Expanded Federal Clemency Rules: Another Step Toward Ending Mass Incarceration

April 24, 2014

NCTE applauds the Justice Department’s announcement that it will broaden the criteria for clemency for federal prisoners. The Obama Administration’s action means that up to 2,000 people convicted of nonviolent offenses have a shot at shortening draconian sentences. 

This is another important step reflecting the growing bipartisan consensus that we lock up far too many people today for far too long, at tremendous human and fiscal cost,” said NCTE Director of Policy Harper Jean Tobin. 

NCTE was proud to recently publish “Standing with LGBT Prisoners: An Advocate’s Guide to Ending Abuse and Combating Imprisonment,” which focuses primarily on changing the conditions for LGBT and especially trans people inside prisons and jails. But we know that there is no such thing as a truly safe and decent prison for trans people, and far too many of our community are incarcerated.

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NCTE Applauds Harris County Sheriff Dept’s New LGBT Inmate Policy

November 14, 2013

NCTE applauds the Harris County Sheriff Department for joining other jurisdictions around the country in adopting significant new policies that will help to protect the safety and dignity of LGBT people in custody. Like several other jurisdictions, the Harris County, TX policy incorporates national Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards which call for housing transgender inmates based on their gender identity rather than their birth sex or anatomy on a case-by-case basis. This is perhaps the most important step facilities can take to prevent abuse of these inmates, because transgender women housed with men are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted.

NCTE Director of Policy Harper Jean Tobin, who worked with partners Lou Weaver and the Harris County Sheriff’s Department on the policy,  told the Associated Press:

“It represents a significant step forward,” said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality, which worked closely with Garcia’s staff.

The new policy may be notable because it’s occurring in a staunchly red state proud of its conservative values, Tobin said. But she emphasized it’s not about politics.

“This is not a red or blue issue,” Tobin said. “It is an issue of preventing violence, of meeting the state’s legal and moral responsibilities to keep people safe and safeguarding public funds that when sexual abuse happens in prison need to be spent on medical care and mental health care and recovery.”

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Melissa Harris-Perry Show Addresses Trans Prison Issues

August 5, 2013

Laverne Cox MHP

Yesterday, Laverne Cox, a trans actor on the new hit series “Orange is the New Black,” joined a panel on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show to discuss issues faced by transgender people in incarceration. Cox is the first trans actor of color to play a trans character of color.

On “Orange is the New Black,” Cox’s character, Sophia Burset, faces a medical problem all too common among transgender people in prison: losing access to hormones. On the MHP Show, Laverne Cox describes the health consequences of being cut off from this basic medical care.

Despite this struggle in Burset’s story line, she is markedly safer than most transgender women in the U.S. prison and jail system. On the MHP Show segment, Cox points out that transgender women are rarely housed in women’s facilities, or are placed in prolonged solitary confinement. Medical experts agree that solitary confinement contributes to severe physical and mental health problems.

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Use of Solitary Confinement Faces Growing Skepticism

March 12, 2013

This past Sunday, NPR’s All Things Considered feature story focused on the growing evidence against solitary confinement. According to NPR:

“An estimated 80,000 American prisoners spend 23 hours a day in closed isolation units for 10, 20 or even more than 30 years.

Now, amid growing evidence that it causes mental breakdown, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has decided for the first time to review its policies on solitary confinement.”

The federal review follows a Senate hearing last summer led by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. Durbin was moved to call the hearing by surgeon Atul Gawande’s harrowing New Yorker article, “Hellhole,” on the psychiatric impact of solitary confinement. At the hearing, corrections experts testified that while there may be some limited usefulness for solitary confinement for short periods of time, over an extended period it is usually unnecessary and exacts huge costs, both fiscal and human. Senators heard how some states have sharply limited or eliminated solitary confinement, saving money and sparing suffering. As the NPR story notes, most inmates will ultimately return to their communities – and returning them broken from the trauma of solitary has costs for communities as well.

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88,500 Sexually Abused in US Prisons and Jails

September 10, 2010

At the end of August the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) release the latest in a string of damning reports showing the prevalence of sexual abuse in U.S. prisons,  jails and detention facilities. The new government report finds that at least 88,500 adults were sexually abused in U.S. prisons in jails last year, a number that included 4.4% of all prison inmates and 3.1% percent of all jail inmates. This follows a BJS report from January finding that more than 12% of youth in juvenile detention in the United States had been sexually abused in the previous year.

Although previous research led the National Prison Rape Elimination  Commission to conclude last year that transgender people are at especially high risk for sexual abuse in confinement, BJS does not collect data on gender identity, so we do not know how many transgender people were sexually abused in confinement in the United States. While a major California study recently found that as many as two thirds of transgender inmates in California had been sexually abused, we have no such data at the national level. However, BJS does track inmate sexual orientation, and we also know that most transgender inmates are identified in surveys (accurately in some cases, and not in others) as having “a sexual orientation other than heterosexual.” The BJS found that these “non-heterosexual” inmates were more than twice as likely to be sexually abused by prison staff and more than eight times as likely to be abused by other inmates; numbers for jails were similar. This data confirms that all LGBT people are at extreme risk for sexual abuse behind bars, and underscores both the need for federal data collection on transgender people and for prevention strategies that address the specific vulnerabilities of these inmates and detainees.

In May, NCTE joined hundreds of other organizations in filing formal comments urging the Department of Justice to adopt strong national standards to prevent sexual abuse in prisons that would specifically address the extreme vulnerability of transgender people in institutional settings. In June, the Justice Department missed the legal deadline for it to promulgate these much-needed standards. Meanwhile, incremental reforms being undertaken by some state and federal agencies, such as U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), fail to address the far-reaching scope of the problem. NCTE continues to work with allied organizations to urge the Department of Justice and ICE to take strong and decisive steps to prevent the abuse of transgender people and to address the extraordinary harms caused by sexual abuse.