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Putting Prisons on the LGBT Agenda

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"[T]here's a big chunk of [today's] prison population that is involved in nonviolent crimes. And it is having a disabling effect on communities. You have entire populations that are rendered incapable of getting a legitimate job because of a prison record. And it gobbles up a huge amount of resources." --Barack Obama

"When one in every 31 Americans is under correctional supervision, it's clear that something is very wrong. The United States stands above all for freedom, and yet we have by far the highest rate of incarceration in the world." --Newt Gingrich

These statements were made in 2012 and 2013 by President Obama and former House Republican leader Newt Gingrich. While it's well-known that we incarcerate African-Americans at shockingly disproportionate rates, less well known is the disparate impact on the LGBT community. The recent case of CeCe McDonald has helped bring this discussion to the fore. The transgender and LGBT movements must make this issue a higher priority. The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) hopes to make a contribution to these efforts with our new publication, "Standing with LGBT Prisoners: An Advocate's Guide to Ending Abuse and Combating Imprisonment."

A history of systemic bias, abuse, and profiling toward LGBT people by law enforcement has contributed to disproportionate contacts with the justice system. Moreover, while people may find themselves in jail or prison for many reasons, people who are poor are more likely to be imprisoned, and LGBT people are disproportionately poor. It's therefore not surprising to find that LGBT people are more likely to end up behind bars. While an estimated 4-8 percent of youth are LGBT, a major study found that as many as 13-15 percent of youth in detention are LGBT. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 16 percent of transgender adults have been in a prison or jail for some reason. This compares with 2.7 percent of all U.S. adults who studies say have been in prison during their lives, and 10.2 percent of all U.S. adults who have ever been under any kind of criminal justice supervision, including probation. Transgender people, especially the poor and trans people of color, report facing harassment, discriminatory arrests, and assault by police at alarming rates.

The Constitution guarantees that people deprived of their liberty must be provided with adequate food, shelter, safety, and medical care, yet these standards are rarely met. LGBT people are especially vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment. More than 200,000 youth and adults are sexually abused in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities each year according to federal estimates. In the same federal survey, prisoners who identified as "non-heterosexual" were three times as likely to report sexual abuse. A study of California prisons found that transgender women in men's prisons were 13 times as likely to be sexually abused as other prisoners.

LGBT people often face constant humiliation and degradation from staff and prisoners alike. Staff may blame them for their own victimization, claiming they are "flaunting themselves," and refusing to take reports of abuse seriously. If their vulnerability is recognized at all, it may be by placing them in indefinite solitary confinement, with little or no activity or human contact -- conditions that medical experts have found to amount to torture.

Transgender and gender nonconforming people can face additional forms of mistreatment. Most jails still routinely house transgender women with men, a virtual invitation for abuse. Trans men and women alike face constant denial of their identity, including denial of appropriate undergarments to punishing them for their hair length of beard growth. In addition, some facilities still place decisions about healthcare for transgender people in the hands of administrators rather than doctors, in defiance of court rulings and accepted medical standards.

Fortunately, advocates across the country are working to change this. New national standards intended to prevent abuse behind bars, published by the U.S. Justice Department in 2012, include key protections for LGBT prisoners, including directing that trans people be considered for housing based on their gender identity. Jails from Maine to Texas are beginning to implement these standards, and courts are increasingly ruling in favor of LGBT prisoners' rights to safety and adequate care.

At the same time, LGBT activists are joining with racial justice, faith, disability, and other groups to demand alternatives to America's addiction to incarceration. Efforts are also underway at the local and national levels to end police profiling based on race, religion, and LGBT status. Driven as much by fiscal pressure as moral clarity, politicians of both parties are pressing for reforms to sentencing, drug laws, probation, parole, and other laws at the state and federal levels, leading prison populations to edge downward since 2010 for the first time in four decades.

But there is clearly much, much farther to go.

Combating mass incarceration and abuse behind bars belongs much higher on the LGBT movement agenda. We can only move forward as a movement if more people prioritize this work, and we hope NCTE's new guide can help energize and inform that work. The trans and LGBT movements are filled with amazing people and we know that working together with our allies, we can make the world a more just place.