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Advocating for LGBTQ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

GLAD is engaged in advocacy work across New England to help create safe and affirming communities for LGBTQ young people, and that includes the juvenile justice system. Together with our local partners, we are working hard to reform a system that disproportionately harms LGBTQ youth.

LGBTQ youth, particularly LGBTQ youth of color, are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system due to stereotypes, pervasive stigma, bias, and structural factors. Family rejection, unsupportive schools and discriminatory policing practices contribute to increased interactions between LGBTQ youth and the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Recent research by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) reveals that 20 percent of the youth in seven juvenile detention centers and correctional facilities across the U.S. identify as LGBTQ or gender non-conforming, which is almost three times their estimated number in the general population. And LGBTQ youth of color are disproportionately more likely to be targeted by the juvenile justice system, with Black youth four times as likely as white youth to be incarcerated, and Latinx youth nearly twice as likely as white youth to be incarcerated.

MAP’s research on the experience of LGBTQ youth once they are in the system found that many are placed in prisons without respect for their gender identity or expression. Additionally, youth prisons are often ill equipped to meet the needs of LGBTQ youth and ensure their safety. This puts LGBTQ youth at increased risk for harassment, violence, and sexual assault by other youth and staff.

GLAD is seeing these nationwide trends in focus at Long Creek, a juvenile detention center and prison in Maine, and is deeply engaged in a critical intervention there to support the youth inside. We became involved with Long Creek when we learned that a detained transgender youth died by suicide last November by demanding a thorough and transparent investigation of the youth’s tragic death.

Through our work, we have uncovered that the facility’s conditions do not comply with federal standards. And we have learned that 30 percent of youth in its custody identify as LGBTQ and are at increased risk of harm, facing daily harassment and abuse by staff and other inmates due to their perceived or actual sexual orientation.

GLAD Civil Rights Project Director Mary L. Bonauto and GLAD Senior Staff Attorney Patience Crozier have been deeply involved with the youth in Long Creek and are now representing two young people who are LGBTQ or perceived to be, advocating alongside them for their safety and ultimately their release from Long Creek. Bonauto has been personally visiting Long Creek virtually every week since last November, checking on the facility’s conditions and on our clients.

Two of our clients have become courageous advocates for themselves and other LGBTQ youth in Long Creek. Speaking honestly about the realities of living in a place like Long Creek is part of their advocacy. For example, it is important to them to be referred to as inmates, not residents, an unambiguous message for us all that Long Creek is a prison, cell blocks and all.

Our clients and their peers are remarkably resilient in spite of Long Creek’s harmful environment, thanks in notable part to the support of local organization Portland Outright and Executive Director Osgood.

Operating in Portland since the 1990s, Portland Outright is a youth-driven program that supports underserved LGBTQ+ youth through ongoing mentorship, social events and trainings, as well as intentional support to youth navigating systems, such as the foster care system, homelessness, mental health services, and the juvenile justice system, including Long Creek.

“At the core of Portland Outright has always been young people mobilizing other young people to be at the table about decisions being made in their own lives, supported by a network of adult mentors,” says Osgood.

About five years ago, the organization started focusing on mobilizing low-income LGBTQ young people around gender and racial and economic justice, which drove their work in homeless shelters, residential treatment centers, and eventually Long Creek.

“We’d been working a lot with low-income folks and folks experiencing homelessness,” Osgood says. “One of the things we were hearing was that a lot of them were coming into contact with the juvenile justice system, either going in and out of Long Creek or leaving Long Creek and going straight into homelessness or into residential treatment that was creating further harm.”

To support the LGBTQ youth incarcerated in Long Creek, Portland Outright created Sexuality and Gender Awareness For Everyone (SAFE) Group, a space inside Long Creek where “young people can talk to each other and organize or create the kinds of connections that help them survive the day-to-day while also creating a vision for a more just system for community-based alternatives to incarceration,” Osgood says. “They talk about the conditions of incarceration but also the systems that are funneling LGBTQ young people into incarceration –  the school to prison pipeline, the mental health system, lack of healthcare, homelessness.”

Portland Outright has also collaborated with Maine Inside Out, an organization that uses original theater inside and outside correctional facilities to initiate dialogue and build community across boundaries. A new collaboration between the two organizations involves opportunities to create visual art pieces made by incarcerated LGBTQ youth. An installation of that visual work is part of “Love Is: Alternatives to Incarceration,” a showcase of theater, film, and visual art. The body of work is a catalyst for young people and the outside community “to have conversations about their vision of justice and of the communities they want to live in,” says Osgood.

We are proud to collaborate with Portland Outright and Maine Inside Out to empower and advocate for and with youth and to find solutions for systemic change.

“Getting to know our youth clients over the past year has been a privilege,” says Crozier. “Their strength and resilience in the face of inhumane conditions is inspiring. And, witnessing how community organizations like Portland Outright and Maine Inside Out have supported their voices and empowerment reminds me of how important it is to fight to keep hope and that we can change the systems that care for our youth.”

“Partnering with GLAD has been like coming home to our community in lots of ways,” says Osgood. “To have folks with a legal lens, who show up consistently for our members and are willing to do the community building, as well as the advocacy work, has really been a gift for the movement that we’re building.”

And we are making progress. Earlier this year, one of our clients was released early to after-care. Another of our clients still inside has become a resident leader and has a treatment program that better meets his needs. Our clients contributed their stories and voices in a federal audit process that led to the facility failing to meet federal standards and having to undergo policy and training changes. Maine’s Department of Corrections is in the process of updating their transgender and intersex policy based on our recommendations and continued advocacy.

And just last month, an expert assessment on Long Creek authorized by the Maine Juvenile Justice Advisory Group was released, highlighting problems at Long Creek and providing a roadmap of recommendations for addressing concerns GLAD has raised over the past year. We are working with Portland Outright, Maine Inside Out, and others on the ground in Long Creek, to push for immediate and dramatic changes at Long Creek, such as:

  • Releasing the 25-50% of youth currently at Long Creek who, according to the assessment, should not be there.
  • Correcting the serious safety concerns of the youth in Long Creek.
  • Developing policy and training about LGBTQ youth.
  • Increasing resources and accountability from the State for funding community-based alternatives to incarceration, such as residential facilities and family and community support services.

“This report confirms what we already know: prisons do not work for youth,” says Bonauto. “We expect the committed leadership of Long Creek and staff and supervisors to seize this opportunity to take a hard and urgent look at rebuilding the medical and mental health services youth need based on research and experiences that work well elsewhere.”

There is much work to be done, in and outside of Long Creek. But the courageous youth determined to change their futures give us hope. GLAD will keep fighting for them, will keep supporting their self-advocacy to send the message that LGBTQ youth, like all youth, deserve to be safe, welcomed, and loved for who they are.