If you’re like me, you’ve sung along to the Orange is the New Black theme song countless times as you found yourself drawn in by the “watch ‘til you drop” nature of the show. We’ve laughed at Pennsatucky in her bouts of rural logic, or gawked at Suzanne’s obsession with Piper. Remember when our jaw dropped at the end of the first season? I’m pretty sure I spilled my snacks as Piper made her second trip to solitary confinement(“the SHU”). That was a pretty memorable Christmas smack down. And we’re all eagerly awaiting to see what is next for Sophia.
I must say though, prior to the hermit-inducing dramedy, I’ve never really thought about our prison system. Like many others, sometimes I’ll catch a high profile case on the television. But after the trial is over, some bad guy (or gal) gets tossed into prison and they’re no longer prime TV. Unless of course, someone escapes from a New York prison. Then we get to catch another glimpse of our country’s incarcerated population.
In recent SCOTUS decision Davis v. Ayala, Justice Kennedy went rogue with his concurring opinion to voice his concerns on an overlooked topic: solitary confinement. The Ayala case was actually about the prosecutor’s alleged race-based juror selections. However, Justice Kennedy saw this as a clear opportunity to remark on American incarceration’s devastating effects on its prisoners. His criticisms are definitely not based on new information. They echo longstanding studies and statistics that denounce solitary confinement.
Many don’t realize that prisoners who’ve spent any amount of time in solitary confinement are exposed to torturous and inhumane mental abuse. According to Amnesty International, it is estimated that 25,000 inmates in the United States are currently serving their sentence in whole or part in solitary confinement, many regardless of their conduct in prison. Depending on the facility, inmates can be sent to solitary for reasons including: possessing five dollars or more without authorization, religious-based grooming noncompliance, and gender non-conformity. Activist group Sylvia Rivera Law Project states that there have been many instances where a trans woman is sent to solitary confinement for possessing women’s clothing without staff authorization.
Research has shown that solitary confinement often subjects an inmate to conditions that produce severe mental illness, including anxiety, clinical depression, insanity, and ultimately suicide. American Journal of Public Health’s 2014 study found that solitary confinement detainees in New York City jails were nearly seven times more likely to harm themselves than those in general population. In California prisons in 2004, 73% of all suicides occurred in isolation unit, despite accounting for less than 10% of the state’s total prison population. In the Indiana Department of Corrections, the rate of suicides in segregation was almost three times that of other housing units (ACLU).
With this in mind, we must stop and ask ourselves: what is our principal motivation for establishing a criminal justice system? Is it really to punish the wrongdoers and protect law-abiding people from the lawless? And at what cost are we willing to pay to facilitate this justice? Are we willing to sacrifice another’s well-being and mental stability to further law and order? I know the cynics out there are retorting, “they did the crime, so they do the time,” but have they stopped to see the true effects of this institutionalized isolation? Thankfully many prisons implement programs to rehabilitate the institutionalized such as vocational training, GED and higher learning, and counseling. However, solitary confinement severely undermines any progress these programs make.
Kalief Browder was one of the many to feel the harrowing effects of solitary confinement in our system. 22-year old Kalief died by suicide earlier this June, following a 3-year stay in New York’s Rikers Jail Complex. During his three-year imprisonment awaiting trial, two of those years were spent in solitary confinement. That’s right, two-thirds of his time awaiting trial for a robbery case—which was ultimately dropped—were spent as Justice Kennedy described, in a “cell no larger than a typical parking spot for 23 hours a day; and in the one hour when he leaves it, he likely is allowed little or no opportunity for conversation or interaction with anyone.”
His attorney, family, teachers, and friends regarded Kalief as an “intelligent and humble” man. However, his demeanor turned 180 degrees by the time he was released. Kalief left Rikers with severe depression and anxiety. Officials say that Kalief had attempted suicide numerous times during his stay at Rikers. After every attempt, his “tools” were taken from him, and Kalief’s freedoms were further confined. Two years following his release and exoneration, Kalief was lost to suicide.
