By THOM SENZEE
LGBT youth have enough trouble adjusting to life in what is still, for lack of a better term, “a straight man’s world.” But for LGBT youth in custody, the world is often a supremely frightening place.
“There is a significant portion of LGBTI juveniles in custody who are there for what we can call survival crimes,” explains Lorie Brisbin, a program specialist with the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).
“In many cases, these are kids who have been kicked out of their homes by their families simply because of their particular orientation, be that lesbian, gay or what have you.”
Made homeless by their parents as adolescents or as teenagers, and forced to face a tough world on their own with no basic tools for living—such as work experience or identification cards—some LGBT youth turn to petty crimes in order to survive. Survival crimes range from stealing food from grocery stores to prostitution and burglary.
In fact, merely being a homeless minor after 10 p.m. amounts to a violation of curfew laws, not to mention truancy if they cannot stay in school after becoming homeless.
Of course, some homeless youth turn to more serious crimes. Regardless of how they end up in custody, LGBT juveniles find themselves in a system that is only now beginning to recognize that there is a difference in needs compared to their heterosexual counterparts that corrections officials must know in order to keep them safe and well.
“Corrections is a very closed system,” Brisbin said. “There is a lot of education that needs to go on in helping staff feel comfortable with certain issues.”
Two specific issues that could be considered the meat and potatoes of the over-arching problem of how to safely and healthfully manage LGBT juvenile inmates are isolation and gender-appropriate placement.
Getting those two issues right, according to experts, builds a foundation where both juveniles in custody and corrections staff are safer than they would be otherwise.
“For instance, if you have a gay male who is not willing to hide who he is—and most are more than willing to hide—the way it used to work, staff were traditionally going to isolate you for your own protection,” explained Laura Garnette, deputy chief probation officer at Santa Clara County, Calif. Juvenile Detention Division.
“But the courts have said that’s unconstitutional. And actually I say to them, corrections staff, that’s your job. It’s not the juvenile’s job to keep himself safe; that’s what you’re getting paid to do. You’re making them do your job by putting them in isolation.”
According to OJJDP’s Brisbin, Garnette’s employer is a model of safety, efficacy and ethical management of LGBT and intersex juveniles in custody.
“Santa Clara County is phenomenal,” Brisbin told the Washington Blade. “It starts with their perspective, looking at their policies and making their environment safer and more welcoming.”
“More welcoming” might sound like an odd phrase to use when talking about incarceration. But it is important to remember, according to Brisbin, as well as Deputy Chief Probation Officer Garnette and other corrections professionals the Blade spoke to in researching this story; juvenile detention is mandated to rehabilitate rather than simply punish, as is often the case in adult corrections systems.
“Santa Clara probation has worked hard to redefine juvenile corrections,” said Brisbin, speaking by phone from her office at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. “Now, when a youthful offender who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex comes in, they are processed much differently, providing the best possible outcome for the general population and the staff.”
But it is not necessarily easy to bring change to the corrections establishment.
“You want to watch something entertaining, just tell a group of unenlightened corrections workers that they need to put a male-to-female transgender offender into housing with girls,” Santa Clara County’s Garnette said. “You’d think you had just told them the most hilarious or outlandish thing anyone ever said.”
Nowadays all youthful offenders in Santa Clara County are processed into and counseled within custody in a manner that is both neutral in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“For instance, I might ask a male inmate if he has a girlfriend or if he has a boyfriend,” explains Garnette. “He might respond, ‘why would you ask me if I have a boyfriend; what do you think I am a fucking faggot?’”
“And then, of course, I respond, ‘well, why wouldn’t I ask? You could have either. How would I know which? There are plenty of gay young men who don’t fit stereotypes.’”
According to Garnette, that response safely opens the door for an honest answer if the youth is gay, while also planting a seed of tolerance if he is straight.
Santa Clara County neither isolates LGBT juvenile inmates individually, nor places them together in separate groups. Instead, officials and detention staff work with vigilance by observing and counseling all inmates to prevent physical altercations and eliminate bullying in real time—on the floors of housing units in its detention centers, 24/7.
