Op-ed: A Test for County Jails

By Andrew Extein

Originally published on Advocate.com August 15 2012 5:00 AM ET

PERSON 1: “Do you know what a size queen is?”

PERSON 2: “Me! Ha, um…just kidding.”

You might imagine this exchange taking place at a gay bar, a party, or even an awkward Thanksgiving dinner. Instead I overheard this in the most unlikely of places: a jail.

I have spent a good deal of time in jails, though I have never been incarcerated myself. Rather, my experience in jail is structured and professional.

In 2008, I was lucky enough to gain near-unfettered access to all seven Los Angeles County jails through work with the ACLU of Southern California’s Jails Project. In the 1970s, the ACLU won a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for violation of the eighth amendment of cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, the ACLU-SC has operated as the court-ordered monitor of the L.A. County jails ever since. For a year I worked as such a monitor, visiting the jails, talking to inmates, gathering complaints, advocating for their rights, and communicating with Sheriff’s deputies and personnel.

Back to the size queen. It was 5 o’clock in the morning and I was sitting in a modest office on the fifth floor of Men’s Central Jail, one of the largest and oldest jails in the country. The office belonged to a deputy in charge of the unique gay inmate classification at the jails, also known as the K6G unit. In order to be labeled a K6G, the two deputies in charge of the unit had to conclude that, yes, you are undoubtedly gay.

The mission of the “gay inmate classification” is an admirable one: to protect the safety of gay and transgender inmates from harassment, sexual assault, and violence. Queer and gender nonconforming people in the aggressive and militaristic jail environment are at extremely high risk of hostility from straight inmates, deputies, staff, and each other. Removal from the general population is elective and highly desirable. However, I was confused about how the deputies determined whether an inmate “earned” the classification. Curious, I asked to sit in on a morning of interviews.

The room was cramped and smelled somewhat better than the adjacent hallway. From my chair, I could see the multicolored lines through the doorway that dictated where an inmate of a certain classification was allowed to walk. The poorly painted markers resembled a subway map and served as a reminder of the arbitrary rules that managed the daily life of an inmate. Anonymous bodies in thin, light blue pajamas meandered back and forth, the color revealing that they were gayer, weaker, and more feminine than their dark blue brethren above and below.

Photos magazine cutouts, and other imagery plastered the office walls, making the space look like a cross between the bedroom of an N’SYNC fanatic and a detective’s office. A photo of the deputies with Paris Hilton was proudly displayed, and rainbows and other familiar gay imagery surrounded the stocky authority figure in his nook. In response to my inquiry into the meaning of a hand symbol taped to the wall, the deputy told me that it is a decoy to test the validity of an inmate’s homosexuality. If an inmate forms this symbol when prompted to show the “gay hand sign” then the deputies can conclude that the inmate is straight — there is, the deputy knowingly confided, no “gay hand sign.”

The inmate being interviewed appeared surprisingly calm considering the situation. It’s not every day that you are grilled on your sexual orientation at the wee hours of the morning, though I supposed stranger things happened in jail. He appeared Caucasian, skinny, meek, and jaded. I wondered what he was in jail for: drug possession? Sex work? Robbery to make ends meet?

“Do you know what a size queen is?” asked the deputy stonily.

A quick smile flitted across the inmate’s face. “Me! Ha, um…just kidding.”

The deputy kept a “straight” face, marked a note down on his pad, and cleared his throat. “Can you name the most popular bars in West Hollywood?”

“Uh…yeah…Rage, Mickey’s…the Abbey…”

“Have you ever been there?”

“Yeah, a couple times, I think.”

These questions are representative of the bizarre inquisition style of the K6G deputies. Inmates are asked if they know of certain bars, clubs, and slang that cater to the WeHo crowd and, to a lesser degree, black gay men.

The inmate was unfazed by the questions, as though the interview was another blase formality in the jailhouse narrative. Although he seemed amused at the absurd circumstances at hand, this was ultimately just another test to pass, another fight to win, another step in the road to freedom.