Sadly, many inmates are also thrown into solitary, not for their actions, but for their own safety. This is often the case for hundreds of LGBTQ inmates a year. And much like Kalief, many of these individuals found their way into confinement following procedural injustices in the courts. This is what happened to CeCe McDonald. CeCe spent 19 months in jail for defending herself against transphobic and racist aggressors in June 2011. On the night in question, three individuals threatened, chased, and attacked as she and her friends headed home. When a large white man lunged toward CeCe, she reacted.
CeCe accepted a plea deal to serve 41 months in the Minnesota Correctional Facility. Shortly after her arrival in the men’s facility, she was sent to solitary confinement. Due to current incarceration protocol, transgender individuals are often housed based on their gender identity. This usually leads to solitary confinement of LGBTQ inmates, especially trans women like CeCe, as they are clear targets for physical and sexual abuse by other inmates. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, published by the National LGBTQ Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, reports that one in six transgender Americans have been to prison, nearly half of whom are black transgender individuals. Furthermore, it states that sixteen percent of respondents reported being physically assaulted while incarcerated and fifteen percent were sexually assaulted.
Justice Thomas also took a brief moment to comment on Kennedy’s concerns for solitary confinement. His response? That Ayala has had much more accommodation in his “windowless cell” than that of his victims. Unfortunately, this is a common response by those who are unconcerned by prisoners’ rights. Of the thousands of individuals who’ve faced this deteriorating isolation, supporters can only hope that those who have mentally survived the confinement can speak out against it.
And let’s not forget, these are people we’re talking about–people with minds and hearts, families and communities–just as you and I. We cannot continue throwing the “bad eggs” into small, isolated boxes and forgetting their humanity. Isn’t our prison system built to rehabilitate, not destroy them? Solitary confinement undermines the beneficial impact of programs like education and vocational training, and blatantly sends the message that we don’t care about our prisoners. I refuse to believe that this message is true. So while we may enjoy our late nights watching Latina kitchen politics and the high value of stale cigarettes on Orange is the New Black episodes, we cannot forget the real people who live these lives; especially those in that windowless cell.
It’s time that we take a hard look into how we can fix this faulty systematic abuse. How about statutory limits on solitary confinements? Or mental health screening protocols? These are much simpler measures than reactively assessing the effects of solitary confinement, or worse, doing nothing at all.
…The light was off but now it’s on. Searching in the ground for a bitter song.
The sun is out, the day is new. And everyone is waiting, waiting on you.
– Beckham Rivera, Holley Law Fellow, National LGBTQ Task Force
As the iron gates to the White House grounds opened at 8:45 on Monday morning, July 13, the assembled group of delegates to the 2015 White House Conference on Aging began joyfully streaming toward the security stations, the preliminary steps in gaining access to the hallowed halls where aging issues and policies for the next 10 years would be discussed.
I was thrilled to be a part of that bedraggled yet excited group – rain had been falling softy on participants as we waited – and I was eager to take my place as one of four* designated LGBTQ delegates to the Conference. As a trans woman activist and an old person (I turned 81 two days after the conference), I felt a special responsibility to give the reality of trans aging – our issues and needs – a high profile.
You have to understand the importance of the White House Conference on Aging to fully appreciate why the 200 of us who were invited to attend viewed this as an opportunity of a lifetime.
The WHCOA is only held every 10 years and is designed to be a guiding element for the Older Americans Act which Congress enacts to provide policies and resources for the care and support of seniors over the coming decade.
So those who are currently old and in need of care as well as those who will be reaching that touchpoint over the next 10 years will be counting on the OAA to provide direction and financial support to their local senior care agencies and organizations.
