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New research looks at the experiences of LGBT+ people in prisons in England and Scotland

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Research from the University of Dundee

A new report launched last Friday (12 February 2021) by Fernando Lannes Fernandes, Rebecca Kaufmann, and Karen Kaufmann at the University of Dundee, on LGBT+ people in prison in England and Scotland, shines a spotlight on current policy and practice regarding LGBT+ people in prison in England and Scotland. Supported by Barrow Cadbury Trust it focuses on a wide spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and presents a wide range of personal testimony and voices. 

According to the most recent figures  7% of the prison population Identify as homosexual/ bisexual/other sexual orientation and 22% of women bisexual/other, whereas the figure is  3% in the general population for both women and men.  [1]

Although the research for the report preceded COVID-19, anecdotal sources are finding that  vulnerable groups, including LGBT+ people may have suffered disproportionately from the impact of preventative measures on the prison population, as well as increased isolation caused by the dramatic reduction in access to support groups and individuals who would usually be working in prisons.

The study ‘LGBT+ people in prisons: Experiences in England and Scotland’ looked at how individual attitudes and social interactions, institutional policies and structures might be shaped by discrimination and lack of understanding, and how this influences the experiences of LGBT+ people in custody.

In total 30 LGBT+ people in prison were individually interviewed; 29 prison officers took part in five focus groups; and five management staff were individually interviewed.

The report looked at how much prison staff members feel prepared to support LGBT+ people in custody.  However, the authors saw the most important part of their research as examining the actual experiences of LGBT+ people in custody in England and Scotland.

[1] Bromley Briefing February 2021

Findings

Staff

The report found that English and Scottish prison management have good intentions when it comes to promoting equality. It also found that many members of staff have a fundamental awareness that LGBT+ people have additional needs and challenges to other people in custody.  However, it also found that respondents felt that they were doubly disadvantaged by lack of staff knowledge and understanding around LGBT+ issues and as well as being disadvantaged by not being aware about their own rights.  Whilst individual staff were supportive and trying hard to make things better, the report found that individual and institutional barriers exist that make being LGBT+ in prison particularly difficult.  Those barriers are “hard to tackle as they are pervasive and, in many ways, invisible”.

Punishment

Research with LGBT+ people in prison found that everyday practices contribute in many ways to “single them out as different and dehumanise them”. Despite the widely accepted ideal that the punishment of deprivation of liberty should not be exacerbated  by making experiences within the prison additionally punitive, many LGBT+ people in prisons do “experience additional punishment simply for being homosexual, bisexual and/or transgender”.

Segregation and institutional discrimination – Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and explicit violence directed at LGBT+ people in custody is often dealt with by segregating the affected individual for their own protection. English and Scottish prisons often use the same physical spaces for disciplinary and protective segregation.

Identifying as LGBT+

There were significant concerns amongst respondents about disclosing sexual orientation and gender identity. Jokes and banter were commonplace and were used to stigmatise and belittle LGBT+ people. In several cases individuals felt powerless to challenge this discrimination because they felt that such interactions are ‘the norm’ and acceptable.

Building awareness and resilience

The report concluded that “while the prison system itself can be intractable and resistant to change where someone doesn’t conform to rules and norms [there was] a need for a more person-centred approach that includes the individual as part of the system rather than as something to be contained by the system”.  It also highlighted the need for:

  • Developing tailored training and awareness resources for staff and LGBT+ people in prison
  • LGBT+ people in prisons to be given a voice to feed back their experiences to prison  management
  • Organisations working with LGBT+ human rights to be adequately resourced to engage with prisons
  • Resources to be invested in building bridges between prisons and the  community
  • Ongoing research

 

Thanks to Yoav Hornung for the header image, previously published on Unsplash. You can see Yoav’s work here.

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