LGBTQ Youth and Adults in the Prison System: Mitigating Harms and Advocating for Alternatives
LGBTQ youth and adults generally, and transgender people of color particularly, are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system, and often encounter humiliating indignities and violence when incarcerated. GLAD hears from hundreds of LGBTQ prisoners every year who are facing conditions most of us cannot begin to imagine. We’re committed to doing what work we can, along with partners like Prisoners Legal Services (PLS) and Black and Pink, to mitigate those harms, and to bring a more fair and humane approach to our criminal justice system.
GLAD’s advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ adults and youth in the criminal justice system includes litigation as well as legislative advocacy, policy consultation, and working in coalition with community partners.
GLAD attorneys advise and consult with advocates throughout the country who are working to advance legislation similar to laws passed last year in both Massachusetts and Connecticut to ensure proper placement and medical treatment for transgender people incarcerated in state prison facilities. Transgender Rights Project Director Jennifer Levi also sits as the Attorney General’s appointee to the Commonwealth’s Special Commission to study the health and safety of LGBTQI people incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons and jails, a commission created as a result of the new Massachusetts law.
As part of the Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement coalition (MASC), we are currently building on past gains by supporting “An Act Relative to the Collection of Data on LGBTQI Prisoners Held In Restrictive Housing,” which would collect voluntarily-disclosed data on LGBTQ people and victims of sexual violence placed in solitary confinement and create policies and procedures for collecting that data in consultation with community stakeholders, among other provisions.
“Solitary confinement restricts an inmate to a cell for up to 22 hours a day, exacerbating psychological and emotional harm for LGBTQ prisoners and limiting their access to medically necessary healthcare,” says GLAD Staff Attorney Allison Wright. “Yet, LGBTQ inmates are placed in restrictive housing more frequently than the general population, often, supposedly, for their own protection. Collecting this data will help us ensure that the exclusions on restrictive housing for LGBTQ people that were written into the new criminal justice reform law are being enforced and that people aren’t being unnecessarily isolated because they are LGBTQ.”
We are also a member of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition (JJRC), The criminal justice reform bill passed last year included important reforms like raising the minimum age at which a young person can be involved in the system from 7 to 12 (further efforts “raise the age” continue), and a narrow expungement statute that allows some offenses to be erased from one’s juvenile record. GLAD is supporting a bill in the current legislative session to expand the types of offenses that can be expunged.
In the meantime, we are working with Greater Boston Legal Services and other coalition groups to ensure legal support is available to those who may benefit from the new expungement law and statutes that allow the sealing of juvenile records. We held workshops in January to educate the LGBTQ community on how to take advantage of the new provisions, outreach that will continue throughout the year.
GLAD is also supporting two other key bills in Massachusetts this session to help prevent LGBTQ youth from being needlessly caught up in the juvenile system:
- “An Act Improving Juvenile Justice Data Collection,” which would create a mechanism to collect basic, non-identifying statistical data on youth at each key point of contact in the justice system and make it public.
- “An Act Relative to Consensual Adolescent Sexual Activity,” which would decriminalize consensual sexual relationships between young people who are close in age.
In Maine, GLAD is continuing our efforts with community partners, including Maine Inside Out and Portland Outright, to induce reforms at, and the development of community-based alternatives to, the juvenile prison Long Creek Youth Development Center, following the death by suicide of a transgender resident and subsequent revelations of harmful and unsafe conditions, abuse of LGBTQ youth and overall mismanagement.
GLAD’s representation of youth at Long Creek has expanded to robust legislative advocacy. GLAD is supporting the effort to study how to close the youth prison and repurpose the funding to community-based programs and services and programs through the Department of Health and Human Services. GLAD and partners are also seeking reforms to bring fewer people into the criminal system at all. A bill filed by Rep. Victoria Morales would establish a minimum age of jurisdiction at 12 years since younger children – who may be reading chapter books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid at this stage of their lives – are neither culpable in the same way as adults nor competent to handle criminal legal proceedings. The bill also sets 14 as the minimum age for incarceration, creates a presumption against incarcerating youth, and requires regular judicial review of youth with court appointed attorneys for indigent youth to move them from jail into less restrictive placements where they can develop and gain the life skills they will need as adults.
“The research shows what I’ve seen first hand: Incarceration is traumatic and devastating to the healthy development of children and adolescents,” says GLAD Civil Rights Project Director Mary L. Bonauto. “GLAD is committed to appropriate diversion from the criminal justice system, ending the pathways to prison from foster care and residential treatment centers and from schools, and to a better future for LGBTQ youth from all walks of life and all identities.“