(San Francisco, CA, December 11, 2008)—Today, the California Senate Committee on Public Safety held an informational meeting to examine issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in California’s prison system. Chaired by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-East Los Angeles), the meeting focused on the problems faced by LGBTQ people who are incarcerated, including harassment and abuse, unequal access to healthcare, and difficulties faced when re-entering into society.

“I am concerned by reports that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender prisoners are being misclassified by gender in our state’s prisons, which places them at risk for violence and abuse,” said Sen. Gloria Romero. “Additionally, we want to ensure they have the same opportunities to participate in rehabilitation programs to allow them to successfully re-enter society so we can reduce recidivism rates and alleviate prison overcrowding.”

Speakers at today’s meeting included Alexander Lee, Director of the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, and Bamby Salcedo, the Transgender Harm Reduction Project Coordinator with the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. The Committee also heard testimony from LGBTQ people who are currently incarcerated. The witnesses discussed problems with the current classification system, which harms LGBTQ people by putting them at increased risk of violence and harassment, and suggested policy changes that would improve safety without costing the corrections system additional money.

“California needs to get out of the middle ages when it comes to protecting LGBTQ people’s basic human rights in prison,” says Alexander Lee, Director of the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project. “We lag behind the best thinking and planning on this issue, and homophobic and transphobic physical and sexual assaults are common—frequently facilitated by prison staff. At minimum, our state needs a better classification system to anticipate and prevent violence against our community members who are locked up.”

Professor Valerie Jenness, co-author of Violence in California Correctional Facilities (2007) and UC Irvine professor of Criminology, Law & Society, along with Linda McFarlane, Deputy Executive Director of Just Detention International, discussed the disproportionate violence and harassment directed at LGBTQ people in prisons. According to Just Detention International, 67% of all LGBTQ people report being assaulted while in prison and a crucial segment of the meeting addressed the root causes for this alarming statistic. Additionally, A.G., a survivor of sexual assault while she was incarcerated, testified about the harassment, abuse, and violence she experienced because of her gender identity.

“Contrary to popular belief, prisoner rape is not an inevitable part of incarceration, but the result of inadequate prison policies and poor management,” said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International. “We know that LGBTQ inmates are among the most vulnerable in the prison population. By making sure that they are housed safely and protected from abuse, corrections officials can prevent the rape of thousands of LGBTQ detainees every year.”

Lori Kohler, M.D., the Director of the Correctional Medicine Consultation Network, and Mary Sylla, the Policy & Advocacy Director for the Center for Health Justice testified to the Senate Public Safety Committee about prison healthcare and the barriers LGBTQ people in prisons often face in seeking medical treatment.

“Prisons have a legal duty to provide adequate health care, but LGBTQ people in prisons often face extra barriers to accessing basic and necessary medical treatment,” says Masen Davis, Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center. “People may have specific health needs related to being LGBT, and prison health care staff are often not aware of or trained on how to address those needs. California must ensure that all people in custody receive medically necessary care.”

Co-director of the Transgender Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project Miss Major testified about the difficulties faced by LGBTQ people who have been incarcerated after they have returned to the community. Often, LGBTQ people in prisons are placed in administrative segregation, a highly restrictive and isolated setting that prevents them from participating in education and job-training programs.

Representatives from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation were given a chance at the meeting to address these issues and to answer questions posed by the Committee. The public was also invited to comment.

“It is simply inexcusable that nearly 70 percent of all LGBTQ people in California prisons have reported being assaulted while incarcerated,” said Geoff Kors, Executive Director of Equality California. “We applaud our legislative leaders who are taking action to highlight the abuse LGBTQ prisoners face, and we are committed to improving the lives of LGBTQ people in our prisons and jails.”

The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education.