Shortly after the sessions began, we were honored by the presence of President Barack Obama. The audience was delighted by the visit and his presentation focused on the progress that has been made in providing critical services and care to seniors and the work that needs to be done to preserve and strengthen the key elements of that progress – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
The day was packed with panels: some large, some small; some long, some short; some really good, some only fair; but most of the information was valuable and translatable to our work on aging issues.
The format of the day’s schedule, however, didn’t lend itself to the kind of interaction and dialogue that many of us had looked for and expected. If panels ended their session with time to spare, there was an opportunity for questions or comments. – but most sessions ran long and there were only a few chances for audience response..
We did have an opportunity to address the need for culturally competent training for senior caregivers around LGBTQ seniors’ issues and needs. A member of our delegation, Sandy Warshaw, a lesbian activist from New York, was able to articulate the need for the Older Americans Act to require training of senior care providers around the particular concerns and fears of LGBTQ old people.
Did having four LGBTQ representatives in the audience change the world for our communities? Some. But we were a presence that was new to this gathering and first steps are always followed by more steps.
The unsettling part is that the White House Conference on Aging happens only every 10 years, so progress and dialogue can be fretfully slow.
And, sadly, the Senate re-authorized the Older Americans Act just days after we gathered in DC and that iteration reflected the same elements of the old bill without any acknowledgment of the LGBTQ senior community’s needs.
All of the proposed progressive additions and changes that were included in the OAA version that Senator Bernie Sanders had proposed in 2014 were absent and the existing version of the law was adopted with no consideration of our communities. Whether the House of Representatives will even consider the bill is questionable.
So the White House Conference on Aging was not the revolutionary gathering that some of us would have hoped for. But we were a LGBTQ presence and our community was acknowledged during the sessions. Now we look forward to the next steps to build on the fact that the needs and concerns of LGBTQ seniors were at least on the lips and minds of some of the others in the room.
For myself, the opportunity to be in that gathering was a significant step forward in a march to equality that is maddeningly slow for LGBTQ seniors. Too many of us are currently living in apprehension and isolation, and those who will be joining that aging constituency over the coming years and will come with different expectations – and demands – than their current “Silent Generation” cohort.
Our work must continue: there is no other option for justice.
by Barbara Satin, Assistant Faith Work Director, National LGBTQ Task Force
1913 Since 1913, the federal income tax system has incorporated credits and deductions that incentivize marriages and families. So what does this mean for members of the LGBTQ community, who often can’t form legal ties to their family members? Although recent court cases have attempted to include members of the LGBTQ community, many are unable to access the benefits all other Americans freely enjoy. Because tax is confusing and because there are many questions and little access to information about tax for LGBTQ people, here are some tips!
1948 In 1948, married opposite-sex couples were allowed to add together their incomes and file a tax return jointly. It took 65 years for same-sex couples to receive this benefit, when the IRS ruled that legally married same-sex couples would be treated as married for federal tax purposes, regardless of which state they live in. Now, with the recent Supreme Court decision striking down bans on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional, same-sex marriages must be recognized nationwide. Unfortunately, this still leaves out couples in registered domestic partnerships, civil unions, and other relationships. State and federal governments refuse to recognize these relationships as deserving of the same benefits and protections as those surrounding marriage.
1975 In 1975, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) was created to help working low-income families, and it has become one of our country’s greatest tools in reducing poverty. In 2013 alone, it lifted over 6.5 million people out of poverty. EITC is especially important in the LGBTQ community because we are much more likely to live at or near the poverty line than the general population.
- Transgender individuals are four times more likely than the general population to have a household income of less than $10,000/year and twice as likely to be unemployed.
- LGBTQ women are among the most at risk of poverty in the US. About 30% of bisexual women and 23% of lesbian women live in poverty, compared to 21% of heterosexual women.
- Women of color in same-sex couples are two to three times more likely to live in poverty than white women in same-sex couples.
