Improvements in treatment of LGBTI prisoners needed as population grows, report finds

By Lindsey Vickers
BU News Service

BOSTON – Prisons need to improve conditions for LGBTI inmates, an issue that is only going to grow, with anticipated increases in the population across the board, according to a report recently released by Fenway Health, a Boston-based LGBT health care, research an advocacy organization founded by students at Northeastern University.

The report, entitled, “Emerging Best Practices for the Management and Treatment of Incarcerated LGBTI Individuals,” highlights current issues with how this population is treated in the correctional system, and offers recommendations for how prisons can improve “institutional culture” and “operations” to support such inmates.

The report raises concerns about issues ranging from abuse to invasive strip searches, harassment and even LGBTI inmates being placed in solitary confinement in misguided attempts to protect individual prisoners.

Transgender inmates face “higher rates of sexual assault, physical violence and harassment,” said Sean Cahill, one of the authors and director of health policy research at the Fenway Institute, an affiliate of Fenway Health that is dedicated to ensuring cultural competence in health care for the LGBT community.

Angelina Resto, a transgender woman, has spent time in both men’s and women’s prisons. She spoke at an event about her experience in two different Massachusetts facilities. She was first housed at MCI Norfolk (a male facility), where she said she was forced to shower with male inmates, who would comment on her body. She said she was also raped during her time there.

When she was transferred to MCI Framingham, a women’s prison, she said it was “the best day of my life. Because that’s where I belong.”

Currently, there are no female-to-male individuals residing in male prisons in Massachusetts, unless the Department of Correction is unaware of their natal sex, said Cara Savelli, a spokesperson for the department.

The DOC has, however, “transferred two MTF inmates to MCI Framingham, one of whom has since been released and the other has been living (there) without incident to date,” she said.

The LGBTI populations’ presence is only expected to rise in “every state system,” in coming years, state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro. The latest data show that 15% of middle and high school students in the commonwealth identify as LGBTQ, up from just 8% in the past.

Over the last three years, the DOC has seen an increase in people who identify as gender non-confirming, according to Savelli.

For a variety of reasons, the population is already over-represented in the correctional system. According to a 2017 report published in the American Journal of Public Health, more than 40% of female inmates ages 18-44 identified as lesbian or bisexual.

The issue is compounded by multifaceted and complex variables, making it difficult to address.

“Prejudice, myths and stereotypes about the population that inform institutional culture and behavior toward inmates… (and a) lack of agency guidance about how to work with this population,” all play a role, according to the report.

The authors suggest a variety of changes that could improve LGBTI inmate’s time in correctional facilities. These include gathering more information during intake, when a prisoner first enters and noting their particular vulnerabilities, re-emphasizing respect for LGBTI inmates among staff, and even developing and implementing new policies.

“There’s lot of work that’s left to do,” Cyr said. “Particularly for folks that are most vulnerable… Here in Massachusetts we can’t, and shouldn’t (rest on our laurels), but I think we are.”

This article was originally published in MetroWest Daily News.

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