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'They think you are a poof and they prey on you'

A new report documents the experiences of LGBT people in prison, an “invisible population”.

THE IRISH PENAL Reform Trust (IPRT) has launched a report into the experiences of members of the LGBT community in prison.

shutterstock_258602471 Source: Shutterstock/Brian A Jackson

Out on the Inside‘s authors interviewed seven prisoners who identify as LGBT (three men and four women, including one transgender woman), a focus group with eight prisoners involved in a peer education and support group, and ten stakeholders from the criminal justice system.

The report notes that the Irish Prison Service (IPS) does not collect information on the sexual orientation or gender identity of prisoners. There is therefore no information on the number of LGBT people within Irish prisons. Internationally, only some jurisdictions have, in recent years, begun attempts to measure numbers of LGBT prisoners.

The report’s authors, Dr Nicola Carr, Dr Siobhán McAlister and Dr Tanya Serisier, said LGBT prisoners constitute an “invisible population”.

Here are the experiences of LGBT people in prison, in their own words:

It’s hard to [come out] in here because people will prey on your weakness … If you’re gay or bisexual they’ll use that, they think that you are, as they say … a poof and and you can’t handle yourself, and they try to prey on you.

- Damien, bisexual man

Being gay in prison is seen as a weakness, and people prey [on] that weakness because it singles somebody out. And that makes them a target for verbal abuse and physical abuse and emotional abuse and psychological abuse, the whole lot … so that is the major challenge.

- Brendan, focus group participant

I put up with two years of horrific abuse while I was locked in my cell … this guy … he was outside … during the day all day … and while I was locked in my cell every day he was outside my door, ‘You dirty steamer, you filthy faggot’ and ‘You take it up the ass’…

- Patrick, gay man

The reports states that “violence and harassment against LGBT prisoners is a problem of the general culture of violence and hyper-masculinity in men’s prisons particularly”, adding: “It is not only GBT prisoners who experience violence and harassment in such a culture.”

shutterstock_317036060 Source: Shutterstock/PhotonCatcher

Women reported some experiences of verbal harassment on the basis of their sexuality, but these tended to be less directly threatening:

Some people wouldn’t be nice. Well they never say anything to my face or my girlfriend’s face, but I hear them like being bad to some people over it … To me personally? No, people weren’t, like, nasty … but I’ve seen it happening to other people.

- Evelyn, bisexual woman

So you can be open to a degree, and of course a lot of women are inclined to make fun and jokes about your sexuality. I’m a lesbian, I get all the fun and jokes, but when they’re in their cell and they’re on their own, you know, I’m sure like they would feel quite awkward about their situation. I do, I would feel quite awkward a lot of the time and I’d have to man it up, brave it up, you know what I mean?

- Miriam, lesbian

‘I’ll cut your f**king throat in two minutes flat’

I somehow had managed to convey a certain subliminal message to most of the people in the prison that like yeah I might look different and I might be this and that, but I’ll cut your f**king throat in two minutes flat …but it’s a really harsh way to have to live your life …
You were on tenterhooks in prison, you have to have eyes in the back of your head. You don’t know where the blade is coming from, you don’t know who’s saying what, and you don’t know whose toes you’ve stepped on.

- Rachel, transgender woman

Damien, a bisexual man, described how the threat of abuse and violence led him to reluctantly ‘tool up’ (i.e. arm himself with a weapon). In another instance, Patrick, who is also gay, describes retaliating to an assault by the prisoner who had been harassing him:

It was worse it got, eventually I was in the gym and he came up and he called me a dirty steamer and he spat in my face and he swung for me and I defended myself. He came out the worst of it.

‘You are a deviant’

The reports notes that the passing of the same-sex marriage referendum last May has somewhat improved the situation for gay prisoners in Ireland, but they still face a lot of stigma.

I think there is still this institutional stigma of being different, and when I say different I mean sexually different… Younger prisoners [are] being more open. I think that’s a sign of the society on the outside, the change there is seeping into the prisons but … [for] the older prisoners, from 25 onwards … as far as they are concerned, you are a deviant, you are different, you are wrong, you are not right.

- Brendan, focus group participant

Sexual assaults

The report states that there has been “minimal research on sexual abuse in prison and the extent of the problem is not known”.

shutterstock_208296562 Source: Shutterstock/ANURAK PONGPATIMET

A stakeholder from the criminal justice system noted:

We would have had a few cases of rape in prison, now they have been dealt with but there is probably more. We only know if a prisoner complains about it… I suspect that prison rape is a very under-recorded problem.

Rachel, a transgender woman, said:

Just because you don’t necessarily hear about it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t go on. I mean I am aware of people who were tied up and raped.

The report includes a number of recommendations for the IPS, such as:

  • Ensuring that the needs of LGBT prisoners are explicitly considered and addressed as part of overall prisoner management, response and welfare, e.g. having policies in place designed to protect LGBT prisoners from harm.
  • Single-cell accommodation should be the norm for all prisoners across the prison estate, particularly for prisoners identifying as LGBT who may feel vulnerable in the prison environment.
  • Homophobic and transphobic bullying and harassment amongst prisoners must be tackled through a combination of information provision, staff training, and clear sanctions for breach of policy, where appropriate.
  • The Prison Rules 2007 should be amended to include the terms ‘homophobic’ and ‘transphobic’ as behaviour and language which is prohibited.
  • Current human rights training for prison staff should be extended to address more specifically the needs, rights and experiences of LGBT prisoners.

The Director General of the Irish Prison Service and other senior officials attended today’s launch, and IPS Director of Care and Rehabilitation spoke on behalf of the prison service at the event.

A spokesperson said that the Irish Prisons Service welcomes the publication of the report.

It will review the recommendations contained in the report and “will liaise with the IPRT and organisations representing the LGBT communities in relation to the issues raised in the report”.

The Irish Prisons Service wishes to highlight the challenges that are posed in the report in meeting the needs of LGBT prisoners. As an employer, the Irish Prison Service is a committed participant in the Glen ‘Diversity Champions’ Programme.

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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