Unfortunately, many LGBTQ people are still denied access to these benefits simply because of who we are and who we love. Because only married couples can receive these benefits, couples in other types of relationships are intentionally disqualified. Also, because LGBTQ people often have difficulty forming legal relationships to their children, they may lose out on thousands of dollars of EITC.
1976 In 1976, the Child and Dependent Care Credit was established, which allows working families to claim credits for a portion of their child care expenditures, and in 1997, the Child Tax Credit was passed, which helps families offset the costs of child-rearing. Opposite-sex parents have received thousands of dollars a year from the federal tax system to help with child-rearing costs, while same-sex parents are continually excluded. In order to claim these tax benefits, the child must be the taxpayer’s child or stepchild. A majority of states, however, have barriers that restrict same-sex parents from adopting children. Since most states do not have specific laws indicating whether same-sex couples may adopt, states give agencies the power of discretion, which often leads to them refusing same-sex joint adoptions. Some states do not allow unmarried couples to adopt, so people in same-sex relationships often have to adopt as a single parent.
1997 The Adoption Credit was also added in 1997 to allow families to receive a tax credit for legal costs and other costs incurred from raising an adopted child. This benefit, however, is inaccessible for same-sex parents who adopt their spouse’s child. Consequently, many same-sex couples postpone marriage plans and are barred from receiving the same federal tax benefits opposite-sex parents receive.
It’s pretty clear that these tax benefits and credits are an amazing way to help families in financial crises. However, the federal tax system, benefiting those in so-called “traditional” marriages and families, still serves mostly opposite-sex couples and their families. There are over 1,000 benefits, rights, and protections in federal law afforded to married people. But those who can’t and don’t participate in this traditional notion of family and marriage are effectively punished for failing to conform to the stereotypical notions of family. It’s time to start seeing LGBTQ families as contemporary families – families that matter.
So what are some ways we can improve the federal tax system to better serve LGBTQ people? Here are some ideas:
- Focus on the parenting relationships between same-sex parents and children rather than their legal relationships, and allow same-sex parents claim their children
- Open up the option to file jointly for couples that are not legally married
- Allow younger same-sex couples without children to receive EITC benefits
Feel free to comment with any other ideas!
To get involved, visit: http://www.queerourtaxes.org/
For more information about taxes for LGBTQ, check out this fact sheet!
By National LGBTQ Task Force Holley Law Fellow Taissa Morimoto
Every Monday, I look over my budgets and make sure I’m on track for the month. I check in with myself to make sure that my needs and wants were met; did I have enough to eat, did I take time to see friends, is my house still comfortable and safe? I wonder if I can spend a little less money on subway rides by walking and riding my bike more. If I have a little extra, I move some money to my savings account. As I’ve gotten deeper into a relationship and our finances have started intermingling more, budgeting has gotten more complex. Now instead of just worrying about my own finances, budgeting has become a conversation between my girlfriend and me about our values and the sacrifices we’re willing to make.
Every summer, Congress goes through a similar process — only instead of considering the needs and financial resources of two people, they’re talking about three hundred million people and four trillion dollars. The process starts in February when the President submits a proposed budget to Congress. Congress responds with a budget resolution that sets spending ceilings for the upcoming year. Next, Appropriations Committees in both the House and the Senate meet to hammer out the details of the budget and create bills that they report to the full chamber for a floor vote.
Out of the 12 appropriations bills that need to be acted upon, few have made it to a floor vote yet. Though the House has passed six and moved another four through committee, the Senate hasn’t passed any of the nine bills that have been reported by the Appropriations Committee. Republicans have sought more budget cuts while at the same time, Democrats are refusing to pass bills that don’t exceed sequestration caps — spending levels that were created by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and triggered in 2013 when Congress could not agree to a plan to reduce the federal deficit.
