A group of 15 current and former gay, bisexual and trans (GBT) inmates of the San Bernardino County Jail in California have filed a class action lawsuit against the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department.
They accuse the department of discrimination, saying that they were kept locked up for over 22 hours of the day – sometimes only being allowed 30 minutes outside their cells – and denied access to rehabilitation programs.
The lawsuit says that all inmates who identify as gay, bisexual or trans are sent to the jail’s ‘Alternative Lifestyle Tank’ at the West Valley Detention Center [WVDC]. This consists of 16 cells that are separate to the rest of the facility and which can hold up to 32 inmates at any one time.
This particular detention center is the only one in the county that houses self-identified gay, bisexual and trans inmates.
The lawsuit says that the, ‘inmates are not given equal access to opportunities to reduce their sentences, services, programs and facilities, and are often treated in an abusive and neglectful manner. In short, GBT inmates at WVDC serve longer sentences and endure substantially worse conditions of confinement simply because they are gay, bisexual or transgender.
‘Unlike the male, non-GBT general population, sentenced GBT inmates at WVDC are generally not allowed to participate in the inmate work program, and, to the extent they may occasionally have limited access, it is substantially less than that available to non-GBT inmates.’
Among several grievances, the lawsuits also alleges that some staff at the jail have an ‘unwarranted fear of AIDS’ with regards to the GBT inmates, and so ‘do not conduct the required safety checks for GBT cells.’
The inmates also allege that they are ‘regularly subjected to abusive conduct and derogatory name-calling’ by deputies at the jail.
Although acknowledging that some in the penal system consider there to be a ‘rational basis’ for separating inmates, the plaintiffs believe ‘there is no legitimate penological reason to treat GBT inmates worse than non-GBT inmates just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.’
As it is a class action, the lawsuit – which was registered yesterday at the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles – has been filed on behalf of all GBT inmates at the West Valley Detention Center. They are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a local Californian law firm, and are seeking damages for the alleged discriminatory treatment.
‘Gay, bisexual and transgender people housed at West Valley Detention Center are punished twice, first for the crimes the allegedly committed, and again, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,’ said attorney Brenden Hamme of the ACLU to CBS.
‘They’ve been told most frequently that it’s for their own safety, but jails are quite capable and are constitutionally mandated to not only provide for the safety of their charges but to also provide equal access to jail programs and facilities.’
The ACLU has indicated that the outcome of the case could have ramifications for GBT prisoners in the wider California area.
‘What’s happening in San Bernardino County is particularly egregious, but unfortunately, it is not unique,’ another ACLU attorney, Melissa Goodman, told Associated Press.
A spokesperson for the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department said that it does not comment on any matters that are subject to ongoing litigation.