In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s department on behalf of prisoners in San Bernardino county jails. The lawsuit accused the Sheriff’s department of unfair treatment of LGBTQ inmates. According to the ACLU, prisoners were placed in an isolated unit known as the “Alternative Lifestyles Tank.” Unlike other inmates, residents housed there could not access programs like job-training and religious services.
The man who first brought the lawsuit against the Sheriff’s department, Dan McKibben, described being confined to a cell for up to 23 hours a day and witnessing officers using homophobic slurs including “sissies” and “freak shows” on multiple occasions. He told the Los Angeles Times, “The one thing I keep getting stuck on is the uniform, the badge. These are the people that have the control, that are responsible for our safety.”
It was announced on Aug. 15 that the ACLU and the Sheriff’s department reached a settlement. A million dollars is to be split amongst the people held in the “Alternative Lifestyles Tank” between 2012 and 2018. It’s a victory that represents a growing awareness of the conditions LGBTQ people face in prison. Unfortunately, the man who pushed for justice in this case did not live to see the result. Dan McKibben died in 2016.
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. Organizations like the ACLU believe that the staggering statistics, including those that show one in every three African-American males can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes, represent a broken system ineffective at preventing crime and very precise in its targeting of minorities.
A study taking data from the 2011-2012 National Inmate Survey found that LGBTQ people are imprisoned at higher rates than people who identify as heterosexual. While overall, 612 out of 10000 Americans face incarceration, that number is 1882 out of 10000 for LGBTQ Americans. The same study cites past data analysis of the survey that found LGBTQ prisoners more likely to experience abuse in prison. In that survey, 12 percent of LGBTQ prisoners reported abuse by other inmates and 5 percent reported abuse by staff. In contrast, out of the general population, 1.2 percent reported fellow inmate abuse and 2.1 percent reported abuse by staff.
In the San Bernardino case, the Sheriff’s department argued that the prisoners were kept in isolation for their own safety. In response to these claims, ACLU southern California attorney Brenda Hamme told the San Bernardino Sun, “Jails have an obligation to keep everyone safe while providing equal access to opportunities in jail. No one should be led to choose between their safety and their equal rights.”
This case comes in wake of several cases in which courts ruled in favor of transgender inmates seeking transition-related care. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, despite the disheartening news of the conditions LGBTQ people experience in prison, change may be possible in the not-too-distant future, if the LGBTQ community dontinues to take up the issue.
In their pamphlet “Standing with LGBT Prisoners: an advocate’s guide to ending abuse and combating imprisonment,” The National Center for Transgender Equality states, “Finally, because there is more of this advocacy work going on around the country, jails and prisons are more receptive to our message. LGBT advocates are increasingly taking this on as an important issue that affects particularly vulnerable members of our communities.”