Life on the inside: queer prisoners

Life in prison is hard. Separated from family and friends, prisoners spend a lot of time doing nothing but staring at the walls of their cell for a potentially long time, in harsh conditions. Most people I know can’t really imagine being incarcerated. Yet, the government itself thinks at least 33% of our population to deserve incarceration*, so it is very much a potential reality for a lot of people. But what is life like inside for LGBT prisoners?

Prisons are traditionally seen as a place to put the ‘bad people’; however practically speaking, prisons are a tool of the government to place people with difficult social problems (problematic drug users, etc.) out of sight, and thus out of mind, so the government doesn’t have to make any effort in sorting out the root causes of these problems. As a result, prisons are often places where racism, homophobia, sexism and other social ills abound, as social groups hit out at each other as a way of working through their dissatisfaction with their situation. For this reason, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are endemic in prisons.

This homophobia, biphobia and transphobia is perpetuated by the Home Office and the managers of prisons themselves. The Offender Policy and Rights Unit, the group which sets policy for ‘good practice’ in prisons, ignores this blatant discrimination within the system and has yet to produce any guidance on LGBT issues within prisons, or any guidance on how best to deal with the needs of LGBT prisoners. This is evident in some of the policies of UK prisons, where most trans prisoners are placed not by their current gender identity, but by their birth gender, and where LGBT prisoners are often placed in Vulnerable Prisoner Units (VPU’s) as a matter of course. VPU’s are a place where prisoners deemed vulnerable from attack in normal prisons, such as ex-gang members, or paedophiles, are usually kept to keep them separate from those who may do them harm. The existence of Vulnerable Prisoner units often doesn’t ameliorate the discrimination prisoners experience and their existence definitely should not provide a meaningful excuse for tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia within the wider prison.

If all the inmates in prisons were as pretty as these, I would probably be more enthusiastic about committing crimes

Life inside for LGBT prisoners can be tough, with LGBT prisoners often being the targets of verbal, physical and sexual assaults. Indeed, Human Rights Watch report that “sex slavery is common in prisons”, and LGBT people are more likely to be targeted – their non-normative sexuality or gender identity being presumed as ‘consent’ by their perpetrators. HIV rates on the inside are 15 times that of the outside world, and Hepatitis 20 times greater. Prison management often do not provide condoms to prisons; some prisons have a limited supply of condoms/dams that would effectively require a prisoner to ‘come out’ to staff to access. As such, all prisoners engaging in sexual activities, consensual or not, are put at risk.

When you look at it, it seems surprising that Stonewall, the LGB Equality Lobby, would award the HM Prisons service an award for equality and diversity, but, they did do just that. GALIPS, the LGBT Prison staff association won an award in 2008 and is on Stonewalls ‘Diversity Champions’ list.** This underpins the blind-sightedness of lobbying groups such as Stonewall, who clamour to praise an organisation for their LGBT rights record when that same organisation is at worst actively oppressing some of the vulnerable LGBT people, or at best deeply complicit in their oppression.

Jokes about "dropping the soap" may be funny, but represent a reality for some queer prisoners

However, its not all bad for LGBT prisoners, there are some organisations doing work to try and improve their situation. The most notable and progressive being the Bent Bars Project, an active but under-resourced collective of activists who aim to campaign and show solidarity with LGBTQ prisoners by  sharing resources, providing mutual support and drawing public attention to the struggles of queer and trans people behind bars. They also have a really amazing pen-pal scheme, which currently has about 600 people waiting to be fixed up with a pen pal on the outside. They are desperately in need of your support. Find out more about how to get involved here:

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