News Archive

LA County Jail’s Effort to Reduce Sexual Assault Riddled with Flaws

Professor Russell Robinson
Professor Russell Robinson

By Andrew Cohen

In an upcoming California Law Review (CLR) article, Berkeley Law Professor Russell Robinson reveals major flaws in a Los Angeles County jail program that purports to protect inmates from sexual assault. The program, known as “K6G,” separates homosexual inmates from the general population; but that practice is “discriminatory and ineffective,” according to Robinson. He says it leaves the most vulnerable men unprotected.

The K6G unit is segregated by sexual orientation; only gay-identified men and transgender women are eligible for housing in the unit to shield them from assault. In sharp contrast to proposed federal regulations on prison rape, the L.A. jail bars heterosexual and bisexual men from K6G—no matter how vulnerable they may be due to youth, slight build, disability, or other traits.

“The policy offends constitutional principles by branding gay and transgender inmates as targets for violence,” Robinson said. “It also implies that heterosexual and bisexual men should ‘man up’ and protect themselves from violence instead of looking to the jail for protection. This reinforces troubling social assumptions about masculinity, including the notion that gay men aren’t ‘real men.’”

K6G is the jail’s main effort to quell prison violence among the unit’s roughly 300 inmates. But Robinson’s interviews with former inmates and staff members at the Center for Health Justice, who provide HIV-related services for the jail, revealed stories of gay and transgender inmates being subject to routine humiliation, abuse, and harassment.

Robinson’s article, “Masculinity as Prison: Sexual Identity, Race, and Incarceration,” was published in the October issue of the law review. Former CLR Senior Articles Editor Camille Pannu ’11, the main editor of Robinson’s piece, called his research “cutting-edge and extremely significant.” She praised its sophisticated analysis of how law and legal institutions can define, reify, and exclude vulnerable populations—even when protection is the primary goal.

“The law review prides itself on identifying and publishing transcendental legal scholarship before the legal academy realizes that new scholarly movements are taking hold,” Pannu said. “Professor Robinson’s article is both a bellwether and iconoclastic—it shatters traditional understandings of LGBT identity and the prison system, while advancing a new legal framework for understanding intersectional identities.”

On Nov. 18, CLR and the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy will co-host a lunchtime event entitled "Sex and the State: Governmental Coercion of Sexual and Racial Identities." Robinson and four other prominent scholars will use his article as a platform for a broader discussion about government’s role in enforcing narrow conceptions of race, sex, and gender.

Symptomatic of a Larger Problem

The article corroborates a recent American Civil Liberties Union report that violence permeates LA’s overcrowded jail. The FBI and DOJ are now investigating the problem and invited Robinson to testify before a DOJ review panel on prison rape and sexual victimization in September.

During his research, Robinson interviewed Deputy Bart Lanni, head of the K6G unit, who screens inmates to determine whether they are gay. “He was incredibly candid and seemed confident the system was good for gay and transgendered people,” Robinson said. “Talking to him revealed how the jail and general society view gay men as weaker than straight men and don’t perceive any real diversity among gay men.”

The K6G rigid sexual-orientation rule ignores the fact that all men can be vulnerable to sexual assault, says Robinson. “Lanni admitted that a straight man who had been raped in jail would not be eligible for the K6G unit,” says Robinson, “while a man believed to be gay would be admitted even if he were strong, experienced, and fully able to protect himself.”

Robinson also asserts that the jail’s method for identifying sexual orientation wrongly assumes that all gay men will come out to jail staff during the intake process, despite close proximity to other inmates and no privacy protections.

“Blacks and Latinos aren’t as likely to come out, particularly in that kind of setting, for several cultural reasons. Because they’re not showcasing their sexuality in the program’s approved way, they’re punished by being afforded less protection.”

Other problems include the jail’s reliance on stereotypes for “verifying” gay identity, and making gay men a target for violence by requiring them to wear a lighter color uniform (powder blue) than that worn by the general inmate population (dark blue).

Reform may arrive soon. The Prison Litigation Act created a federal commission that issued recommendations against segregating inmates by sexual orientation, and the Obama administration will soon promulgate regulations about the practice.