After his own ordeals as a queer prison inmate, Patrick A. Sands has dedicated himself to building a residence for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people when they leave prison — a place, he says, where they can stay and find “love, forgiveness” as they re-enter society. Named for his grandmother — who showed Sands those same qualities — Sands’ House is in the planning stages, reported Duncan Osborne for Gay City News.
Sands was released early from the six-year sentence he received in 2005, but while serving his time, he experienced firsthand the heightened problems that face queer and especially transgender inmates.
As he was headed to criminal court in Manhattan roughly seven years ago, Patrick A. Sands was dressed in a suit with a pink tie. He was handcuffed to another defendant who objected, calling Sands a “faggot” and a “mook.” The other man then punched Sands.
In another incident, Sands was waiting in a cell with another well-dressed defendant. Other defendants ordered them to “sit like a dog or we’re going to cut you.” A corrections officer passed by and took no action.
“I vowed from that day forward that I would do something,” said the 30-year-old Sands. And so he has.
For now, Sands works out of the Bronx-based Osborne Association, a non-profit that helps former offenders, which is the fiscal sponsor of Sands’ House. Sands’ victimization in prison is far from unusual for queer inmates, according to the 2008 National Former Prisoner Survey.
Sexual assaults of queer inmates are a serious problem in prisons. The 2008 National Former Prisoner Survey of state inmates found that 39 percent of gay male inmates reported having been sexually assaulted by another inmate, and 12 percent said prison staff assaulted them; 34 percent of the male bisexual inmates reported sexual assaults by inmates, and 18 percent said they victimized by staff; and 18 percent of bisexual female inmates said they had been assaulted as did 13 percent of lesbian inmates. Reported assaults by male and female heterosexual inmates ranged from single digits to 13 percent.
Sands’ problems did not end when he left prison. He had no job and no place to live. He felt that the reentry programs he joined did not speak to him as a gay man.
One of Sands’ biggest challenges is identifying and reaching LGBT offenders as they leave the prison system. New York City and State corrections departments do not ask about sexual orientation or gender identity — though Sands has argued that they should — so no data exists on the number of LGBT inmates in New York.
There are queers behind bars. A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice of 499 male and 436 females inmates in a “large Southern state prison system” found that 20 percent identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The questionnaire was self-administered, so it is likely that the 20 percent figure is inflated by more queer inmates choosing to participate.
Asking an LGBT prisoner to reveal themselves to corrections officials could create problems.
“I don’t trust them, but we have to look at the system as a whole,” Sands said, but he needs that data. Sands’ House is part of a coalition that is trying to gather this information.