By: Angela Connell
When I was in prison, we relished things we could celebrate. There were the obvious ones — like releases and legal victories. And the traditional ones — like New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July. We also celebrated Labor Day and birthdays and the Super Bowl and holidays for religions we didn’t even believe in.
But we did not so much as acknowledge Gay Pride Month.
The presence of homophobia in men’s prisons is a known problem. But in the women’s lockups, it was completely different. In fact, women’s prison was the queerest place I’ve ever been — we just didn’t celebrate it. That’s because queerness, like a lot of things behind bars, carried extra risks.
Research shows that 1 in 3 women in prison identify as lesbian or bisexual. But in California women’s prisons, it seemed like the real numbers were much higher. Not surprisingly, research shows queer people in women’s prisons are far more likely to spend time in solitary than straight prisoners. After all, if you got caught showing any sort of same-sex affection, you could get written up and punished with anything from a loss of phone privileges to weeks in isolation, and the sort of negative disciplinary record that left you less likely to make parole. In theory those sorts of regulations were not inherently homophobic and would just make it harder for prisoners to get away with sexually exploiting each other. But even the name both prisoners and staff used for the kind of disciplinary ticket you’d get reeked of stigma: Sexual transgressions were known as DGs — short for degenerate acts.
For far too long, transgender, gender-nonconforming, and intersex folks have been subjected to various forms of discrimination and victimization, and unfortunately- this is incredibly prevalent behind bars. In September of 2020, SB 132, an arm of the already established PREA (Prison Rape Elimination act), came into effect ensuring that transgender, gender-nonconforming and intersex folks “are provided with a safe, humane, and dignified environment while incarcerated” (leginfo.ca, 2022). According to the data gathered for this bill, aggregated from Prison Policy Initiative, Vera Institute of Justice, and the Marshall Project, the rate of sexual assault in California’s prisons is 13 times higher for transgender women than for men in the same prisons. Moreover, another survey showed that, nationwide, 40 percent of incarcerated transgender individuals reported experiencing sexual victimization, compared to 4 percent for other incarcerated people. Furthermore, another survey showed that 38 percent of transgender women reported being harassed by correctional officers or staff.
Having been through the R + R process (Receiving and release), I was excited about the key provision in this bill: requirements during the initial intake process and in a private setting, CDCR will record and “honor” the individual’s self-reported gender identity and perform the security screening of their person (body) in that same private setting. Further, this SB 132 prohibits CDCR from discipling a person for non-disclosure or based upon their gender identity.
During this time of reflection, as a formerly incarcerated Queer woman who will be celebrating my 3-year anniversary post-release, I am encouraged by this law. It is providing a vulnerable class of people with the dignity and protection they ALWAYS deserved, and provides a glimmer of hope for the LGBTQ+ community.
To learn more about SB132: https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/prea/sb-132-faqs/
To learn more about Pride + how to be an ally: https://www.hrc.org/campaigns/celebrate-pride-with-us
To learn more about the intersection of incarceration + Queerness: https://www.sentencingproject.org/policy-brief/incarcerated-lgbtq-adults-and-youth/