While sequestration helps reduce the deficit, it leaves gaping holes in education, healthcare, and community services. The $153 billion for the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Spending Bill that has been approved by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees represents $3.6 billion less than the amount spent last year and $14.5 billion less than the President’s proposed budget. Both chambers are approving less funding, yet numbers from the Senate tend to be drastically lower. For example, while the government spent $3.62 billion on substance abuse and mental health in 2015, the Senate bill proposes a $160 million cut in these services. With studies showing that queer and trans people are more likely to experience mental health issues including depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and are at increased risk for suicide, federal funding for these services is critical to our well-being.
Both the House and the Senate are also seeking cuts in refugee and entrant assistance; while the government spent $1.56 billion in 2015, the House has proposed a budget of $1.43 billion and the Senate has proposed a budget of $1.41 billion. Among other things, this funding provides shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children and support for survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking, many of whom are LGBTQ. Parents of young children may find certain services to be less accessible next year. Both the House and Senate bills propose small increases in Head Start funding — $8.8 billion and $8.7 billion, respectively, compared to the $8.6 billion allocated in 2015. However, these increases will not cover the increase in cost of living in 2016. According to the Senate minority appropriations staff, this deficit represents 12,000 fewer spaces for children in Head Start.
The appropriations bills do contain some good news for queer and trans communities. The Senate Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Bill has earmarked $40 million for comprehensive homeless and runaway youth services. Young queer and trans people are more likely to experience homelessness than the general population, so many members of our community will benefit from this new funding. A small change in the language regarding syringe policy opens up a channel for funding and may make clean needles more accessible to more people. With inaccessible healthcare forcing some trans people to use street hormones and LGBTQ youth intravenous drug use at a higher rate than the general population, clean needles can help keep more of us healthy.
If budgeting as one-half of a relationship has taught me more about my values and priorities, then looking at Congress’s budget can tell us a whole lot about where the country’s values are. Cuts in spending that will make healthcare, education, and childcare less accessible to those of us who need them most show how much work is left to do to advocate for those who need those services — particularly immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ people. At the same time, a more liberal syringe policy and millions of dollars to support homeless youth should be celebrated as victories for some of our most marginalized community members.
by Laura Wooley, National LGBTQ Task Force Holley Law Fellow
On Friday, June 26, at 9:59am I was still planning to watch the NYC Pride March that weekend as a spectator along the two mile parade route. By 10:01am, I decided I didn’t just want to watch the march, I wanted to be a part of it. In those two passing minutes, I heard the news of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges ruling marriage equality as the law of the land. I couldn’t miss out on a chance to be a part of history.
By Sunday, June 28, the day of PrideFest, my friends and I arrived at 36th Street and 5th Ave. to march with the Goldman Sachs contingent. This was not my first year marching, but it was the first year Goldman Sachs marched in NYC Pride. This was a testament to how far industries and businesses have come since the conception of the march following the Stonewall Inn Riots in 1969.
Marching down 5th Ave. is unlike any experience. New York is a crowded place to begin with, but on this day, the streets were filled with thousands of people walking and dancing along 5th Ave., and thousands more lining the streets to cheer the marchers going by.
At several points throughout the March announcers declare the organization walking through. Right before we turned unto Christopher Street, the street housing the landmark Stonewall Inn, one announcer asked our group, “Now, who here identifies as a member of the LGBT community?” A loud roar erupted from our contingent. The next question he asked, “Who here identifies as an ally?” Another shout from our crowd. At that point, the announcer said, “See it doesn’t matter!” We were all celebrating a great moment in the history of the LGBT community and of our nation.
The cheers of love and equality get louder with each step along the March route culminating in the thunder of applause and happiness along Christopher Street. There sure was a lot to celebrate this year! It was truly wonderful to celebrate marriage equality amongst millions of people sharing messages of love and hope. When the march ended and the cheers quieted, one of my friends turned to me and asked if my internship at the National LGBTQ Task Force would end now. I assured her I would be hard at work the next day.
