Urban Wire We Need to Include LGBTQI+ Voices in the Prison Reform Discussion
Aaron Sayama
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Pride Month gives us an opportunity to reflect on the ongoing struggle for equality and to connect with and show support for the LGBTQI+ people—out or otherwise—in our lives.

This year, it falls on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City—considered by many the birth of the modern gay rights movement—marking a moment to celebrate and contemplate how far LGBTQI+ equality has come and how far it still has to go.

The long-contentious relationship between LGBTQI+ communities and the criminal justice system

The LGBTQI+ population in the US has had a contentious and uncomfortable relationship with the criminal justice system at every stage—from interactions with law enforcement, arrests and detention, trials and sentencing, and ultimately inside prisons and jails.

Throughout US history, laws have targeted LGBTQI+ people: from antisodomy laws that date to the 17th century to sartorial laws requiring gender-appropriate clothing; from partner-reporting laws for people living with HIV to the “Lavender Scare,” when the federal government purged and the FBI monitored suspected gay employees, labeling them “subversives.”

LGBTQI+ Americans still face many forms of oppression that involve the criminal justice system. A report on LGBTQ+ youth who engage in “survival sex” to meet basic needs found that many of these young people experienced frequent arrests for “quality of life” and misdemeanor crimes—a highly disruptive cycle generating far-reaching collateral consequences ranging from instability at home and in school to inability to pay fines and obtain lawful employment.

Even more pernicious is the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of gender dysphoria as a mental illness, connoting it’s something that can (and should) be treated—a classification that feeds into the mental health–criminal justice nexus.

But despite this history, we’ve seen signs of progress. Earlier this month, New York Police Department commissioner James O’Neill apologized to the LGBTQI+ community for the department’s violent raid of the Stonewall Inn.

Prison reform efforts are lagging

Although apologies like Commissioner O’Neill’s are powerful signs that some large law enforcement institutions are willing to grapple with their complicated legacies, the prison system remains untouched by such waves of reform.

In general, we don’t have enough data about people in prisons. We know even less about LGBTQI+ populations and the texture of their lives behind bars.

But what we do know raises concerns. Though the 2011–12 National Inmate Survey showed almost 8 percent of adults in prisons and jails identify as LGBT, it did not capture other identities like queer, genderqueer, intersex, or allow people to articulate their identities in another way.

Incarcerated LGBTQI+ people have higher rates of victimization than others, but we don’t know what leads to such emotional abuse, physical assault, and rape. Are these incidents isolated, or part of an institutional culture of intolerance and indifference toward LGBTQI+ communities?

This lack of data presents a recalcitrant problem for policymakers, prison officials, and advocates for adequately assessing the impact of sexual orientation and gender identity on a person’s experience behind bars.

To lay the groundwork for further progress, the Urban Institute, with funding from Arnold Ventures, launched the Prison Research and Innovation Initiative. This work will bridge knowledge gaps, generate new insights, and leverage research to promote a reimagining of prisons and create new possibilities for those in the justice system.

The cross-site data collection and assessments of this five-year initiative will have a much wider aperture than LGBTQI+ people in prison, but it creates opportunity to highlight their experiences and identify reforms to build safer environments specific to their needs.

After 50 years of denial and hesitation, the agency that raided the Stonewall Inn and sparked a movement finally apologized the LGBTQI+ community—state prisons can surely follow suit.  


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety Sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression
Tags Corrections LGBTQ+ equity LGBTQ+ people and criminal justice LGBTQ+ rights and antidiscrimination
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center