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When Policy Doesn’t Mirror Reality: Ongoing Challenges For LGBT+ Inmates In Texas Prisons

Monday, November 1, 2021

Kirsten Clark Staff Reporter (2021 – 2022)

While the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated some of the inhumane treatments Texas inmates endure while incarcerated, there remains a specific class of inmates who are both overrepresented in prisons and are at a severe risk throughout incarceration that warrants our attention and advocacy now and in the future.

People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or non-binary are incarcerated three times more than straight cisgender people.¹ An unfortunate reality is that LGBT+ people often face high rates of family estrangement and abandonment, vulnerability to homelessness, workplace discrimination, and substance abuse—factors that often lead them to resort to criminal activity for survival.³ After arrest and once inside the prison system, LGBT+ inmates face sexual victimization, unsafe housing assignments, and discrimination by fellow inmates and prison staff.

In light of high levels of sexual violence in prisons across the nation, Congress enacted the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003 to reduce the rate of sexual assault in prisons.⁴ State and county prisons nationwide are now required to implement policies that align with the PREA’s purpose. Pursuant to the PREA standards, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) established the Safe Prisons Program Management Office (SPPMO) in 2003 and the PREA Ombudsman Office in 2007.⁵ In compliance with the PREA, the SPPMO publishes a Safe Prisons/PREA Plan to outline how Texas prisons should operate to ensure the safety of both inmates and staff.⁶

The most recent Safe Prisons/PREA Plan, published in February 2019, includes several policies specifically related to protecting LGBT+ inmates in Texas prisons.⁷ First, the publication provides accurate definitions for terms such as gender identity; gender nonconforming; intersex; LGBTI; and transgender.⁸ The proper recognition and usage of inmates’ gender identities is an important step in protecting LGBT+ inmates because it promotes respect and positively impacts their mental and emotional health. Additionally, the Safe Prisons/PREA Plan provides that when assigning housing for inmates, prisons must consider an inmate’s LGBT+ status and the inmate’s views on their own safety in certain housing assignments.⁹ Next, any employees that have contact with inmates are trained to “communicate effectively and professionally” with inmates, “including LGBTI, or gender nonconforming offenders.”¹⁰ Another policy measure includes “individualized determinations” on whether inmates should be given safekeeping status to prevent sexual victimization and abuse from other inmates or prison staff.¹¹

While these policies signal progress in the protection of LGBT+ inmates, there are still concerns. For example, it is likely that the TDCJ assigns inmates based on their gender assigned at birth rather than their gender identity, although the PREA discourages this practice. Notably, on record, only one Texas inmate was assigned to housing based on their gender identity rather than their gender assigned at birth.¹² Reports from Texas inmates indicate that policies established in Texas prisons do not equate to the realities in Texas prisons. One transgender inmate reported to the Trans Pride Initiative that, while incarcerated in the Estelle Unit in Huntsville, they were instructed to change their “‘gender’ on file from ‘trans’ to ‘gay’ because being labeled ‘trans’ put too much work off on [the] officers.”¹³ In response to “unsubstantiated” reports of prevalent sexual abuse at the Telford Unit in New Boston, another transgender inmate said, “it leaves us no other choice than to turn to violence to protect ourselves.”¹⁴

With these reported first-hand experiences and the lack of transparency from the TDCJ about how it is actually improving conditions for LGBT+ inmates, the current reality for LGBT+ persons in Texas prisons is bleak and violent. Statements from Texas inmates indicate the incarcerated LBGT+ population remains vulnerable to discrimination and lack access to resources. While some argue that prison is not meant to be a pleasant or comfortable experience, it must be humane. Today, there are inhumane practices impacting LGBT+ Texas inmates.

So, what can we do? First, we must remember that LGBT+ individuals are at a higher risk of being incarcerated in the first place. Therefore, engaging with programs that help LGBT+ persons find stable employment, housing accommodations, and medical care can assist them to stay away from criminal activity as a means of survival is paramount. The Trans Pride Initiative is a Dallas nonprofit organization that accepts volunteers to support members of the LGBT+ community. Second, we can contact our state legislators to advocate for transparency in Texas prisons. Click here to find information on who represents you in the Texas legislature and how to contact their office.


¹ “Cisgender” is defined by the American Psychological Association as “having or relating to a gender identity that corresponds to the culturally determined gender roles for one’s birth sex (i.e., the biological sex one was born with).” Cisgender, APA Dictionary of Psychology (2nd ed. 2015). ² Alexi Jones, Visualizing the unequal treatment of LGBTQ people in the criminal justice system, Prison Policy Initiative (March 2, 2021). ³ Ryan M. Carlino, Out of Sight: LGBTQ Youth and Adults in Texas’ Justice Systems, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (October 2018) at 25; 1014. ⁴ National PREA Resource Center, Prison Rape Elimination Act, (2021). ⁵ Texas Board of Criminal Justice, PREA Ombudsman Office, Texas Department of Criminal Justice (May 2019). ⁶ Correctional Institutions Division, Safe Prisons/PREA Plan, Texas Department of Criminal Justice (February 2019). Id. Id. at 35. Id. at 19. ¹⁰ Id. at 34. ¹¹ Id. at 18. ¹² Trans Pride Initiative, “I Don’t Believe You, So You Might as Well Get Used to It”—The Myth of PREA Zero Tolerance in Texas Prisons, Texas Prison Abuse Series (July 2018) at 18. ¹³ Id. at 39. ¹⁴ Id. at 42.



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