Rainbow Rant: Incarceration is an LGBT issue and now is the time to act

Joy Ellison
Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

You've probably heard that Netflix released a new season of “Orange is the New Black,” but you may have missed the news that prisoners across the country are in the middle of a real-life prison strike. This strike is poised to be the biggest in U.S. history, and queer and transgender people need to pay attention. Our community should support these prisoners because incarceration is an LGBT issue.

Queer people are incarcerated at a rate three times that of the general population. The rates are even higher for transgender people, especially transgender women of color.

Over 40 percent of incarcerated women are members of the LGBT community. Many are imprisoned for self-defense, like CeCe McDonald, a black transgender woman who was locked up in a men's prison after defending herself against a racist and homophobic assault. Homelessness, poverty, interpersonal violence and the hyper-policing of communities of color also contribute to the disproportionate incarceration of queer and trans people.

Once behind bars, queer and trans people are often targeted by prison officials for discrimination, punishment and violence, including sexual assault. They also face the same injustices that all incarcerated people face. The demands of striking prisoners highlight the reality that LGBT prisoners need more than reforms; the prison system itself is fundamentally unjust.

Striking prisoners are demanding an end to prison slavery, which is legal under the 13th amendment; increased access to rehabilitation services; the reinstatement of Pell grants; an end to racial disparities in sentencing; the reinstatement of voting rights for former prisoners with felony convictions; the redress of grievances local to individual institutions, and more. These demands are not only reasonable; they address some of the most pressing forms of racism in our country.

To further their cause, prisoners have organized work stoppages, hunger strikes, commissary boycotts and other actions. Some immigrants held in detention centers have joined the action. Activists are supporting the strike through phone calls to prison officials and other actions. Here in Columbus, activists will demonstrate outside the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, 770 W. Broad St., from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 7.

While the demands of the strikers are just, the response of prison officials has been extreme. Ohio State Penitentiary officials were quick to punish death row inmate Siddique Abdullah Hasan for advocating for the strike. Prison officials revoked his phone access for a year. Prison officials will likely engage in similar reprisals across the country. Black and brown queer and trans prisoners may face particularly harsh punishments for their political activism.

The fact that large LGBT community organizations, such as Stonewall Columbus, fail to treat mass incarceration as an LGBT issue is one way that racism operates in our community. This nationwide prison strike, which will continue through Sept. 9, is an important opportunity for our community to address this injustice.