Horrors Behind Bars: Groundbreaking Survey Reveals Life of LGBTQ Prisoners

The poll of more than 1,000 inmates across the country shows resilience amid widespread harassment.
Phillip 'Sabrina' Trujillo at Sterling Correctional Facility in Colorado in 2006. (Photo: RJ Sangosti/'The Denver Post'/Getty Images)
Oct 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

During her three years behind bars, transgender inmate Ashley Diamond experienced multiple sexual assaults, repeated stays in solitary confinement, and housing in male facilities where she was denied hormone therapy, according to a highly publicized lawsuit filed earlier this year. Although the nonviolent offender was released from a Georgia state prison in late August, the trauma she suffered while incarcerated is not uncommon for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer prisoners, a new survey shows.

Eighty-five percent of LGBTQ prisoners reported that they’d been held in solitary confinement at some point during their sentence, with about half having spent two or more years there, according to a poll conducted by the grassroots organization Black & Pink. The advocacy group publishes a monthly newspaper for inmates and last year collected responses from 1,200 LGBTQ prisoners across the country, or about a third of its subscribers. Titled Coming Out of Concrete Closets, the report constitutes the largest collection of information about this population to date, with a range of data touching on health care, violence, sexual activity and romantic relationships among inmates, and more.

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“Taking the survey was a way for me to get my voice out,” said Diamond during a telephone press conference on Wednesday. “It was my way of actually being able to tell people about the horrors...of what actually happened to me.”

The horrors are numerous, according to Diamond’s lawsuit, which alleges that she was thrown into solitary confinement for “pretending to be a woman” and was told by prison staff to look and act like a man. Corrections officials often maintain they place transgender inmates in solitary for their own safety because they lack facilities where such inmates would be accepted by the rest of the population.

The complaint also says Diamond was housed in high-security facilities alongside inmates considered to be the most violent and dangerous, making her a victim of repeated sexual assaults. Diamond’s case drew support from the Department of Justice, and last month a federal judge denied Georgia prison officials’ attempts to dismiss the claim, allowing it to move forward.

The LGBTQ respondents surveyed by Black & Pink were more than six times more likely than the general population to be sexually assaulted while in prison, with a majority reporting having experienced verbal harassment and discrimination by prison staff. Of the prisoners who said they’d been sexually assaulted by another inmate, a majority also reported that prison employees had intentionally put them in situations where they faced a high risk of sexual assault. Meanwhile, more than a third of respondents said they had been physically assaulted by prison employees.

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Yet, “everythi ng in prison is not only about violence and harm and terror, but there are also moments where people are able to escape some of that,” said Black & Pink spokesperson Jason Lydon during the press conference. The survey showed that a majority of respondents reported being in a romantic relationship with another prisoner, while roughly an equal amount said they had monthly correspondence with someone outside prison.

While just 2 percent of respondents said they had access to condoms, 22 percent reported using a condom or another barrier to protect against sexually transmitted infections. “That’s showing that prisoners are resilient in taking care of themselves and their sexual partners as they’re thinking about navigating sexual health inside prisons,” Lydon said.

The survey also looked at a number of factors that may have led to the prisoners’ incarceration: Nearly 20 percent were homeless or transient prior to being incarcerated, more than a third were unemployed, and more than half said they’d first been arrested before the age of 18.

“I think it’s time that we take a look at all those things that led us here, the things happening in our community that get us incarcerated,” said Diamond. “Because as we can see, mass incarceration is a huge problem.”