Editors' note: Wesley Ware has been advocating for the rights of incarcerated youth and the creation of community-based alternatives to incarceration since he came to the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) in 2007. He also serves on the Advisory Committee for the Equity Project, a national initiative to ensure that LGBT youth in juvenile delinquency courts are treated with dignity, respect, and fairness.
Visiting incarcerated youth in Louisiana, I am used to hearing bleak stories about young people who struggle daily with isolation, despair, and a lack of support. They come from every corner of the state and are housed together in all-male secure facilities. Intended to "rehabilitate" troubled young men, sometimes these placements do little more than warehouse them.
On my way home from a prison visit, I can usually shake the horrors these young people tell me and use their stories and the inspiration I receive from them to push for larger juvenile justice reform. However, there are some youth whose experiences are harder for me to leave behind, and haunt me long after I have left the prison walls.
Sitting in a youth prison across from a young man I've known for over three years, he finally tells me he often struggles with feelings for other young men. He tells me he thinks there's a word for it, "Bisexual?" He says he hears that there are places in the world where gender and sexuality aren't policed with violence; where people are able to be themselves and that it's ok if you feel this way. But having been housed in a youth prison for the past several years where he witnessed violence, abuse, and even the death of another young man inside the facility, he is unable to imagine such a place where looking at another man wouldn't result in a broken bone.
A new report released by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), Locked Up & Out, shares the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth confined in youth prisons across Louisiana. One youth tells the story of being raped in a youth prison, attempting suicide, and having to fight every day for his safety. Another transgender youth says that she is subjected to constant verbal abuse and harassment from staff.
Recent studies show that an alarming 15% of youth held in juvenile detention centers across the country are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Multiple factors lead these kids into the juvenile justice system, from family rejection or school harassment to homelessness and substance abuse. Further, 80% of youth in juvenile prisons in Louisiana are African American, showing another alarming disparity.
Once inside the walls of the juvenile justice system, LGBT youth often face extreme physical, sexual, and psychological abuse and harassment as well as additional barriers to their release.
Louisiana, a state that previously housed one of the most brutal youth prisons in the country, is known now for its progress transforming the juvenile system into one that rehabilitates youth and seeks to hold them in community-based alternatives to incarceration. However, there is still a long way to go and LGBT youth in the system, often invisible, have been left behind to bear the brunt of a system still in repair.
A 2009 survey of LGBT youth across the country (conducted by the New York organization FIERCE) showed that youth ranked issues that are known feeders into the juvenile justice system as higher priorities than other issues facing them, such as marriage equality. Among the highest ranked issues facing LGBT youth were homelessness, mental health, access to social support services, school safety issues, and police harassment and abuse. While the survey included youth from Georgia, Texas, and South Carolina, it was conducted with little representation from Deep South states (such as Louisiana or Mississippi) as there are virtually no LGBT youth-specific organizations in these areas for surveyors to poll.
However, we can assume that youth in the Deep South region share the same concerns as other youth, possibly even magnified in rural areas where youth have little to no access to LGBT advocacy organizations, peer support groups, or social services competent and equipped to handle the unique issues often faced by LGBT youth. This may be an additional reason that LGBT youth in Louisiana appear to be making up such a disproportionate percentage of youth in juvenile prison.
As LGBT advocates fight for marriage equality, military inclusion, and other issues, we can't forget the plight of LGBT youth who are being funneled into the deep end of the juvenile justice system. While Locked Up & Out focuses on steps Louisiana can take to reform the juvenile justice system for LGBT youth, there are many things LGBT organizations and individuals can do nationwide.
LGBT advocacy organizations should consider expanding their issue base to include tackling those systems which have had a disproportionately negative affect on LGBT youth. LGBT organizations should consider not only engaging with other progressive or social justice organizations (such as those doing juvenile justice reform) to improve conditions in secure facilities that house youth, but also consider ways to engage "at-risk" LGBT young people before they are funneled into the system. In fact, it could be argued that one of the most crucial things LGBT organizations could do as a movement is fight for justice for those at the very bottom, incarcerated LGBT youth in Louisiana, a state known for its legacy of racism as well as discrimination against LGBT people.
Back at the youth prison, the young man across from me tells me he'd really like someone to talk to about all of the confusing, mixed feelings he has. And as a young man who is confined in a secure facility that is supposed to provide him with counseling and programming for his rehabilitation, why shouldn't he be able to talk to someone about this normal part of adolescent development, too?
I ask him if he plans on telling anyone else that he's bisexual. Looking down at the floor, he tells me that while he's tired of hiding, he's afraid someone would kill him if they ever found out; but he'd commit suicide before that could happen anyway. He looks up at me with a desperate face that reminds me, despite all of his struggles, he's still just a kid. He says, "Death before dishonor, ya know?"
You can read the report Locked Up & Out.