While incarcerated in Massachusetts, Michael Cox was sent to solitary confinement for a month and a half after he, an openly gay man, reported an act of sexual violence against him to prison officials.
Cox later did more time in solitary after he and another gay inmate hugged each other goodbye when leaving the prison yard, he told lawmakers Tuesday. Cox, now the director of policy for the Boston chapter of Black and Pink, and other advocates described their belief that LGBTQ prisoners are sent to solitary confinement — or restrictive housing as it is sometimes known — far more frequently than heterosexual inmates are.
"Within the prison system there are several clear pathways for an LGBT person to end up in solitary confinement," Cox, who served a six-year sentence, told the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. "I reported an act of sexual violence and I spent 45 days in solitary confinement. This is both a deterrent to report future acts of violence against me and it has a chilling effect on all other queer people."
Cox was not advocating to end the use of solitary confinement, but rather for the state to start collecting data on LGBTQ prisoners and the use of solitary confinement as punishment for LGBTQ prisoners in Massachusetts. The Judiciary Committee took testimony on a Sen. Julian Cyr bill (S 905) that would require state and correctional officials to collect voluntarily-disclosed data about sexual orientation, gender identity and assignments to restrictive housing.
"It's meant to be a tool to manage people who are a danger to the general population, but we increasingly are hearing that queer and transgender individuals in the correctional system are being held in restrictive housing in what is essentially being claimed to be their own protection," Cyr said. "We have some significant concerns about this. There's minimal information around how long LGBTQI folks in the correctional system are being held and the bill seeks to close the gap in understanding safety for LGBTQI folks."
While in prison, Cox said, he refused an assignment to be housed in the same unit as "a known sexual predator" who had already pursued him. But rather than report the other inmate, Cox opted to fight his housing assignment and go to solitary on his own terms.
"Because I already learned my lesson from reporting sexual violence that I'd end up in solitary confinement, I chose instead to just refuse that housing assignment and take a shorter bid in solitary," he said.
Though he described rampant homophobia among guards and inmates, Cox said there is no data that would paint the full picture of LGBTQ discrimination in prisons or what he said was the disproportionate use of solitary confinement for LGBTQ inmates. He said Cyr's bill would "merely just track and count people like me and countless others who are subjected to this practice so that we can make more informed decisions."
Ben Klein, a senior attorney at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, said studies have found that lesbian, gay and bisexual inmates are at a greater risk for sexual violence in prison than heterosexual inmates. By adopting Cyr's bill, he said, Massachusetts would be in a better position to identify issues in prisons and address them.
"It is a low-cost, low-administrative burden, first step just to get information, to get the actual data, here in Massachusetts so that we can have that and you as legislators can have that and then have evidence-based reforms going forward," he said. "This is a bill that really, there should be no opposition to it because it is a very easy addition to an already existing data collection practice that will provide critical information for a serious problem."
In addition to Cyr, the bill has 23 legislative supporters. Criminal justice reform was a major priority for the Legislature last session and Jesse White, a staff attorney at Prisoners' Legal Services, said Cyr's bill "corrects for an oversight in the criminal justice reform act as the criminal justice reform act established data and reporting requirements but failed to include LGBTQI people in those requirements."