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social sciences

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Prisons and Prisoners  
page: 1  2  

Social scientists have estimated the proportion of lesbian inmates in women's prisons at anywhere from 25 to 60 percent.

In 1937, Freudian psychologist Samuel Kahn became one of the first experts to acknowledge sexual relationships among female prison inmates in his book The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class, and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual. Decades later, famous anthropologist Margaret Mead also studied the phenomenon, theorizing that lesbian relationships in prison were merely a substitute for heterosexual relationships, made necessary by the unavailability of men.

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However, some modern theorists have begun to consider less socially rigid explanations, such as the possibility that, removed from the society of men, women begin to learn to love and appreciate each other. Indeed, though many women return to heterosexuality once released from prison, they frequently form tight couples and family units to support them during their incarceration.

Transgender people face special challenges in gender-segregated prisons. In male prisons, male-to-female transgenders are especially vulnerable to rape and violence, while prison officials are often ignorant and unsympathetic about their needs.

In 2001, a transgendered woman named Synthia Kavanaugh filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission stating that she had been denied hormone therapy and sex change surgery by the Canadian prison system. Kavanaugh won her case, received her surgery, and was transferred to a women's prison. The commission also directed the prison system to create new guidelines for meeting the needs of transgendered inmates.


There are many organizations devoted to helping offenders, both within prison and after they are released. However, many of these organizations are faith-based and blatantly condemnatory or discriminatory toward glbtq prisoners. Often their "ministry" to members of sexual minorities consists of little more than attempts to "convert" them to heterosexuality. Other prison reform organizations simply ignore the special problems of glbtq inmates.

Often having been radicalized by their own experiences in jail, some queer activists have created their own support networks to aid prisoners.

Beginning with the wave of political lesbian feminism in the 1970s, lesbians have spearheaded organizations to support women behind bars. A Seattle organization called Through the Looking Glass provided a free newsletter and other resources to women inmates and their children from 1976 through 1986.

The Out of Control Lesbian Committee to Support Women Political Prisoners formed in 1986 in the San Francisco Bay Area to protest oppressive conditions in the Lexington Control Unit for Women, an underground facility in Kentucky. After an eighteen-month fight in coalition with other community prison activists, they succeeded in shutting down the unit. Out of Control continues to work to improve the conditions and secure the release of twenty-five women imprisoned for their political work and beliefs.

Texas prison activist Ray Hill is a gay man who spent time behind bars himself before founding one of the most long-lived prison support efforts in the U.S. Sentenced to twenty separate eight-year terms in prison for robbery, Hill studied the law and managed to reduce his time to one eight-year sentence. With time off for good behavior, Hill was out in less than five years, but he did not forget his time in jail, nor the issues of his fellow inmates.

In 1980, Hill started a weekly radio show dedicated to the support of prisoners and prison reform. The two-hour "Prison Show" continues its regular run on Houston's Pacifica Radio station KPFT FM, highlighting issues of concern to inmates and providing a way that those outside can communicate with friends and family who are locked up.

The late gay activist Stephen Donaldson, who founded Columbia University's gay student organization in 1969, was brutally gang raped in 1973 after being jailed for trespassing at the White House as part of a protest against the bombing of Cambodia. Donaldson's experience led him to join Stop Prisoner Rape, an advocacy group that seeks to end sexual violence committed against men, women, and youth in all forms of detention. The organization was founded in 1980 by Russell Dan Smith, another prison rape victim, but incorporated by Donaldson in 1994.

TRAns Prisoner Support (TRAPS) is a website founded by a British transgendered woman named Tiff whose own negative experiences with the penal system prompted her to extend help to other transgendered inmates. TRAPS contains links to help supporters work for improved conditions in prison and encourages pen pals to provide isolated prisoners much-needed contact with the outside world.

Prison Life in Popular Culture

Queers in prison have become staples of popular culture. Prison slang referring to sexual roles and sexual activity, especially among men, permeates mainstream society. Terms such as "kid," "punk," "stud," "jocker," and "turned out" refer to the sexual roles and identities assumed by male inmates.

