We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Deirdre Malone, Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust. The Trust recently launched a report on the experiences of LGBT people in prison in Ireland.
On 22 May 2015 I stood in the yard of Dublin Castle with my own brand new husband and watched the whooping victory of equality over discrimination. As happy newlyweds ourselves, we felt the profound importance of the occasion deeply. We saw Ireland shedding her old identity, becoming something new and brave and proud. On that day, victory felt swift and definitive. In reality it was the culmination of a decade of tenacious work and thousands of brave conversations. It was a challenge to a social system that once felt monolithic, intractable and inevitable. It represented a final blow of years of steady chipping at the hard crust of institutionalized inequality. But I wondered, were LGBT people in prison celebrating too on that day? Would they feel safe to do so?
While for those who work in the NGO sector, 22nd May 2015 was a jolting, joyful reminder that monumental change is indeed possible, the 33rd Amendment did not mark the end of homophobia, harassment or discrimination of LGBT people. That is doubly true for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who are in prison. LGBT prisoners form a “twice marginalized” population, falling outside of the ‘mainstream’ of LGBT community organizing and support services but also hidden and largely overlooked in terms of current prison policy.
International research reveals that homophobia is often amplified in male prisons as a result of a culture of “hyper-masculinity” and the traditional hierarchical structure which prevails. Transgender prisoners, particularly women, face disproportionately high instances and severity of violence and discrimination, both in and out of prison. They are not easily accommodated within the strict male/female structure of most prisons and may also experience violence and voyeurism in the context of prison showers or toilets – a particular concern in Ireland where 45% of prisoners are still required to use the toilet in the presence of another.
LGBT prisoners are also particularly at risk of experiences of discrimination, violence, sexual coercion and verbal harassment. Putting up a front, threatening or even engaging in violence in order to avoid being a victim of abuse is seen as something necessary within the prison environment
Of course, issues of homophobia, transphobia and the wider culture of heteronormativity also affect LGBT prison staff who also have experiences of homophobia, including being the targets of abuse by prisoners. The Irish Prison Service currently participates in the GLEN Diversity Champions programme through the ‘Inside Out’ network for LGBT prison staff but to date there has been no research or policy response addressing the specific needs and experiences of LGBT prisoners.
General good practice measures for safer prisons such as single cell accommodation as standard would help. It is common in many jurisdictions for “at risk prisoners” and LGBT prisoners especially, to be placed in protective custody to safeguard them from victimisation. However in practice conditions in protective segregation are often identical to conditions for prisoners placed in segregation for disciplinary reasons thus breaching fundamental rights principles. This can lead to longer term issues including mental health difficulties caused by the effects of isolation and more limited access to services. It is vital therefore that violent cultures and opportunities for abuse are targeted through the education of prison populations, training of staff, and effective independent complaints procedures. Further research is also needed in the areas of sexual health and behaviours in prison, the experiences of young LGBT people in prison and on the issue of sexual violence and coercion and their prevalence within the prison context.
For many years now, the Irish Penal Reform Trust have been examining and listening to the experiences of diverse vulnerable groups in prison, including Travellers, women, children and young people, and immigration detainees. The recent passage of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 sets out the positive duties of public bodies to eliminate discrimination, promote equality and protect human rights, and should act as a catalyst to address this area which has been neglected to date. We also hope that the result of the recent same-sex marriage referendum and the passage of the Gender Recognition Act 2015 will provide further impetus for reform to ensure that no LGBT person, wherever they might be, is left behind.
All of this must be understood in the wider context of overuse of imprisonment generally, and the ineffectiveness of the idea of retribution in challenging the conditions which are at the root of most punished crime – poverty, unemployment, homelessness, mental illness, addiction, desperation. The reality is that prison warehouses human misery, and by doing so, compounds it. It takes courage to challenge the status quo, but in every generation it is those that do who will also see the rewards of that courage. A challenge to the overuse of prison would lead to a more progressive, more effective, more humane, evidence-led criminal justice system – something which ultimately benefits us all.
Deirdre Malone is Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust www.iprt.ie
The IPRT report “Out on the Inside” was launched on 2 February 2016 at Wood Quay Venue, Dublin on 2 February 2016. It is available to download here
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