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 needs—in 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.