Slang referring to lesbian prisoners is less well-known to the general public, but includes, in addition to the ubiquitous "butch" and "femme," such terms as "little boys," "stud broads," "bulldaggers," "fishes," and "flippers." The initials "LUP" stand for "Lesbian Until Parole." "JTO" stands for "Jailhouse Turnouts."

Moreover, images of prison rape and the sexual exploitation of prisoners--including that by the iconic "Big Mama" lesbian prison guard and the menacing cellmate--are deeply ingrained in the popular imagination, fueled by numerous movies, novels, and pornography.

While gay male prisoners are often alternately depicted as sissies or punks and ultra-masculine predators, lesbian prisoners are routinely portrayed as sadistic and psychotic.

More subtle presentations of queers in prison have been presented in classics of gay literature such as Oscar Wilde's letter De Profundis, written in prison in 1897, and Jean Genet's novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1942), also written in prison.

Tellingly, it was a play that inspired the founding of an important prisoner-aid organization. John Herbert's searing drama of prison life in Canada, Fortune and Men's Eyes (1966), inspired the formation of the New York-based Fortune Society in 1967. Founded by the play's producer on Broadway, David Rothenberg, the Fortune Society works to improve prison conditions and protect the rights of prisoners.

Surprisingly sympathetic portraits of incarcerated lesbians and gay men have recently been featured on television. For example, the British television series Bad Girls features daily life within the walls of a women's prison--the fictitious HMP (Her Majesty's Prison) Larkhall, just outside London. Lesbians in the United Kingdom tune in regularly to watch the drama that unfolds among the several lesbian couples in the cast.

The intense prison drama Oz ran on HBO from 1997 through 2003. Popular with a large audience, Oz also takes place in a fictional prison, the Emerald City Unit of Oswald State Correctional Facility. Along with storylines that graphically reveal the violence and rape that are a part of male prison life, Oz also featured a gay inmate gang and poignant depictions of several gay relationships.

Tina Gianoulis

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social sciences >> Overview:  Same-Sex Marriage

Lesbian and gay couples have been fighting for the freedom to marry since the dawn of the modern glbtq struggle for equality; despite some success abroad, progress toward same-sex marriage in the United States has been slow.

social sciences >> Overview:  Situational Homosexuality

Situational homosexuality is same-sex sexual activity that occurs not as part of a gay life style, but because the participants happen to find themselves in a single-sex environment for a prolonged period.

literature >> Genet, Jean

Jean Genet's work has left a powerful legacy to post-modernity and remains a provocation to questions of gay identity.

social sciences >> Leopold, Nathan F. (1904-1971), and Richard A. Loeb (1905-1936)

The case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who gained notoriety for the murder of a fourteen-year-old boy in 1924, has since become a staple of popular culture, inspiring numerous books, films, and plays.

social sciences >> Mead, Margaret

Although she was one of the most prominent and widely admired American anthropologists of her generation, Margaret Mead chose to keep her own bisexuality a secret.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Andreoli, Richard. "Angels for Gay Inmates." The Advocate (May 25, 2004).

"Court Hears From Gay Prison Sex Slave." (September 30, 2005):

Faith, Karlene. Unruly Women. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers, 1993.

Andriette, Bill. "Horror in Jamaica: 16 Men Burned and Stabbed to Death in Anti-Gay Prison Riots." Gay Today (October 9, 1997):

Freedman, Estelle. Feminism, Sexuality and Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Hernandez, Greg. "Can Gay Inmates Be Protected?" The Advocate (December 6, 2005).

McBeth, Jim. "Prison Service to Seek Gay Officers." The Sunday Times (Scotland)(March 12, 2006):,,2090-2082167,00.html

"Out Of Control Lesbian Committee To Support Women Political Prisoners." Prison Activist Resource Center.

Owen, Barbara. In the Mix: Struggle and Survival in a Women's Prison. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience." Feminism and Sexuality. Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, eds. New York: Columbia Press, 1996. 130-43.

TRAns Prisoner Support website.


    Citation Information
    Author: Gianoulis, Tina  
    Entry Title: Prisons and Prisoners  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated September 30, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.  


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