CHILDREN IN LOCKDOWN
“Across the United States, the brutal and dysfunctional juvenile justice system sends queer youth to prison in disproportionate numbers, fails to protect them from violence and discrimination while they’re inside and to this day condones attempts to turn them straight,” writes Daniel Redman in a powerful article on LGBT youth behind bars, which appeared last month in The Nation.
LGBT youth reportedly make up 15 percent of the juvenile prison population, and report 12 times as many sexual assaults as straight youth do. In addition to being raped, beaten up, bullied, and shunned, these kids often end up in solitary confinement. Redman writes:
Sending LGBT victims of violence into isolation, instead of punishing their attackers, is common practice across the country, even though a federal court has held the practice to be unconstitutional and the American Psychological Association opposes it. And once the youth are put on lockdown—whether to punish or to protect—they miss out on crucial educational opportunities. In 2006, a bisexual youth in California petitioned the court to be removed from his facility because staff members had kept him in isolation for twenty-three hours a day. At 20 years old, he had missed so much schooling that he was only halfway to his high school diploma.
Besides using isolation to purportedly protect queer youth, guards also use lockdown as punishment. “We had one kid who wouldn’t go to school because he was afraid” of the other youth in the facility, says Wesley Ware [of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana]. And because he was on the mental health unit, a certain amount of social interaction was required as part of his rehabilitation program. For refusing to leave his cell, he was put on lockdown for noncompliance, and his chances for release diminished yet again.
Often, queer youth face as much hostility from prison guards as they do from peers. When a youth faces bullying or violence from another kid, staff can be reluctant to intervene. “The staff views it as [the kid] deserves it, or he’s asking for it—so they don’t intervene or they’ll egg it on,” Ware says. They view it as “good for the kid—gotta teach him and have it beat out of him. Then when the gay kid finally breaks, then he faces the disciplinary consequences.”
Guards are often bullies themselves. Krystal [a transgender teen in Louisiana] reports that staff called her “a disgrace to mankind,” a “punk” or “fucking faggot” on a daily basis and threatened her, saying, “I’ll beat your fucking ass.” When staff called Krystal “faggot” or other names, sometimes she talked back. “Sometimes I would even say, I’m proud to be that,” Krystal says. She would receive more tickets for talking back.
Redman talked to several teens in Louisiana, where the Juvenile Justice Project has just released a comprehensive–and disturbing–report, Locked Up and Out: Youth in Louisiana’s Juvenile Justice System. But as he clearly states, “Antigay policies aren’t just a problem in the Deep South or rural regions.” Nor do prison abuse, rape, and solitary confinement happen only to LGBT kids. As Matt Kelley pointed out yesterday in a post on the subject at Change.org, “The problem of abused LGBT youth in prison forces us to think not only about broader issues of sexual assault in prison, but also on alternatives to locking up juveniles.”
Meanwhile, as the Sentencing Project noted last week, “Three major juvenile justice initiatives remained stalled in the Congress.” One of these is the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which “promotes the use of effective community-based alternatives to detention, keeps youth out of adult facilities, reduces the disproportionate involvement of youth of color in the system, and promotes other research-driven best practices in the juvenile justice system.” Sounds like a good thing, right? Too bad it’s currently three years overdue for reauthorization.