Mass incarceration, LGBT+ people and COVID-19
Out Leadership welcomed Ropes & Gray and Witness to Mass Incarceration for a conversation on Human Rights

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of holding Equality Imperative with Fabrice Houdart on the topic of LGBT+, Mass Incarceration and COVID-19 with Salmah Rizvi of Ropes & Gray LLP litigation & enforcement practice group and Evie Litwok, the Executive Director Witness to Mass Incarceration.

The topic could not have been timelier as the same day the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed “major concern” about the spread of the new Coronavirus both in regional prisons and in the United States. OHCHR’s spokesperson, however, also acknowledged that some progress has been made with releases of prisoners incarcerated for secondary crimes, reminding that the US ordinarily has a prison population of 2.3 million people.

Indeed, today the New York Times reported as an example that “as of last week, more than half of the inmates and staff members tested at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville, Tenn., were positive for the virus.” In Texas, a 30 year-old inmate who had just given birth died on April 4th from COVID-19. During our event, Salmah pointed out that things are probably not better at Rikers Island in New York City.

Hearing the personal story of Evie, a formerly incarcerated lesbian who spent time in solitary confinement, was a powerful reminder that many incarcerated, and formerly incarcerated people are also part of the LGBT+ community. In fact, our partner, the Williams Institute, pointed out that “over 40% of incarcerated women are sexual minorities” — [read this 2017 post which explains the reasons behind this disproportionate representation].

Salmah, who maintains an active civil rights and human rights pro bono practice at Ropes & Gray, focused on prison reform, LGBTQ equality, and immigration, discussed the power of litigation. She was part of the team in the Nunez v. City of New York – a class action lawsuit that resulted in groundbreaking institutional reforms to remedy excessive staff violence against inmates on Rikers Island. She also played a key role in the repeal of Utah’s state law that had prohibited supportive discussions of homosexuality in public and charter school curricula and classrooms. Finally, Salmah shared her views on the concept of ‘disciplinary society’ by Foucault, discussing the commonality of homophobia and transphobia in disciplinary institutions such as prisons, hospitals, and schools.

Evie discussed the difficulty to enforce legal decisions around situations involving inmates and formerly incarcerated people, giving concrete examples of how correction facilities bypass surveillance systems. She also discussed the quadrupling of the US carceral population in two decades, denouncing the prison industrial complex. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for changes in sentencing policy, claims that the  U.S. locks up people at five to 10 times the rate of other industrialized countries.

In her conclusion, Evie highlighted that the community can support her efforts directing them to her organization’s website, her “suitcase” project, and calling for help in persuading Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Rockefeller Foundation to consider giving some of the new “COVID-19 tracer” jobs to formerly incarcerated people.

Ultimately, at Out Leadership we believe that the current crisis is an opportunity to broaden our notion of what constitutes our community; paying attention to the situation of LGBT+ incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people is a step in the right direction [also read: What is your community?].

View the full episode below:

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