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Talk contextualizes LGBTQ+ incarceration, prison research

First of three-part series, speakers discuss prison medical testing, hardships faced by LGBTQ+ youth

University professors and students gathered in Friedman Hall to discuss LGBTQ+ youth and their treatment in prisons Wednesday night.

Hosted by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the panel “Equitable Care for the Incarcerated: Perspectives on the Past, Present and Future” also contextualized incarcerated peoples’ often difficult relationship with the medical profession. Part of a three-part series on the impact of incarceration on community, health and wellness, the panel included Assistant Professor of the Practice of Health Services Brad Brockmann ’76, Clinical Instructor in Family Medicine Radha Sadacharan and moderator and former diversity fellow for the Alpert Medical School Ry Garcia-Sampson MD ’19 MPH ’19.

The talk follows the release of “Emerging Best Practices for the Management and Treatment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Intersex Youth in Juvenile Justice Settings,” a guide written by Brockman and other experts out of The Miriam Hospital’s Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights.

The first half of the panel included a talk from Brockmann about the challenges facing LGBTQ+ youth inside and outside of prison. About 40 percent of incarcerated youth designated female at birth identify as LGTBQ+/GNC; about 14 percent of incarcerated youth designated male at birth identify as such, according to a study published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Youth who identify as LGBTQ+/GNC experience higher rates of familial rejection and discrimination by providers of social services, according to Brockmann. “This all translates into high levels of homelessness and out of that environment there is a need to resort to survival crimes: drug use, sales, prostitution, shoplifting,” Brockmann said, which then contributes to higher rates of incarceration.

Prison employees also might not have the proper training or sensitivity to aid the LGTBQ+/GNC community, Brockmann added. “Effective communication means managing respect, correct use of terminology and awareness of one’s biases,” he said.

The 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act required that juvenile detention employees undergo training to ensure effective communication and professionalism. Brockmann said the training can be incredibly effective, and that the PREA itself has been a huge step forward, although he acknowledged that facilities don’t always comply with its mandates.

Brockmann’s talk was followed by a survey of prison research in the last 100 years by Sadacharan.

Noting that there is a “history of medicine taking advantage of prisoners,” Sadacharan described several cases of misconduct. She detailed how physicians in the Philippines accidentally infected and killed prisoners with the bubonic plague when testing treatment for cholera in 1906.

Inhumane testing continued through World War II and into the 1960s, Sadacharan added. Pharmaceutical companies began working closely with prisons to use prisoners in their drug testing trials, and later admitted that incarcerated people were cheaper test subjects than monkeys.

By the 1970s, the U.S. government began regulating inmate testing, and set standards for what sort of tests companies could and couldn’t perform in prisons, Sadacharan said. In today’s world, any research on incarcerated persons must be approved by boards that have representations for inmates, Sadacharan said. However, despite this development, “we understand that prisoners may not be able to make a truly voluntary and uncoerced decision on whether or not to participate as subjects in research,” she said.

Silvana Barbosa, a senior studying at Providence College, said she attended the panel because she found the topic interesting. On a personal level, Barbosa is “a first-generation student with immigrant parents (who has grown up) in a community that’s plagued by poverty and violence,” she said, and added that the talk’s themes resonated with her. “As a health policy major, I have the opportunity to dive in depth into why these problems exist,” she added.

Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Associate Director Steven Bloomfield also attended the event.  Incarceration has become normalized in recent years, he said, and added that he was glad to see campus discourse on the subject.


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