Thursday, December 29, 2005

Gay Prison Spa Closes


Mariah Lopez says closure will "just suck"

(NEW YORK -AP, Yahoo News, and the Sour Grapes Gazette)

One of the nation's few jail dormitories specifically for gay or transgender prisoners is closing on Rikers Island, prompting complaints from some activists who say it is a needed safe haven for the sensitive, maligned prisoners who prefer Bette Midler to Mac Dre; foie gras and duck a l'orange to shit on a shingle and other prison delicacies.

The unit stopped accepting new inmates last month at the direction of Department of Correction Commissioner Martin Horn. With only 56 inmates left in the unit Thursday, it could be shut entirely within the next few weeks, the department said.

The members only unit is slated to be replaced with a new protective custody system that would be available to prisoners who feel threatened, regardless of their sexual orientation.

The change has alarmed members of some civil liberties and gay rights groups that note the new housing would likely be more restrictive than the old unit and may eliminate such popular activities as "Friday Night Cruisin'" "Retro Disco Night" "Leather and Lace Jamboree" "Group Conjugal Visit Night", and "Queens in Jeans."

"People should not be punished for wanting to be safe, regardless of what they did to earn a trip to the joint. After all, a gay rapist, robber, murderer, or other violent felon is entitled to as much comfort and coddling as a straight prisoner. " said D. Horvath, a legal fellow at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an underfunded but sincere liberal think tank.

Correction Department spokesman Tom Antwerpen said the unit, which held only a fraction of the gay inmates at Rikers, was being done away with as part of a broader restructuring of the jail's prisoner classification system.

Jail administrators have no intention of ignoring Rikers inmates who say they feel threatened because of their sexuality, Antwerpen said. "We fully intend to siphon as much from the public coffers as needed to appease these felons, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation or heinousness of the their crimes. We will endeavor to provide the best possible security," he said. That could include a "23-hour lockdown" or it might involve moving them to a different city facility.

Specialized housing units for gay prisoners are rare in the United States, although jails in a few other places do have them, officials said. Texas is rumored to have a Gays Only Death Row, where the final few steps to the death chamber are referred to as "The Pink Mile."

Transgender activist Mariah Lopez said she knows firsthand the difference between the specialized unit and regular housing at Rikers, having been imprisoned in both on prostitution charges. "Well, first they gave me this horrid gray prison suit, replete with a fly. I explained to them I do not need clothes with a fly since I had my penis removed three years ago. Then they confiscated my prosthetic breasts and made me stop using eye liner. The conditions were absolutely inhumane." Heshe said.

Outside of the protective unit, Lopez said she was subject to taunts and physical abuse, unlike any other prison inmates while inside guards and prisoners alike are "generally more sensitized" to issues of gender identity.

"I can't conceive a Rikers Island without gay housing," Lopez said. "I suppose I might have to do the unthinkable and actually go straight, at least in the LEGAL sense, heshe said.

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