I asked the deputies about queer inmates that might not know of the signifiers on which their interviews are based, about those who do not fit into prescribed notions of what it means to be gay or trans. Surely these inmates were also in need of protection, no? They assured me that their system worked. I asked about straight inmates who appeared more effeminate, the gender variant, or the weak who needed protection. They spoke of a now-defunct “soft” classification. I asked how they knew about gay culture themselves. They told me that they do their research by immersing themselves in the community and proudly told me that they judged a competition for drag queens in West Hollywood. This does not reassure me.

The two deputies helming the K6G classification were heterosexual; while this is not inherently inappropriate, it helps explain the unit’s shallow understanding of queer identity. The terminology of the classification “gay” ignores the array of queerness present in both Men’s Central Jail and the prison-industrial system, a physical and psychic space with complicated relationships to masculinity, homosocial behavior, sex, and violence. The needs of some queers are easily overlooked; for example, a queer man who appears more masculine is met with skepticism because he is essentially not faggy enough, as is a closeted gay man who doesn’t know the codes of gay culture. The concept of sex and sexual abuse within the K6G classification is played down, and access to condoms is limited, if it exists at all. Deputies and guards are insufficiently trained to handle the needs of queer inmates, and sensitivity to the population is lacking. The mainstream notion of “equality” as a gay right is irrelevant in a jail, and this irony is not lost on the K6Gs.

Though the deputies were slightly oblivious, they were well meaning. They welcomed me into their world and allowed me to peek behind the curtain. They engaged in conversations about their work, and I could tell that they genuinely wanted to help the gay and transgender inmates. This empathy is useful to and appreciated by the K6Gs, and helps create an atmosphere of safety and acceptance. However, safety and acceptance are ultimately lacking in a jail, and even this unit has its limitations. Behind the veneer of a functional system that keeps “gays” safe lies a further iteration of oppression that belies the entirety of the prison-industrial complex.

So, where do we go from here? How can the L.A. County Jail improve its flawed classification system? Though there isn’t much I can directly do, I do have hopes.

I hope that the K6G unit evolves to better acknowledge queerness and sexual and gender variation. Community involvement, extensive training, consultation with queer organizations, and competent hiring regulations would help address the needs of queer inmates.

I hope that queer inmates in the L.A. County Jail gain better access to competent sexual heath care. Educating the Sheriff’s Department staff about the sexual health needs of the queer community and allowing more open-minded approaches to condoms while acknowledging the realities of sexual activity among K6Gs could further sexual health.

I hope that deputies, lieutenants, captains, commanders, and Lee Baca himself come to understand the needs of queer inmates more fully. Forming alliances with queer organizations and promoting dialogue between the predominantly heterosexual Sheriff’s Department and the queer community would be mutually beneficial to the safety and quality of life for both deputies and inmates.

I hope that queer inmates are not forced to prove their “gayness” through sexually invasive, inappropriate, and irrelevant questions. Further reliance on the K6G questionnaire review board and accountability of the deputies on appropriate implementation of the interview questions would help, as would routine observation of interviews by representatives of queer organizations.

I hope that mainstream gay rights organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign begin to acknowledge gay and queer inmates as members of the broader queer community who need and deserve protection. The focus on gay marriage, "don’t ask, don’t tell," and other gay issues that promote the image of the assimilated, white, happy, healthy gay enables a broad ignorance of the issues that many less fortunate queers have to face such as poverty, homelessness, mental illness, unemployment, police brutality, and incarceration.

And, despite the classification’s shortcomings, I hope that more jails and prisons follow the growing program at L.A. County to ensure the safety of incarcerated queers. Ideally, at some point down the line, all the deputies in all of America’s jails will know, with winking confidence, what a size queen is.

 

ANDREW EXTEIN, MSW is a social worker and psychotherapist specializing in queer populations, sexual minorities and young adults. Learn more about his work at exteinmsw.com.

This article originally appeared on TheQu.co, a multimedia website for queer artists to showcase their work.