Community Demands Justice for LGBTQ Prisoners

BY KATE OPALEWSKI

Lansing - Around 30 Michiganders protested Oct. 12 outside the state's Department of Corrections Headquarters on Michigan Avenue in Lansing. The rally, "Can't Cage Our Humanity," was organized to demand justice for LGBTQ prisoners.

"They cannot treat human beings like animals. We're pissed and showing our support. This is a really serious situation," said Duncan Tarr, a protestor and student at Michigan State University.

Tarr points to the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson where LGBTQ prisoners filed grievances in April against homophobic prison guards for sexual harassment. Retaliation began almost immediately. According to the protest groups' Facebook page, bogus disciplinary tickets have been issued against the grieving prisoners. Three of seven prisoners were transferred to other units or facilities. The grievances were all eventually rejected for "insufficient evidence" despite multiple witnesses, and the homophobic prison guards have been able to continue their illegal behavior. The online post reads: "We hear reports of the exact same thing happening at other Michigan prisons. Sexual harassment of prisoners is a violation of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, and just plain wrong."

Since their last rally in May, Tarr said nothing has changed.

At that time, a spokesman for the MDOC told WILX News 10 that the complaints were taken seriously and were sent to the MDOC's inspector, which is the highest possible level. At the time, the MDOC said no evidence of wrongdoing was found, and the department will continue to look into any specific allegations.

"It's unlikely they will investigate and find themselves guilty," Tarr said, noting they contacted the Legislative Corrections Ombudsman for details of the investigation to no avail.

Spokesman for MDOC Chris Gautz told BTL Oct. 14 that "the ombudsman office is not an MDOC office and does not report to the MDOC. It works separately from the MDOC as a watchdog of sorts."

But they have been looking into the issue, as well as the MDOC, which Gautz said has been cooperating with those efforts.

"There were allegations made by prisoners earlier this year and those were promptly investigated and it was determined there was insufficient evidence to prove the allegations," he said, adding that the MDOC takes any allegations seriously and will continue to do so.

Despite that, LGBTQ prisoners continue to file grievances, said Tarr, and more tickets have been issued for offenses such as sexual misconduct for things like tucking in a shirt. Prisoners have been given excessive sanctions, such as 35 days of lost privileges for an offense that would normally carry only five days of punishment. Prisoners have been denied the right to review the alleged evidence against them, and grievance officers have refused to review camera footage to prove prisoners' innocence.

"This is an issue a lot of people can get behind," he said. "Many of us have or know of someone who has friends or family members in prison."

Protester Hannah Shaughnessy-Mogill said, "When a prison guard can harass prisoners in a homophobic or transphobic way, and then retaliate against anyone who files a grievance, the system is built upon the denial of human rights."

Prisoner Issues and Demands

- Zero tolerance for harassment or brutality by prison staff.

- No retaliation for filing grievances.

- Guards who sexually harass prisoners should be removed from their units when they're under investigation, per MDOC's own policy.

- These homophobic guards already have dozens, or in some cases over a hundred, grievances against them. These guards should be removed from all contact with prisoners.

- Staff should be prohibited from forming cliques for the purposes of retaliating against prisoners who file grievances.

- Staff should be required to follow MDOC's own policies and federal policies that protect the rights of prisoners.

- Guards under investigation should be suspended or relocated until the investigation is over. This is already MDOC policy, but it has not happened in these cases at Cotton.

- Guards should be disciplined for talking about queer and trans prisoners in dehumanizing, denigrating ways to other prisoners, endangering their safety. This is already against MDOC policy.

- MDOC must provide better training for staff on professional, nondiscriminatory treatment of queer and trans people.

- Any CO under investigation is to be suspended or relocated during the investigation.

- LGBTQ should have the voluntary option of a designated unit or facility and yard where they are safe from sexual harassment and assault.

- Appropriate medical care.

- Trans prisoners should be able to keep hormones in their quarters. In recent months, hormones have been put on "restricted" status, forcing all trans prisoners to request them every day. Hormones are prisoners' personal business.

- End corruption at MDOC, such as misappropriation of the Prisoner Benefit Fund.

Advocacy groups such as Michigan Prison Abolition help to amplify the voices of LGBTQ prisoners that want the public to know about the corruption taking place in local prisons. For more information, visit their Facebook page.

"If people are being mistreated and having their rights violated, we would like to hear from them and see how we can help," said ACLU LGBT Staff Attorney Jay Kaplan who can be contacted directly at 313-578-6812 or via email at jaykaplan@aclumich.org.


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