Within the caged world of prison, out of sight and out of mind of LGBTQ activists on the other side of the bars, are gay prisoners. Without representation, without a voice, they suffer unthinkable cruelties, not only at the hands of bigoted or ignorant inmates, but also from prison authorities who have taken it upon themselves to spread lies and encourage brutish practices fueled by their homophobia and institutionalized bigotry.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), enacted in 2003, falls greatly short of the need to aggressively eradicate anti-gay oppression and aggression. Prison rape continues to take place, especially of suspected or open homosexuals and trans inmates, and continues to be ignored.
How it works. The most damaging homophobia comes from the top — prison management. And its most powerful weapon is called Administrative Segregation (AdSeg) or Security Housing Unit (SHU) — official sounding words for solitary confinement. Prison bosses define AdSeg and SHU as administrative, not punitive measures. This just means they can legally isolate a human being based on a prisoner’s classification, rather than as punishment for breaking some institutional rule.
Straight prisoners are also put into AdSeg for unproved rule violations or for supposedly being involved in a gang. If they recant gang life and make a deal, they can get out of the dreaded solitary confinement. Gay and trans inmates have no way out. They’re permanently classified. And the purpose of segregating them is to prevent them from practicing their sexuality.
This is the practice at various prisons, the Maryland Department of Corrections (DOC) in general, and Prince George’s County Correctional Center in particular. Trans brothers and sisters are placed in segregation — punished for their gender and sexual orientation. That means 24 hours locked down, with only one hour for recreation and shower. They are also denied due process to the very bureaucratic and bigoted decision-makers, are deprived of their constitutional right to access the law library or legal material. This can mean solitary confinement for the rest of their lives in prison.
Fear and lies. Being openly gay or trans is obviously dangerous. So trying to keep it secret is understandable, but nearly impossible.
Another weapon of the top DOC is gross misinformation. Guards tell inmates that AIDS comes from saliva and same-sex intercourse, or simply any physical contact, or that sexually transmitted diseases are automatic outgrowths of homosexuality, etc. Bigoted religious beliefs of some officers and inmates, whether Christian fundamentalist or Nation of Islam, teach that AIDS is sent by god to punish “deviants.” These types regularly seek to destroy reputations and families and job opportunities by pointing the finger at homosexual “sinners.”
Inmates can be outright fired if suspected of being gay. The level of backstabbing is a part of the general prison culture, but the degree of bigotry and hatred used by inmates to steal a job or through a stream of gossip is unbearable. When a gay inmate has one of the preferred jobs — like teaching and tutoring or kitchen work — the level of bigotry called upon to have that inmate removed is far more poisonous than any other.
The inability to escape this social damnation from fellow prisoners and guards alike creates an environment so agonizing that suicide pales in comparison to the social death from homophobia. Particularly stigmatized are trans and Black inmates. My close friendship with a Black gay comrade provides me with a window into that desperation to escape unrelenting attacks.
Prison practices of criminalizing single-sex activity and prohibiting contraceptives and ways of sexual protections while in prison feeds the system of baiting and oppression.
DOC divide and conquer. Lies and ignorance continue to be the main driving force behind homophobic bigotry in prison. It’s a little like the way that, outside these walls, the news media equates political militancy with terrorism. Inside, behind bars, homosexuality is equated to a dread disease or perverse evil, both highly contagious. On top of that, some Black prisoners see it as a conspiracy to destroy the Black family. Fear is a mighty weapon in the hands of the DOC, which benefits, of course, from keeping inmates divided and suspicious of each other.
The prevailing idea in corrections is that prisoners are no longer human beings, especially not LGBTQ prisoners. But as sure as our humanity cannot be cut off, neither can our sexuality. A very few institutions still permit conjugal visits. In addition to hetero sex there is bi-sex, trans-sex, etc. Instead of making all options voluntary and safe, Departments of Corrections promote intolerance of LGBTQ people and comrades. In reality, DOC is the diseased deviant, for outlawing the desires, choices and preferences — the very humanity — of LGBTQ people.
Protest and solidarity. The time is now for gay, lesbian, trans, bi-sexual and questioning brothers and sisters who’ve been cast into the depths of this country’s degrading corrections system to be seen and heard. To no longer be afraid. These voices have for too long been muffled by the pillow of oppression that is the U.S. judicial system and its Departments of Corrections. Two institutions that practice homosexual hatred and sexual intolerance within these dungeons with impunity.
The heart of workers in prison continues to beat in support of those fighting for $15 an hour minimum wage and much more. We stand with communities organizing against racist police brutality, and discrimination against desperate immigrants, with hunger strikers across the U.S. fighting for human rights. And we on the inside say firmly, in unison, an injury to one is an injury to all!
Kasim Gero is an activist with George Jackson University, which coordinates prison educational programs. Contact him at 343142/2410253, P.O. Box 700, Jessup, MD 20794.
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