LGBT+ Behind Bars: Vulnerable and Victimised

‘Violence has no place in a prison sentence’: Julia de Peretti explores the fate of the LGBT+ community behind bars.

Working in collaboration with the Howard League, this week’s articles will focus on the lives of women in prisons.

The struggle for equal rights has been a long and difficult one for the LGBT+ community. Yet in a period of unprecedented achievements, some crucial issues remain a real battle, and LGBT+ inmates in prison are particularly affected.

While acceptance of differences in the ‘free’ world is never easy, within prisons, this becomes even more complex; discrimination such as torture and violence from prison officials or inmates against prisoners who are, or are perceived to be, LGBT+ is much higher than towards the general prison population. In fact, even those within the system who are there to protect them, contribute to their ill-treatment, proving that the institution itself, as well as the justice system, is heavily flawed.

Take the example of Tara Hudson, a 26-year-old transgender woman who, despite identifying as a woman, was still seen as ‘male’ in the eyes of the law and was consequently sent to an all-male prison. According to the BBC, after much protest, she has now been moved to a women’s prison, but why would an identifying woman be sent to a place where she will be subjected to both desire and derision? And why did it have to take so much public attention before the justice system realised its error?

Shockingly, 59 per cent of transgender women have reported sexual assaults while they were in prison, and they are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted whilst within, than outside. It is not possible to suggest that Tara would be a risk to inmates in a women’s prison, whereas her life is in danger in a male one; Tara’s rights to be recognised as a woman should be respected.

Many LGBT+ prisoners have testified about the additional aggression they face because of who they are. According to recent studies, the rates of mental health issues are much higher for LGBT+ identifying people than average. Indeed, six per cent of the general population under the age of 24 have attempted suicide, compared to 48 per cent of LGBT+ people under the age of 26.

On top of this, the suicide rate in the prison system is almost 15 times higher than outside its walls, which means that the percentage of attempted suicide for LGBT+ inmates is significantly increased. Even more alarmingly, women prisoners are 35 times more likely to suffer from mental health issues than non-incarcerated women. And even despite all these scary statistics, budget cuts to the prison system mean that vital services such as prison officers and psychiatrists have been reduced.

Undeniably, these terrifying statistics give an insight into the severity of the subject. We cannot maintain that our prison system does not need reform when we are fully aware of the day-to-day lives of persecuted prisoners. Prisons are especially hostile environments for vulnerable people. They are meant to be used to take away a person’s freedom for breaking the law, but this punishment should not also include mistreatment, violence, and fear. Imagine being victimised for who you are, not only what you’ve done.

The issues in question are not a matter of comfort and special treatment, but are fundamental matters that need to be addressed urgently for the safety and wellbeing of LGBT+ people in prison. We no longer live in an era that uses physical punishment against those who have committed a crime, such as lashings and torture devices, and therefore violence has no place in a prison sentence. Our justice system is only fit to punish by restriction. Security is not superfluous, it is a necessity, and every prisoner, no matter what their self-identifying gender or sexual orientation is, should benefit from it.

Illustration by Kate Dickinson

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