Guest Blogger

Locked Up & Out! New Report Tackles LGBT Youth in the Louisiana Juvenile Justice System

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 02, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: bisexual, criminal justice system, LGBT, louisiana, prison

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.

wesley.jpgVisiting 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.


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Okay, so, what can we do about it?

wiffles red dog | July 4, 2010 1:11 AM

Louisiana is unfortunately way behind in most areas of social justice, not the least of which is its prison systems. People go to prison here who would spend a few weeks in jail and get a year probation for in a more moderate place.

The gay community is trying to get its stuff together but here was Pride last week in the capital city of Baton Rouge. Indoors, at a hotel, attended by about 1500 people (which was excellent) the main sponsor being COX Communications, a church (MCCBR) and a well off gay couple. It was lovely to be out of the 96 degree heat, but there is still no parade. There was also no media coverage except in the newspaper. There were protestors, however, kept outside.

The Governor, Bobby Jindal, has an eye on national office and toes the GOP line tightly. He has advisors from the hate group, Louisiana Family Forum on his Marriage and Family Commission and even the more moderate Baton Rouge Parish Council has problems passing ordinances that welcome the gay community and other minority groups. The influence of the haters is HUGE. This was the first year that Pride Fest got a proclamation from the mayor, who is in his final term. It has come a long ways from a church picnic three years ago but still has a long way to go.

A previous executive order signed by several previous governors that protected state employees from being fired for sexual orientation was not signed by Jindal, ostensibly because, if he did, conservative "christian" groups would not help the state in a natural disaster. THAT WAS HIS REASON (EXCUSE). Jindal says he is a Christian. What is is is Catholic, an adult convert from Hinduism.

As for the juvenile justice system, you have to remember that some of the youth facilities have been just what they appear to be, warehouses, places where kids are kept and are not expected to be rehabilitated. They are expected to get in trouble again and then spend the rest of their lives at Angola. Prisons are a big business in a mostly rural state like Louisiana. They provide good jobs for a lot of people who cannot do anything else, people in rural areas who vote Republican. The alternatives to prison for youth are few and the budgets are constantly being cut in the name of "smaller government".

Much of the gay community is in the closet although Forum For Equality is gradually developing positive associations with legislators and prevented some nasty bills from getting to the floor this year. You would not believe the number of married and formerly married (heterosexually) members of the GLBT community. It is just part of the culture. You get married and have kids, period.

Any help that social justice advocates can provide is needed in Louisiana. There are both racial and sexual orientation issues that need to be dealt with head on and the racial bad words are still common. And that help will tend to affect a lot of the state. Because there are no large cities there won't likely be a liberal donut. However, North Louisiana is more conservative than South and Baton Rouge and New Orleans voted for Obama. Jindal courts the north with industry as much as he can.

So chip away at juvenile justice and then work on the schools. Louisiana is a place where a great deal needs to be done and one that is open to being repaired if the influence of the dominant religion, Roman Catholicism, can be reduced with the truth and the protestant fundies put in their place.

Thanks for guest posting, Wesley. What can we do to help?

Thanks so much for posting and for being interested in this issue! I just figured out how to get notification that folks commented, so apologies for the late reply.

It's true that Louisiana has a long way to go in both juvenile justice reform and LGBT rights. However, LGBT young people across the country are funneled into juvenile court systems. In fact, a report released by The Equity Project documents this stuff nationwide ( http://www.equityproject.org/pdfs/hidden_injustice.pdf )

It often seems that mainstream LGBT organizations are disconnected from what the majority of LGBT people (and in particular, LGBT youth of color) feel are the most critical issues facing them that would have the largest impact on their daily lives. I would like for more LGBT organizations and individuals to challenge what is typically considered an “LGBT issue” and expand our focus to include economic justice, criminal/ juvenile (in)justice, and racial justice.

In fact, as we celebrated Stonewall again this past June, we remember that the movement for LGBT rights was historically rooted in these very issues. More contemporary examples of work at these intersections is the organization Queers for Economic Justice ( http://q4ej.org/ ) or the Seattle coalition to stop the building of a new jail ( http://srlp.org/seattle ) Of course, most of this progressive work is happening in areas outside of the South, but examples also exist in Southern and rural areas. For example, Southerners On New Ground (SONG) ( http://www.southernersonnewground.org ) has made great strides in bringing LGBT people together in the South with similar politics and interests beyond what is typically seen as “LGBT issues.”

To further support this work and the fight for justice for LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system on the local level, LGBT individuals should consider donating to organizations that are advancing causes related to these issues. (You can donate to JJPL’s LGBT Youth Project at http://jjpl.org/new/?page_id=210) Individuals and LGBT organizations should also consider partnering with organizations doing criminal/ juvenile justice reform in their area and encourage them to consider strategies that focus on the disproportionate number of LGBT youth in the system as one strategy to improve the system for all youth.

On the national level, you can:

? Call your U.S. Senators and Representatives and ask them to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), increase funding for alternatives to incarceration for youth, and pass the Youth PROMISE Act. More information and talking points here: http://www.burnsinstitute.org/article.php?id=231

? You can also tell the U.S. Attorney General to adopt the recommended standards to prevent sexual abuse in U.S. detention centers, which disproportionately affect LGBT adults and youth in prison. More info here: http://www.justdetention.org/en/raise_the_bar.aspx

Wow…that was a long comment...sorry for all the rambling and thanks for everyone’s interest in the struggle for justice for our young LGBT brothers and sisters behind bars!