Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
By Jessica Carreras
The Triangle Foundation has always been known for working for the safety of the LGBT community – but what about those who are in prison? Although the rights of prisoners are often overlooked, the Michigan Department of Corrections has been working with the Triangle Foundation for years on improving safety and ensuring fair treatment for LGBT prisoners, resulting in three policy changes that went into place last July.
The three changes include rewording the name for sexual predators whose offense was against someone of the same sex, elimination of sexual orientation from prisoner files and policy changes that work against prisoner-on-prisoner and staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse and rape.
The MDOC received a $1 million grant under the Prison Rape Elimination Act in order to train their staff and quell sexual abuse within the prisons. “We were approached by the Department of Corrections to assist in complying with the PREA grant,” explained Sean Kosofsky, the director of policy at the Triangle Foundation. “There were openly gay people (at MDOC) who requested our support.”
Within the MDOC, the issue came up in 2002 when a letter was sent to them about their practice of identifying prisoners’ sexuality. “The letter was the start of a shift in our policy of identifying prisoners based on their sexual orientation,” explained Russ Marlin, a spokesman for the MDOC. “They made the decision that there’s no need to do that.”
The first change came about after the Triangle Foundation did a search of policy records at the MDOC that revealed a startling truth about homosexuals in the prison system. If a sex offender committed their crime with someone of the same sex, they were put in the system as a “homosexual predator.” Originally, this way done to differentiate between straight and gay prisoners in order to prevent homosexual sex offenders from committing repeat crimes while in prison in a male-on-male or female-on-female facility. The term, however, set off alarms in the LGBT community. “That term just sounded so horrible,” said Kosofsky. “It was culturally offensive.”
As of July, use of the term in records has been completely eradicated.
The next change was a more significant one regarding the recording of sexual orientation in prisoner files. Though new detainees were not forced to divulge their sexuality, if it came out during the filing of their basic information report, it would be included in the report. Some believe this may have caused not only harassment while in prison, but also the prolongment of a sentence before parole would be granted. In general, it opened the door for sexual orientation-based discrimination within the corrections system.
In 2003, however, the Triangle Foundation teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union to ask the MDOC to drop that question on the reports. Recently, they’ve gone one step further by upgrading to a new software system that doesn’t even have the question on it.
The last development is a policy change that greatly improves the safety of both LGBT and other prisoners regarding sexual abuse and rape. “Most departments of correction will say that they have a system in place to stop sexual abuse between prisoners and between staff and prisoners,” Kosofsky said.
The truth, however, is that this is not always the case, Kosofsky said, explaining that actual rapes and sexual abuse that occur within prisons can differ greatly from those that are reported. Often, the sexual acts are seen as consensual. “Even though it looks consensual, it’s not,” Kosofsky said.
Now, the policy that was put into place in July will allow the MDOC to better educate its staff and train them for proper conduct with prisoners. “I feel pretty certain that this policy was mindful of (LGBT) people when they were designing it,” said Kosofsky.
These three changes mark an important turn by the MDOC toward the recognition of LGBT-specific issues within prisons. “All of these seem tiny,” Kosofsky said, “but when you add them up, there’s progress being made.”