackling criminalization at every level of the system, include ways to reduce the isolation and stigmatization of LGBTQ people by supporting families and creating safe schools for LGBTQ youth. The report also explores ways to interrupt discriminatory policing by, for instance, suggesting that the system “repeal, replace, and modernize HIV criminalization laws,” and end the criminalization of consensual sex.

The authors offer up suggestions for addressing disproportionate rates of incarceration, and abuse within the prison system, by calling for increased funding for cultural sensitivity training for judges and attorneys, better conditions of confinement for LGBTQ people, including improved access to health care, and policies that would broaden visitation rights to include people who may not have a legal relationship to an inmate.

The report presents a series of policy proposals to improve life after incarceration, such as a congressional repeal on the federal ban of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food assistance for those with drug-related felony convictions, and the inclusion of non-discriminatory provisions in government sponsored re-entry programs.

Commentary Sexuality

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday Must Become an Annual Observance

Raquel Willis

As long as trans people—many of them Black trans women—continue to be murdered, there will be a need to commemorate their lives, work to prevent more deaths, and uplift Black trans activism.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This week marks one year since Black transgender activists in the United States organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday. Held on Tuesday, August 25, the national day of action publicized Black trans experiences and memorialized 18 trans women, predominantly trans women of color, who had been murdered by this time last year.

In conjunction with the Black Lives Matter network, the effort built upon an earlier Trans Liberation Tuesday observance created by Bay Area organizations TGI Justice Project and Taja’s Coalition to recognize the fatal stabbing of 36-year-old trans Latina woman Taja DeJesus in February 2015.

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday should become an annual observance because transphobic violence and discrimination aren’t going to dissipate with one-off occurrences. I propose that Black Trans Liberation Tuesday fall on the fourth Tuesday of August to coincide with the first observance and also the August 24 birthday of the late Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.

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There is a continuing need to pay specific attention to Black transgender issues, and the larger Black community must be pushed to stand in solidarity with us. Last year, Black trans activists, the Black Lives Matter network, and GetEQUAL collaborated on a blueprint of what collective support looks like, discussions that led to Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“Patrisse Cullors [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter] had been in talks on ways to support Black trans women who had been organizing around various murders,” said Black Lives Matter Organizing Coordinator Elle Hearns of Washington, D.C. “At that time, Black trans folks had been experiencing erasure from the movement and a lack of support from cis people that we’d been in solidarity with who hadn’t reciprocated that support.”

This erasure speaks to a long history of Black LGBTQ activism going underrecognized in both the civil rights and early LGBTQ liberation movements. Many civil rights leaders bought into the idea that influential Black gay activist Bayard Rustin was unfit to be a leader simply because he had relationships with men, though he organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Johnson, who is often credited with kicking off the 1969 Stonewall riots with other trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, fought tirelessly for LGBTQ rights. She and other trans activists of color lived in poverty and danger (Johnson was found dead under suspicious circumstances in July 1992), while the white mainstream gay elite were able to demand acceptance from society. Just last year, Stonewall, a movie chronicling the riots, was released with a whitewashed retelling that centered a white, cisgender gay male protagonist.

The Black Lives Matter network has made an intentional effort to avoid the pitfalls of those earlier movements.

“Our movement has been intersectional in ways that help all people gain liberation whether they see it or not. It became a major element of the network vision and how it was seeing itself in the Black liberation movement,” Hearns said. “There was no way to discuss police brutality without discussing structural violence affecting Black lives, in general”—and that includes Black trans lives.

Despite a greater mainstream visibility for LGBTQ issues in general, Black LGBTQ issues have not taken the forefront in Black freedom struggles. When a Black cisgender heterosexual man is killed, his name trends on social media feeds and is in the headlines, but Black trans women don’t see the same importance placed on their lives.

According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Violence Project, a group dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected community violence, trans women of color account for 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicides. Despite increased awareness, with at least 20 transgender people murdered since the beginning of this year, it seems things haven’t really changed at all since Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“There are many issues at hand when talking about Black trans issues, particularly in the South. There’s a lack of infrastructure and support in the nonprofit sector, but also within health care and other systems. Staffs at LGBTQ organizations are underfunded when it comes to explicitly reaching the trans community,” said Micky Bradford, the Atlanta-based regional organizer for TLC@SONG. “The space between towns can harbor isolation from each other, making it more difficult to build up community organizing, coalitions, and culture.”

The marginalization that Black trans people face comes from both the broader society and the Black community. Fighting white supremacy is a full-time job, and some activists within the Black Lives Matter movement see homophobia and transphobia as muddying the fight for Black liberation.

“I think we have a very special relationship with gender and gender violence to all Black people,” said Aaryn Lang, a New York City-based Black trans activist. “There’s a special type of trauma that Black people inflict on Black trans people because of how strict the box of gender and space of gender expression has been to move in for Black people. In the future of the movement, I see more people trusting that trans folks have a vision that’s as diverse as blackness is.”

But even within that diversity, Black trans people are often overlooked in movement spaces due to anti-Blackness in mainstream LGBTQ circles and transphobia in Black circles. Further, many Black trans people aren’t in the position to put energy into movement work because they are simply trying to survive and find basic resources. This can create a disconnect between various sections of the Black trans community.

Janetta Johnson, executive director of TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, thinks the solution is twofold: increased Black trans involvement and leadership in activism spaces, and more facilitated conversations between Black cis and trans people.

“I think a certain part of the transgender community kind of blocks all of this stuff out. We are saying we need you to come through this process and see how we can create strength in numbers. We need to bring in other trans people not involved in the movement,” she said. “We need to create a space where we can share views and strategies and experiences.”

Those conversations must be an ongoing process until the killings of Black trans women like Rae’Lynn Thomas, Dee Whigham, and Skye Mockabee stop.

“As we commemorate this year, we remember who and why we organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday last year. It’s important we realize that Black trans lives are still being affected in ways that everyday people don’t realize,” Hearns said. “We must understand why movements exist and why people take extreme action to continuously interrupt the system that will gladly forget them.”

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”


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