Why you should care
Because this worldwide debate could soon reach U.S. shores.
When compared to its more buttoned-down neighbors, Thailand is home to a gay community that speaks in a loud voice and commands a prominent position in society. But discrimination and violence remain, especially behind bars. So when the Department of Corrections opened a new building in September at Minburi prison on the outskirts of Bangkok to house only transgender inmates, it was presented as a victory for gay rights, an offer of refuge for a vulnerable population.
But some of the country’s activists were not so sure that the motives of corrections officials were all that enlightened. “There is a feeling that they are doing this not because they recognize the rights of LGBTI detainees,” says Paisarn Likhitpreechakul of Thailand’s Foundation for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights and Justice, “but because they want to manage them, these detainees, based on suspicion or feelings that they are causing certain problems.”
[Transgender prisoners] are put in fishbowl-style housing areas where people are deliberately brought into the unit to watch them change.
Chase Strangio, attorney at the ACLU
Are LGBT prisons good or bad for the inmates who live in them? The question is coming to the fore as a growing number of countries and localities follow Thailand’s example — including Turkey, which is due to open what may be the world’s first stand-alone LGBT penitentiary next year. Government officials say segregated prisons could curb the enormous problem of sexual abuse behind bars, as LGBT inmates tend to suffer higher rates of victimization. But can there truly be separate but equal treatment for these inmates? Even Turkey’s “pink prison” has faced an outcry that it just further stigmatizes gays. Countries in Latin America, Europe and North America have tried separating LGBT inmates with varying degrees of success.
The use of separate facilities based on sexual orientation has been around for more than a century. New York segregated effeminate gays in a “fag annex” as far back as the 1910s. George Chauncey wrote in Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 that “fairies” were kept away from the general population to prevent homosexuality from spreading as though it were a disease.
The corrections industry may have dropped the contagion argument, but segregation continues in the jails of most major American cities. A decade after it shut down its Rikers Island gay wing, New York opened a voluntary transgender wing in 2014, though it again is threatened with closure because of legal issues, according to Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union’s LGBT & AIDS Project. As of late September, 19 trans inmates were living in the voluntary unit in a lower Manhattan jail known as the Tombs, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Because of a court order, Los Angeles County’s Men’s Central Jail has a gay wing. It subjects potential residents to a screening process that quizzes them on lingo such as “glory hole,” which often has the effect of weeding out Black and Latino applicants, according to research by University of California, Berkeley law professor Russell K. Robinson. In much of the country, though, jail and prison officials subject transgender inmates to a more drastic safety precaution — solitary confinement, which many experts consider to be its own form of abuse.
Under the right circumstances, activists say, segregation can be the right policy. According to Strangio, a “good” unit like the one in the Tombs in New York must be voluntary and provide access to prison services like a law library and health care. San Francisco won praise last year for moving from enforced segregation to allowing transgenders to choose where they are housed. But there are horror stories about bad units from around the country, particularly in the South. “Bad units are units that deliberately group people together for the purpose of mocking them, marking them to the nontrans prison population,” Strangio says. “People have to wear particular colored uniforms or bracelets [and] are put in fishbowl-style housing areas where people are deliberately brought into the unit to watch them change. These are egregious and would violate a host of other provisions of” the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.
The global picture similarly is mixed. Jean-Sébastien Blanc of the Switzerland-based Association for the Prevention of Torture says that trans women in Argentina recently were moved to women’s prisons — ostensibly a good step, but they were not consulted. While it’s easy to point fingers at the discriminatory practices of segregation, the ultraviolent world of Latin American prisons means that sometimes separation for LGBT inmates is “a matter of life and death,” Blanc says. In Paraguay’s Tacumbu prison, the LGBT section is “not even a unit; it’s a couple of cells,” Blanc says. “And the living conditions are far worse than in the rest of the prison, which is already appalling.”
In Thailand, advocates claim that separation only papers over pervasive discrimination in the prison system. It also avoids deeper questions of why the inmates are there in the first place, as Thailand has one of the world’s highest incarceration rates and, as of last year, its prisons were at nearly 150 percent capacity. For Wannapong Yodmuang of the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand, a new prison wing is less encouraging than the pilot program in another men’s prison, where an LGBT-friendly policy overhaul is being conducted.