typeinvestigations: By Toshio Meronek & Erica R. Meiners; May 23, 2018
Prison-like public hospital systems are disproportionately packed with gay men who remain locked up even after serving their time.
At Coalinga State Hospital, located in a desolate, dusty part of California’s Central Valley, 200 miles north of Los Angeles, 37-year-old Cory Hoch stands out. He’s well liked by other patients, and his dry sense of humor and lively intelligence come across almost immediately. His feathered earring and neon-green sneakers infuse some color into the surroundings, while his khaki scrubs identify him as a patient.
Since the age of 19, Hoch has lived most of his life in some form of cage. He is one of the more than 5,000 people in a hospital system found in 20 states and at the federal level. They are trapped in a post-prison purgatory for those convicted of sex crimes, a system called “civil commitment.” While we found that many people with sex offense convictions are released after their sentences are up, some, like Hoch, serve their time and then are held indefinitely in government-run hospitals, exchanging one form of prison for another.
Under civil commitment, Hoch is supposed to be treated (and held) only until he is considered no longer a “risk to the public,” according to mental health experts contracted by the state. In reality, he may spend the rest of his life locked up. Perhaps more troubling is the overrepresentation of people like Hoch — gay, bisexual, and queer men — who are trapped in this system.
The World’s Gayest Club?
The queerness of civil commitment isn’t news to the people close to the issue. Resident newsletters, media reports of same-sex marriages occurring inside the facilities, estimated and self-reported accounts from people inside, and observations from advocates all point to a disproportionate number of queer men among those locked behind institutional walls.
The March 2010 issue of The Ally, Coalinga’s newsletter produced by and for people in civil commitment, offers a vivid snapshot: “Men have recently taken to walking the halls arm-in-arm,” noted an op-ed. “Lovers are out and about, walking around with their hands in each other’s hip pockets, or just holding hands as they stroll.” Another article references “conservative estimates” by social workers and psychologists pegging Coalinga’s population as 55 to 65 percent gay or bisexual, and 1 percent transgender.
In 2012, the national newsletter for Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, a small national advocacy group for people in civil commitment, surveyed its readership on the “anecdotal trend we have observed that gay men are being disproportionately targeted for civil commitment.” With 80 responses from 11 states, the survey wasn’t scientific or representative, but it found that 11 percent self-identified as gay while another 23 percent stated that they were bisexual.
A 2013 article in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, about the imminent marriage of two male couples at the Moose Lake Treatment Facility of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, quoted one resident who estimated “30 to 35 percent” of residents were in relationships with each other. Enough residents identify as LGBT that in June 2017, Moose Lake held a Pride celebration.
At Larned State Hospital in Kansas, Mark (last name withheld to protect his privacy) estimates that 75 percent of the people at his facility identify as gay or bisexual. Tapatha Strickler, a therapist who worked at Larned between 2012 and 2014, agrees that “homosexuals are overrepresented” at the facility, which she compares to a supermax prison.
- “The library is almost like a gay club” — one where there is no music, touching is forbidden, and everyone wears the same tan hospital uniform.
Michael Bass, until recently confined at the Central New York Psychiatric Center in central New York, said that “well over 50 percent” of CNYPC’s population is out as gay or bisexual. “The library is almost like a gay club,” he says — one where there is no music, touching is forbidden, and everyone wears the same tan hospital uniform.
Anecdotal evidence from civilly committed men, institutional medical staff, and advocates for prison reform suggests an overwhelming bias: Nearly 40 percent are men who have sex with other men (MSM), whether or not they self-identify as gay, bi, or same-gender loving. Compare those numbers to a 2016 Gallup poll, which indicates that only 3.7 percent of American men replied yes when asked, “Do you personally identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?” making the vast numbers of gay and bisexual men in civil commitment even more disproportionate.
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