Over the phone, Krystal has a calm and lilting Southern accent. She identifies as a woman now, but when she entered Louisiana’s juvenile justice system at 12 years of age, she presented herself as a boy and used male pronouns. Today, she’s 18 and was just recently released from the system. Being closeted about her gender identity was never an option for her. “It’s very obvious with me because of how I walk, talk, the way I do things,” she says. And while her sentencing judge had told her that she wouldn’t be in prison for long, it was five years before a sympathetic counselor made a formal request for her release. In her letter to the judge, the counselor mentioned in passing that Krystal had confided in her that she was probably transgender, and that she was in a romantic relationship with another boy at the facility. On the voicemail he left in response to the counselor’s report, the judge openly laughed and called the recommendation a joke. He said that based on those facts, he would absolutely deny the request for a release hearing. “Many judges in rural Louisiana still conflate sex offenses with sexual orientation and gender identity,” says Wesley Ware of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. It was months before Krystal was finally set free.
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. Antigay policies aren’t just a problem in the Deep South or rural regions. According to Jody Marksamer of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, one of co-authors of a recent report on LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system, “These things happen in every state.”
The road to incarceration begins in pretrial detention, before the youth even meets a judge. Laws and professional standards state that it’s appropriate to detain a child before trial only if she might run away or harm someone. Yet for queer youth, these standards are frequently ignored. According to UC Santa Cruz researcher Dr. Angela Irvine, LGBT youth are two times more likely than straight youth to land in a prison cell before adjudication for nonviolent offenses like truancy, running away and prostitution. According to Ilona Picou, executive director of Juvenile Regional Services, Inc., in Louisiana, 50 percent of the gay youth picked up for nonviolent offenses in Louisiana in 2009 were sent to jail to await trial, while less than 10 percent of straight kids were. “Once a child is detained, the judge assumes there’s a reason you can’t go home,” says Dr. Marty Beyer, a juvenile justice specialist. “A kid coming into court wearing handcuffs and shackles versus a kid coming in with his parents—it makes a very different impression.”
Once adjudicated and sent to secure care, LGBT youth often face abusive peers. “I was scared to sleep at night because I didn’t know if I was going to wake up in the morning,” writes one incarcerated youth at Louisiana’s Swanson Center for Youth. One 15-year-old who was shuttled back and forth from group homes and secure facilities in Shreveport, New Orleans and Baton Rouge reports that staff did nothing when he reported a rape because he “reported it too late,” that he was “whipped with a clothes hanger” for rule violations and that the abuse from staff and other youth was so bad that he tried to kill himself. Two of Krystal’s gay friends were raped in prison by other youths. One of them was assaulted so viciously that the injuries required internal stitches. Staff put Krystal’s other friend in isolation to protect him from further assault.
Krystal reports that she was physically attacked by other youth nearly every day that she was in the system. Shortly after arriving, Krystal found her shoes in the trash, covered in urine and spit. Frequently, youths attacked Krystal for refusing to perform sex acts. Other queer youth in the facility had similar experiences. “We’re all in the same category,” she says. And there was nowhere to hide. “It was basically like a big dorm—one big room where everybody sleeps, that’s what’s going on,” Krystal says. “Sometimes you would get sent to lockdown for fighting back, but there’s nothing else you can do.” Krystal reported the abuse to staff, but “they would just wait till things happened. Sometimes the staff would tell the other youth to stop. Sometimes they wouldn’t.”