Locked in the Closet


New Report Builds the Case for Action to Better Serve LGBT Youth in Louisiana

Louisiana is notorious for housing some of the most brutal youth prisons in the country. In recent years, it's made great strides toward reform, as leaders introduced more therapeutic, rehabilitative models.

Even still, youth who identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) experience physical, sexual and psychological abuse, excessive use of lockdown and isolation, confidentiality breaches and privacy violations in Louisiana's juvenile justice system, according to the report “Locked Up & Out.”

The report, released by our member group Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), focuses on LGBT youth, who make up 15% of youth in detention nationwide. Author and JJPL youth advocate Wes Ware visits facilities regularly to investigate the conditions that youth face, and finds them resources once released.

“The stories I have heard from LGBT youth, both about the extreme challenges they have endured and about their courage and determination, inspired this report,” he said. “Once inside prison, LGBT youth often bear the worst the system has to offer.”

A recent national Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed 12% of youth on average reported they were sexually assaulted while incarcerated. At Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, the state's largest juvenile justice prison (which was considered by some to be the worst juvenile facility in the country, 16% of youth reported they had been sexually abused.

In 2003, the state Legislature passed sweeping reforms that led in part to the closure of two youth prisons, Tallulah and Jena Correctional Center for Youth, and discontinued the use of privately-run prisons for youth. Conditions in the facilities are significantly improved today, but incarcerated youth continue to report mistreatment and abuse.

“I have been locked up for 3 years. I am gay. I have been my whole life. This is my second time in Jetson. The first time I was here, they sent me to Swanson. I stayed there for about 11 months before I got raped by some of the youths there. I did not report it on time so they did not do anything about it. But they did send me to a group home in Shreveport. There, I tried to kill myself because I could not take the boys hitting on me because I would not do sexual favors for them. After that, they sent me to a crazy home called Brentwood,” wrote one youth in the report.

Even more disturbing is the fact that youths' complaints fall on deaf ears. In the report youth recall painful memories of being raped by staff and other youth, being told to tone down effeminate behavior, how to dress and act “straight,” being outed by staff, having confidential medical information treated as the days gossip, etc. The complaints detailed in the report are just a small sampling of what likely goes on considering the cases that go unreported.

Other problems include intrapersonal conflicts due to outside pressures including family rejection, ostracism by peers and the suppression of identity, which may lead to actions and behaviors that may lead youth to end up in a locked down facility. Once inside, they often experience even worse treatment, according to the report.

“Sometimes they would say stuff like 'it doesn't matter what you think because you're about to die anyway,'” recalls an HIV-positive youth whose illness was leaked to other youth by a staff member.

Discrimination is nothing new to the LGBT community. Inside or outside of prison walls, discrimination is morally wrong. When practiced on teens who are just beginning to discover who they are, it's doubly wrong. Just as children of different cultures need culturally appropriate methods of learning, these youth have individualized needs that are not being met. In order to truly call ourselves a country that celebrates diversity we have to give respect to all.

The report “Locked Up & Out” sheds light on a special population of troubled youth that are too often overlooked. No longer should these children be hidden.

Lauren Jones is a Communications Assistant at the W. Haywood Burns Institute. The Youth Justice Coalition is a group within their national network, the Community Justice Network for Youth (CJNY).

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