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The Queer Case Against Prisons
(Image: AE Press)

The Queer Case Against Prisons

(Image: AE Press)
Toshio Meronek’s review of “Prisons Will Not Protect You” highlights the emphasis by the book’s contributors that the Corrections Department isn’t in the business of correcting oppression.

The book Prisons Will Not Protect You describes a sentiment that many queer people can relate to. Every day, police stop transgender people for “walking while transgender,” as prison wardens send others to solitary confinement “for their own protection,” without recognizing the mental torture that results from 23 and a half hours of isolation per day. Cops still raid gay bars just because (Atlanta, Fort Worth and New York City being a few places where raids have happened in recent years, with some cops beating patrons while calling out uncreative slurs like “Faggots!”). And at ACT UP rallies, the state protects AIDS-profiteering corporations instead of protecting people who protest ever-broadening patent laws that keep life-saving drugs unaffordable for many. In particular, if you’re black, Latino, Native American, disabled, homeless, transgender, or any combination of the above, violence at the hands of police and prison administrators is no revelation in your communities.

Coupled with this continued targeting of certain types of people is the incredible rate at which the United States cages them: Between 1925 and 2012, state and federal imprisonment rates increased more than 17 times, while overall population merely tripled.

A whole lot of critiques are bound to follow when you add to that the mainstream gay movement’s apparent reverence for all things law-and-orderly (the oohing-and-aahing over the San Francisco Police Department’s “It Gets Better” video – in which gay and lesbian cops tell their intended audience of depressive gay kids to “hang tight, it’ll get better” – brought us one of the gag-worthiest moments in viral video history, given that police disproportionately arrest queer homeless runaway youth across the country). Captive Genders, Normal Life, and Queer (In)Justice are other recent books that cover some of the same ground. But one of the potential strengths of PWNPY is that it’s short – at under 100 pages, so you can read it in an afternoon and go away being able to carry on a conversation about the issues it covers, even if you’ve never considered them before. The anthology is the third in a series of radical queer primers from the Against Equality collective; past editions included critiques of gay marriage and military inclusion.

Prisons are effectively incubators for the violence they’re supposedly created to address, an idea laid out in the collection’s introduction by Dean Spade, the founder of the transgender legal aid organization the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and author of Normal Life. Administrators encourage gang-on-gang conflict, as evidenced by the “gladiator days” held at some prisons, including one in Idaho recently called out by the ACLU, in which guards bet on which prisoners will harm others. Rape by staff and other prisoners is an everyday occurrence (LGBT people are at particular risk), and most people come out of prison with post-traumatic stress disorder. Outside, jobs and housing are difficult to come by for anyone who’s formerly incarcerated – most states restrict ex-prisoners from accessing public housing and food stamps, for example – and so many end up back behind bars within months. It’s a set-you-up-to-fail system that emphasizes some sick brand of revenge over any real kind of justice.

Next, Jason Lydon of the group Black and Pink (which campaigns for queer prisoners, and hooks up people outside with LGBTQ prisoner pen pals) calls out the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the biggest and most well-funded gay rights groups, for tokenizing murdered trans women like Sanesha Stewart and Angie Zapata to gain support for gay hate crimes legislation. What the heads of these organizations don’t acknowledge is that by bolstering hate crimes legislation, they’re funneling more resources into a system that’s addicted to arresting transgender people (in a recent survey, 16 percent reported having spent time inside). Among other things, hate crimes extend prison stays, which cost around $50,000 per prisoner per year – much to the delight of private companies such as the prison-operating Corrections Corporation of America, or prison construction firms such as Sundt/Layton. The latter recently won a California county contract worth millions with which it plans to build a new jail in a largely black and Latino community in San Mateo, in spite of widespread community opposition, a jail that will inevitably and quickly be filled with black and Latino bodies when it opens.

Later, The Nation’s Liliana Segura deconstructs the idea that such laws deter crime by describing how hate groups increased their activity since Bill Clinton signed hate crimes legislation into law back in the early ’90s. Meanwhile, there’s little evidence to show, for example, that more severe punishments make white supremacists think twice about harming black people. And inside prison walls, the racially inspired violence of groups like the Aryan Brotherhood is fiercer than ever.

Another point Segura stresses: Hate crimes’ rhetoric emphasizes individual actors as the offender, while giving a violent system the freedom to reproduce its violence. Writers know well the appeal of conjuring stories that have obvious protagonists and antagonists, where the antagonist gets “what’s coming to them.” Stories where systems are antagonists are more difficult and a much harder sell – and so many writers don’t attempt to write them. The author of this review has been, to use the language of the system, guilty of this laziness as well. And so that much more respect is due Segura and the other contributors for doing this tougher work.

The least forward-thinking piece comes from James D’Entremont, who describes the very harrowing stories of the San Antonio 4 and Bernard Baran, gay and lesbian people imprisoned after being falsely accused of child sex abuse. These are convincing examples of homophobia permeating the justice system, for sure, but a more intriguing piece would look at what happens to people who aren’t what the system would classify as “innocents.” In other words, what do you do with the people who actually do harm other people? The article that follows it takes on a slice of this harder story to write.

In their piece on sex offender registries, Erica Meiners, Liam Michaud, Josh Pavan, and Bridget Simpson consider what we currently do with what many people consider the “worst of the worst”: “those who commit acts of violence (generally sexual) against the ‘most innocent,’ white children.” But even a gay sex act can land you on the sex offender registries, which haven’t been successful at much of anything besides broadening definitions of what constitutes crime – and these registries ignore that most sex abuse happens between friends and family members, the majority of whom will never see the inside of a prison cell. Locking someone away does nothing to address the reasons why sexual abuse is so common, such as misogyny. Meiners, et al. go on to talk about organizations like the Storytelling and Organizing Project (Oakland) and the Challenging Male Supremacy Project (New York City), which have promoted models of alternative justice, for when we need accountability for harm without turning to the prison industrial complex.

PWNPY illuminates a concept older than the Stonewall Inn or Compton’s Cafeteria riots: A system of which you’re a target isn’t built to save you. As Spade writes, “The most well-funded and widely broadcast lesbian and gay rights narratives tell us that the state is our protector, that its institutions are not centers of racist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist violence, but are sites for our liberation. We know that is not true.” When the antagonizing institutions in this story have a lot more resources and are circulating the myth that as long as our leaders are tougher on crime than their predecessors, justice will follow, it’s a good thing there are people like this book’s contributors to forcefully point out that the Corrections Department isn’t in the business of correcting oppression.

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