The LGBTQ movement took a leap forward with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on same-sex marriage. Many more steps however need to be taken for full lived LGBTQ freedom, equality and justice for all. People can still be fired from their workplace for who they are and who they love, particularly in the 28 states without sexual orientation non-discrimination protections and the 31 states without gender identity and expression non-discrimination protections. LGBTQ folks regularly face housing discrimination, especially LGBTQ people of color. Affordable health care is still not accessible for many LGBTQ people, including reproductive health care. Transgender people regularly face cruel injustices from being profiled by police, to facing sexual assault in prisons and detention centers, to hate-motivated murder—particularly transgender women of color.
We won marriage, and now we need more. I can’t wait till next year to celebrate the next year of victories for our community and our nation.
by Meaghan Annett, National LGBTQ Task Force Communications Intern
On Friday, June 26, following the marriage equality decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important ruling regarding sentencing for people who have committed felonies. This ruling could potentially reduce sentences for thousands of people who were convicted unconstitutionally.
In a 7-1 decision on Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down a provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, ruling it unconstitutionally vague. This provision arbitrarily lengthens sentencing times for people who have been convicted of three or more “violent felonies,” which the provision defines as crimes that “present a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” Many courts around the country have long debated the precise meaning of the language. Over the years, the Supreme Court had to rule on whether certain crimes fell into this definition of a violent felony because lower courts had no guidance on how to interpret the language. Finally, the Supreme Court struck down the provision because of its vagueness.
As states increasingly move towards use of for-profit prisons, this decision is crucial in reminding our country about what is most important – peoples’ lives and freedom. Often, these for-profit prisons are contracted by the government to keep prisons filled. This leads to forcefully funneling people into the prison system and imposing longer sentencing, regardless of actual crime rates. The Federal Bureau of Prisons pays for-profit prison corporations billions of dollars a year to hold people in prisons and these corporations seek to increase incarceration rates and sentencing periods in order to make more profit. It is unfair and unjust and it disproportionately affects the lives of marginalized groups of people. This ruling is a big win for us. Now that this provision is deemed unconstitutional, we can keep pushing forward the fight to end for-profit prison systems and the fight for justice.
by Taissa Morimoto, National LGBTQ Task Force Holley Law Fellow
I think Justice Ginsburg said it best when she said, “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Justice Ginsburg invoked this metaphor in her dissent opposing the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which stripped from the 1965 Voting Rights Act one of its most powerful protections. With that decision, the Court shredded voter protections from a pivotal piece of civil rights legislation.
For background, in Shelby County v. Holder the Supreme Court ruled Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. Section 4 laid out the test used by the Department of Justice to determine which states were required to obtain preclearance (outlined in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act) for any changes to their election law. The intent of this test was to identify states that had previously instituted discriminatory voting practices and to safeguard voting rights in those states. The states that were identified by this test included Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and certain areas of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota. These states and areas were required to get permission from the Department of Justice before implementing any electoral law changes. The Department of Justice preclearance authority was able to quash discriminatory practices before they had a chance to begin. Following Shelby, states are now free to do as they please with their voting laws and this has erected voting access barriers for many of our most vulnerable communities.
That is why on Thursday June 25, the National LGBTQ Task Force was present in Roanoke, VA to stand in solidarity with over 400 people gathered in the home district of Chairman Goodlatte to demand that he schedule a hearing on restoring the Voting Rights Act before the House Judiciary Committee.
Over 40 organizations were in attendance at the rally, and while we all had different missions, we were all able to unite together around the continued need to secure our democracy by demanding equality in our voting rights. While Shelby may have opened the door to numerous attempts to keep minority and low-income voters away from the polls, the story is not over. As advocates we are uniting and demanding that our constitutionally-guaranteed right to vote be protected. The Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was introduced the day before the rally, is a key piece of legislation that will restore voter protections that were stripped out by Shelby and ensure that all our voices are heard.
by Amanda Naranjo, National LGBTQ Task Force Law Fellow