I posted a few days ago on the Seventh Circuit’s decision on the right of transgender inmates to treatment. Now, by coincidence, I’ve read a really fascinating new article by Sharon Dolovich about the segregation of gay and transgender inmates in the Los Angeles County Jail (“Strategic Segregation in the Modern Prison,” 48 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 1 (2011)). What’s the connection? An important question in the Seventh Circuit litigation was whether hormonal treatment, which would give transgender inmates a more feminine appearance, would make them more likely to be victimized. However, Dolovich’s bleak account of the culture of “hypermasculinity” and sexual victimization in prison suggests that transgender (and, for that matter, gay, youthful, and physically weak) inmates are already coded as feminine and targeted for victimization — it’s hard to imagine that hormone-driven changes in appearance are likely to make matters much worse.
Dolovich’s article focuses on LA’s unique K6G Unit, which is intended to provide a safe haven for gay inmates. She has conducted extensive interviews and other empirical research in order to evaluate K6G. It appears that the unit does make a large, positive difference in the lives of those who are admitted to it. Indeed, perhaps the strongest evidence of the relative safety of the unit is that many straight inmates have risked the stigma of homosexuality in order to try to fool jail officials into letting them in.
But, as Dolovich also points out, it is quite troubling to see jail officials systematically segregating a population that has a long history of social marginalization.
One can’t help but think of California’s race-based segregation of inmates, which was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court just a few years ago in Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499 (2005). K6G protects gay inmates, but it also definitively marks them as gay — they even have to wear a different color uniform. The unit’s screening process, moreover, involves a deeply intrusive prying by jail officials into the most intimate details of inmates’ lives.
I appreciate Dolovich’s balanced and deeply nuanced account of K6G. In the end, she takes the realist position, endorsing K6G as an “imperfect half-measure” to alleviate immediate suffering. (11)