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National Prison Strike Could Be Watershed Moment For Queer Prisoners

It’s expected to be largest prison strike in U.S. history.

Citing 10 demands, prisoners in 17 states are refusing to work, going on hunger strike, calling for boycotts and instigating sit-ins.

The three-week strike, which started Tuesday, has deep implications for LGBTQ people who are three times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population and often face dire conditions behind bars.

LGBTQ advocates say that while the 10 demands do not specifically address queer detainees, they speak to serious issues facing LGBTQ prisons from coast-to-coast.

Tyrone Hanley, policy counsel at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the first demand, which calls for conditions and policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned people, is particularly pressing for LGBTQ detainees.  

“While incarcerated, LGBTQ people are even more likely to experience abuse, harassment and solitary confinement,” said Hanley.  “So this makes the prison strike critically important to the LGBTQ community because it’s addressing the overall inhumane conditions that prisoners have to endure while they’re incarcerated.”

The past year has seen a number of high-profile queer prison abuse cases in the U.S., particularly dealing with transgender women. In one of the extreme examples, the Colorado Department of Corrections has refused to house transgender inmate Lindsay Saunders-Velez with women even after she has been raped in custody twice. Her lawsuit is ongoing.

In Illinois, 27-year-old Strawberry Hampton is also suing the Illinois Department of Corrections for the fourth time for a case that involves multiple sexual assault allegations, torment by guards and abuse so graphic and triggering it can’t be detailed in a news report. Officials in the case deny any wrongdoing.

In March, transgender inmate Passion Star settled her case with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice over the department’s years of failure to protect her from rape and harm.

Among the central demands of Tuesday’s national strike is an end to free and low-paid prison labor.

But LGBTQ prison abolition organization Black & Pink Founder Jason Lydon says even low-paid jobs are often denied to queer and HIV-positive people on the inside because they face discrimination.

“All of the oppression that exists outside of prison, exists inside but is magnified ten hundred times,” said Lydon.

Compounding that is the fact that many LGBTQ people are isolated in solitary confinement when they can’t be safely placed with the general population. There, Lydon points out, queer people are denied the opportunity to seek jobs inside at all.

One person fighting the use of solitary on trans prisoners has been Zahara Green, co-founder and executive director of the Atlanta-based non-profit Transcending Barriers. Formerly incarcerated herself, Green experienced the abuses of incarceration as a trans person firsthand.

“The effects of housing someone in solitary confinement, there’s been so much research on that,” she said. “It causes so much psychological trauma.”

Green adds that the National Prison Strike raises another critical issue for trans prisoners. It calls for an end to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a ‘90s-era law that was enacted to discourage federal prison lawsuits by forcing inmates to exhaust grievance processes on the inside before suing.

For transgender women who are supposed to be housed on a case-by-case basis under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, the ‘90s era law has been criticized as a roadblock to forcing prisons to safely place them if they are at risk of sexual and physical assault.

The strike also demands additional resources for rehabilitation of prisoners, an issue that LGBTQ advocates say is critically important to queer people leaving custody.

“I would say re-entry is so important, especially for trans people because so many trans people live a cycle of trying to survive in underground economies,” said Green. “When they are released, they don’t have any resources or anything. They go back into a cycle of incarceration.”

It is unclear how many LGBTQ people are participating in the National Prison Strike. According to Lydon, prisoners during a strike last year reported severe punishments from prison officials for striking. LGBTQ detainees said they already felt their situations were precarious and decided to participate anyway, he said.

‘They’re willing to take some pretty enormous risk because they’re already facing pretty horrendous conditions,” said Lydon. “It’s hard for them to imagine it getting worse.”

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