Photography by Ani Ucar for L.A. Weekly
In an excellent longform feature story, L.A. Weekly's invites readers into a segregated wing of the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail, which houses gay and transgender inmates separately from the general population. The in-depth report offers unprecedented access to K6G, the 400-bed dormitory where inmates perceived to be gay or transgender are housed while detained at the downtown jail. Most impressively, L.A. Weekly's Ani Ucar was allowed to bring a video camera into the jail and obtained on-camera interviews with several inmates, including a transgender woman who goes by the name Yah Yah.
The Weekly's video reveals a relatively peaceful dorm that provides a sharp contrast to the racial, gang, and drug violence that's common in general prison populations, even noting that some straight men attempt to get placed in K6G because it is considered less dangerous than being house with the general population.
To "weed out impostors," the Weekly reports, deputies will ask incoming inmates to name local gay bars, then ask increasingly difficult or specific questions to determine whether the inmate is in fact involved in LGBT culture on the outside. Occupants of K6G are given light blue prison jumpsuits to distinguish them from the general population and are escorted by an officer whenever they are outside the wing.
As a result, violence is much less frequent in K6G than in other dorms, though it does still occur. And, as the Weekly notes, "at the end of the day it's still jail."
"A jail is a jail -- it's a violent, and desperate, and cold and miserable place," Duncan Roy, a gay British filmmaker who was held in K6G ward for 89 days in 2012, and saw deputies openly mistreat gay and trans inmates during his detention, told the Weekly. "Where there is that terrible cruelty inflicted on everyone, people find ways of dealing with it."
While the segregation of gay and transgender inmates is controversial, the Weekly notes that even those who oppose such efforts acknowledge that sometimes it's the only way to keep gay and trans inmates safe from the violence that plagues many prison populations.
Andrew Extein, executive director of the Center for Sexual Justice in Washington, D.C., told the Weekly that the county's screening system is "an attempt to understand the gay community, but it's oversimplified. ... The screening process is not correct -- but I also don't know a better alternative off the top of my head."
Last month, gay and transgender inmates at West Valley Detention Center in San Bernadino, Calif., filed a federal lawsuit alleging mistreatment in their own "alternative lifestyle tank," where the inmates allege they were not only segregated from the general population, but denied access to rehabilitation programs and outdoor exercise, and forced to eat meals in solitary confinement.
Nevertheless, jails throughout the country struggle with how to protect inmates who are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual assault while incarcerated. As L.A. Weekly explains:
"MCJ's gay wing was set up in response to a 1985 ACLU lawsuit, which aimed to protect homosexual inmates from a higher threat of physical violence than heterosexuals faced. But something unexpected has happened. The inmates are safer now, yes. But they've surprised everyone, perhaps even themselves, by setting up a small and flourishing society behind bars. Once released, some re-offend in order to be with an inmate they love. There are hatreds and occasionally even severe violence, but there is also friendship, community, love -- and, especially, harmless rule-bending to dress up like models or decorate their bunks, often via devious means."
Notably, the gay and trans wing at L.A. County Men's Central Jail provided the inspiration for the 2013 prison drama K-11, starring Kate Del Castillo as a transgender inmate and leader of her dorm, alongside ER's Goran Visnjic. Judging by the Weekly's video, it seems Del Castillo's character could have been based on an inmate similar to Yah Yah, who, the Weekly notes, has now been released.