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social sciences

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Prisons and Prisoners  
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Because is the norm in most societies, have a unique relationship to the penal system. First, since homosexuality is still illegal in many places, gay men and (less frequently) lesbians may find themselves imprisoned for no other crime than being "caught" expressing their sexual identity.

Second, however, even where homosexuality is not against the law, or laws against homosexuality not routinely enforced, the stigma attached to homosexuality may leave many queers in a shadowy position, with ambiguous attitudes toward law and its enforcement.

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Moreover, societal disapproval can itself lead to crime, because it generates prejudice, discrimination, fear, and self-loathing, which in turn can lead to alcohol and drug use, unemployability, and poverty.

Queers in Prison

Once in prison, queers become part of a harsh, gender-segregated subculture, in which even non-gays frequently participate in homosexual relationships, either by choice or by force.

Despite the prevalence of homosexual activity, however, homophobia is nevertheless rampant within prison society, and queers in jail are frequently victimized both by their fellow inmates and by the prison system itself, including indifferent or predatory guards and inequitable regulations. This abuse creates a kind of vicious cycle where demoralized gay men and lesbians are almost twice as likely as straight inmates to re-offend and return to prison.

Although gay male, lesbian, and prisoners share many of the same experiences of subjugation and oppression in prison, each group is affected in its own particular way as well.

Gay men, often perceived in society as weak and womanish, may find themselves at the lower end of the prison hierarchy. In recent decades, gay prisoners have been segregated in dismal "queen's tanks," separate jail facilities where they are vulnerable to rape and abuse by other prisoners and guards. In 1997 sixteen openly gay inmates were killed in a Jamaican jail when other inmates rioted and stormed their segregated cellblock.

In male prisons, rape and other violence between inmates is an accepted fact of life that prison officials often do little to prevent. Prison activists have brought the issue into the public eye, and in 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, but violent behavior continues. Though over 1500 rapes were reported under the act in 2004, most were never prosecuted.

In 2005, the ACLU brought suit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on behalf of a gay inmate named Roderick Keith Johnson. Johnson claimed that he had been forced into literal sexual slavery while serving time in a Texas prison. When he complained to prison officials, Johnson testified that he was told to "get a boyfriend for protection." Though Johnson did not win his suit, the ACLU managed to get him transferred to a different prison and publicized the issue of violence against gay inmates.

The lack of availability of condoms in most prisons exacerbates the threat of contracting AIDS for prisoners who participate in sexual activity.

Even in enlightened countries, members of sexual minorities are frequently treated inequitably in such matters as visits from partners and friends, correspondence rights, availability of gay magazines and newsletters, and access to gay-friendly spiritual counseling, such as that provided by the Metropolitan Community Church.

One breakthrough came when a Canadian Court of Appeal ruled that the refusal to allow a gay male prisoner conjugal visits with his partner violated the nation's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The ruling was an important chapter in the legal struggle that led to the ultimate ruling that expanded the legal definition of spouse and legalized same-sex marriage in Canada.

No analogous ruling in the United States has established the rights of gay and lesbian prisoners to conjugal visits with their partners, with the possible exception of the handful of states that permit same-sex marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships.

Although the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its population than any other Western country, protecting the rights of prisoners--especially, queer prisoners--is not a high priority for its government or its voters, at least in part because prisoners in U.S. jails tend disproportionately to be poor, uneducated, and from ethnic and racial minorities.

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