Gay and transgender prisoners in California present a challenging conundrum to the state’s increasingly progressive criminal justice system, where rehabilitation programming and substance abuse treatment for offenders are the prison system’s core elements.
Over the last several years, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has implemented a sweeping policy of desegregating most prison facilities, ending the decades-old practice of separating inmates with “sensitive” case factors—including sexual orientation and/or gender identity—from the general population. Most prisoners, irrespective of their case factors, are now expected to live together in peace and harmony.
Over the last century, gay and transgender people in America have battled rampant systemic prejudice, discrimination, fear and hatred, often falling victim to harassment and violence in their slow and steady march toward freedom and equality. Gay and transgender prisoners, however, often feel such progress has been slow in coming to the carceral environment.
According to the FBI, 20% of hate crimes committed in 2021 were based on the victim’s sexual orientation, with another 3% are based on gender identity. That means almost a quarter of all hate crimes target a group that makes up less than 2% of the population.
LGBTQ+ prisoners continue to suffer physical, verbal and sexual violence at a significantly higher rate compared to those in the community. Harassment by prison staff and other prisoners is still commonplace, and slurs like “faggot” and “punk” remain popular in the prison vocabulary.
The treatment of Queer prisoners sometimes varies from one prison to another, says Elena Lopez, an IAC representative and transgender resident at San Quentin.
“Coming from a Level IV, you see more respect for the LGBT community. When you come down to a Level II, it’s harder for the LGBT community to interact with other groups and demographics because “non-designated” mainline prison yards have thrown a lot of the old politics out the window. There are no clear-cut rules on how other groups interact with the Queer community.”
What can LGBTQ+ inmates do to “re-write” stereotypes?
“We need to show more self-respect, and respect the people we live side-by-side with,” Lopez urges. “Take pride in ourselves, respect our bodies, and hold ourselves to a higher standard. If we expect to be treated with dignity, we need to value the rights of every other person as well… Some individuals expect—even demand—special treatment and privileges due to their gender identity. For some people, equal treatment isn’t good enough. And that has some effect on the way we are viewed by inmates and staff.”
In 2019, San Quentin hosted the Transgender Day of Remembrance, the first-ever of its kind held in a prison anywhere in America.
Prisoners gathered to share experiences, poetry, music, and a sense of community that transcended the divisions common to the incarcerated. Throughout the gathering, the faces of transgender women who’d been murdered that year flashed across the chapel’s video screens.
Straight supporters and allies came together with the prison’s LGBTQ+ community to promote understanding, equality and an end to violence against gay and transgender people, both inside and outside of prison.
Among the attendees were Kristopher Applegate, from CDCR headquarters in Sacramento, and California Sen. Scott Wiener.
That year, Wiener authored Senate Bill 132, which established protections and protocols for the housing of transgender and non-binary prisoners in California prisons. The bill passed the legislature and was signed by Gov. Newsom, going into effect January 1, 2020.
SB132 allows transgender prisoners to be housed at facilities of their gender identity, rather than their physical gender. It also requires prison officials to give greater weight to a transgender or non-binary prisoner’s perception of safety when making housing assignments.
The law has had little impact at San Quentin State Prison, however.
“I don’t think most custody staff approve of or respect SB132.,” said Lopez. “Due to us being incarcerated, they don’t think we’re entitled to the protections the law provides for Queer inmates.”