“Isolation is not the solution,” Garnette said. “It’s our job to keep these kids safe by using our words, our eyes and our ears. Yes, it’s hard work, but simply isolating them is lazy and injurious. If you can’t do the job of keeping gay kids safe in the general population, then I’m sorry; get a different job.”
According to OJJDP’s Brisbin, a new vigor arrived in the juvenile corrections profession when, in 2012, the Justice Department issued national standards for ensuring that detention facilities conform to the 2003, “Prison Rape Elimination Act” (PREA) for the first time.
Among a litany of guidelines announced by Attorney General Eric Holder was a mandate to “incorporate unique vulnerabilities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and gender nonconforming inmates into training and screening protocols.”
Brisbin organizes workshops for corrections officials and juvenile detention facilities workers around the nation. Her training sessions are designed to introduce technical tools to help realize the promise of PREA, which is an end to rape and sexual abuse behind bars.
“For example PREA calls for changes in language that has been used in facilities in the past,” Brisbin said. “We talk about respectful communications—how do you do it and still get the kind of behavior you need for conformity in a locked-down situation.”
According to her, the words once used recklessly by officials at juvenile lockdowns can actually incite abuse.
“But words can also help prevent violence,” she said. “If you have a verbally disrespectful environment, that can be very, very unsafe. Don’t use terms that are inherently offensive. For instance, it used to be respectful to use the term hermaphrodite; that’s no longer seen as acceptable to use.”
Transgender and intersex youth in custody face particularly tough circumstances finding their places in detention settings. However well intentioned, detention-facility staff with varying levels of education can find the task of helping transgender, questioning and intersex youth safely fit in at “juvie” quite daunting.
Consider the latter of those three categories of youth: The Intersex Society of North America says the complexity of intersexuality makes it a subjective issue—albeit with real biological (i.e., chromosomal and genitalia-related) aspects.
“[Intersexuality] is a socially constructed category that reflects real biological variation,” reads the introductory statement on the group’s homepage. “To better explain this, we can liken the sex spectrum to the color spectrum. There’s no question that in nature there are different wavelengths that translate into colors most of us see as red, blue, orange, yellow. But the decision to distinguish, say, between orange and red-orange is made only when we need it—like when we’re asking for a particular paint color…”
When even experts and advocates admit that making gender distinctions among intersex persons can be similar to knowing the difference between burnt-orange and maroon-rust, how is a juvenile hall counselor working the graveyard shift in a Midwest suburb supposed to know how to refer to an intersex juvenile inmate?
The answer, according both Brisbin and Garnette, is surprisingly simple—let the individual inmate decide. They say the same rule applies to transgender youth in custody.
“The very worst thing you can do is call a transgender girl ‘he’ or ‘him,’” she said. “Not only can that lead to violence from other inmates, which puts the staff in danger as well as the kids in the facility, but it’s emotionally violent. It does real harm.”
Garnette, who is a lesbian, entered the corrections field at the end of the 1980s.
“It was about as different then compared to today as you can imagine,” she said. “This is an exciting time to be working in this field. In the past 10 years we have seen a change to evidence-based policies and procedures that wasn’t there before.”
According to Garnette, there was a time in her early career when she had bosses whose approaches to juvenile corrections were strictly tough for sake of toughness, or more permissive simply for the sake of permissiveness.
“Either way, it wasn’t about using research for evidence-based outcomes,” she said. “Now it’s exactly the opposite; that’s just what we do.”
Ten years ago it might have been impossible for Mark Seymour, a former inmate who served time in prison for a drug offense, to work with leading practitioners and researchers in the juvenile corrections field.
“When I got out of prison in 2010, I knew I wanted to do something to make it better for LGBT youth in custody because I know first-hand how bad things like being put in isolation—just because you happen to be gay—can be,” Seymour told the Blade. “It took everything I had within me to not lose my mind in isolation.”
Seymour is the first fellow at the National Center for Youth in Custody. He is currently helping implement a pilot program to disseminate the fast-growing body of evidence-based knowledge about how to better meet the stated missions of juvenile corrections facilities: rehabilitating youthful offenders.
“The exciting thing is that a big part of this new push to bring scholarship, research and practical knowledge about what works is a focus on LGBTI kids,” explains Seymour. “The youth of our community, for the first time, are part of the conversation.”