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The Power Grab and Prison Sexual Abuse

It’s an optimistic headline: “Prison Rape: Obama’s Program to Stop It”. It leads into a comprehensive New York Review of Books article on three recently released Federal government publications.  Two of these documents examine sexual abuse in the nation’s detention centers while the other outlines the Department of Justice’s regulations for eliminating prison rape. All three aim to address the appalling number of people—young and old, female and male, citizen and those awaiting deportation— who  routinely suffer sexual violence while in lockup, an estimated 209,000 plus every year according to the Justice Department.

So where’s the optimism? The guidelines established by the Obama administration are—on paper, at least—good ones. As the reviewers David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow (both staunch advocates for victims of prison sexual assault) note, the new recommendations address pivotal issues: how detention centers are staffed, how those staffs are trained in sexual abuse issues, and how inmates are supervised. Equally important is how offenders are evaluated for their potential as either sexual prey or predator. This provision is crucial in protecting young offenders, especially LGBT youth who are in greater danger of sexual harassment and abuse by peers and adult inmates. Once this information is obtained housing can be assigned based on vulnerability, which in the case of minors means not being housed with adults. There are also new standards on how prisoners can report sexual assault and on how that information is handled and investigated by staff. Kaiser and Stannow write that if these standards are successful—“and we believe they will be”—then the incidences of prison rape will be reduced dramatically.

But I can’t share their optimism. I wish I could. My skepticism stems from the way in which these regulations are to be enforced.  Enforcement will be the responsibility of the state departments of corrections and the correctional staff in charge of prisons and jails.

Anyone who has worked in a detention facility knows the power of frontline staff to sabotage whatever standards or procedures are put in place. In my ten years working as a high school teacher in a county prison I’ve watched this culture of obstruction play out as many correctional staff subvert—sometimes blatantly, most times covertly—everything from innovative grant-funded projects designed to reduce recidivism in young offenders to simple routines such as making sure all inmates daily attend their assigned programs, all measures that would provide true “safety and security” for staff as well as inmates and that would further the stated goal of incarceration: rehabilitation.

What’s behind this apparently illogical obstruction? It is the same dynamic that informs so much of what goes on in any detention system; it is certainly the dynamic that is behind all prison sexual violence: the power grab. All lockups whether they be for adults, minors or immigrants awaiting deportation are run on a hierarchy of power: Who’s got it, who wants it and what you’ll do to get it. Within this structure there is the inevitable scramble for power and position in an environment where everyone feels impotent.

People who are locked up live every day of their incarceration with this lack of control (and for so many of them, every day of their lives) and so understandably make the power grab. This is especially true for young offenders who are the most vulnerable in this predatory world. Ironically it is just as pronounced with correctional staff. Over my years in the prison system I’ve often heard officers openly complain that the work they do is just as dangerous, if not more so than other law enforcement officers, yet they feel they are underpaid and not respected as professionals by their peers and society in general. So what better way to “stick it” to the system, to “show” wardens, county executives, the Feds, civilians, and certainly inmates that COs are the ones who make or break things in prison than by subverting regulations, routines, and structures.

The Obama guidelines are strong in addressing the delicate and fraught issue of sexual violence. This is especially true when it comes to the victimization of young people and the sexually vulnerable. Is it wise then to leave their implementation in the hands of the people who are themselves part of the problem both in terms of upholding standards and in terms of actually being sexual assailants themselves? (Reports show that half of all sexual abuse is committed by correctional staff.)

Kaiser and Stannow are confident that enforcement of these regulations “will make American detention facilities better run, more humane, and safer places in general.” It is a hopeful vision. But if we want detention centers that are humane and safe we have to go beyond a fresh set of regulations. We need to make fundamental changes in the prison system: confront the perverted power structure—and struggle—that dominates these institutions and that leads to sexual violence and replace it with a form of justice that truly values rehabilitation and that restores dignity and respect to victim, inmate and correctional staff. Radical steps? Yes. Do we have a choice? The numbers say we don’t—because each incident of prison rape radically changes a person’s life forever.

Experts Weigh in on Report Detailing High Number of LGBT Homeless

CHICAGO - After the Williams Institute, True Colors Fund and the Palette Fund released a critical study on LGBT youth homelessness last month, Chicago-based experts have weighed in and offered reaction to the study's findings that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender and many agencies designed to meet their needs have failed to adequately address pressing concerns.

The study, conducted between October 2011 and March 2012, was designed to assess how homeless youth organizations provide services to LGBT youth. (See related story)

About 380 respondents from 354 agencies that serve homeless youth participated in the web-based survey.

Overall, the study found that the current network of homeless youth providers “is not adequately addressing the needs of gay and transgender homeless youth,” according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

The survey showed about 30 percent of homeless using housing-related services—emergency shelters and transitional living programs—were LGBT.

Among the top reasons why LGBT youth are homeless include: running away because of family rejection of sexual orientation or gender identity (46 percent), being forced out by parents because of sexual orientation or gender identity (43 percent) and physical, emotional, or sexual abuse at home (32 percent).

“Bottom line, youth homelessness has been an ongoing and steady issue, related to the impact of family and personal pressures on youth,” said Anne Bowhay, spokeswoman for the CCH.

Other organizations said they are also well aware of the issue of youth homelessness and what needs to be done.

UCAN, a Chicago-based nonprofit, touts its mission as to “build strong youth and families through compassionate healing, education and empowerment.”

Bonnie Wade, associate director at UCAN, said although there have not been any concrete LGBT homeless studies in the Chicago area, she noticed more than 60 percent of homeless youth self-identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual when she worked at a homeless youth shelter. She said there is such a significant number of LGBT youth homeless because of stress and lack of knowledge on LGBT issues in disadvantaged families.

“Let’s say you have a mom raising five children, and she’s a single parent and she has some kind of sickness,” Wade said. “She’s working a full-time job, she’s taking care of the five kids, so she’s already under a lot of stress and pressure. So let’s say her oldest son comes out as gay. It’s not easy, but sometimes it’s the final straw the breaks the camel’s back.”

Wade said if families were supported more and had access to resources, there would not be as many young people out on the streets.

“Because of systemic oppression and really poverty, sexism, racism and all of these -isms–all of this systemic oppression–it creates a permanent underclass of people,” she said.

Wade added that although the new study is an improvement on raising awareness for LGBT youth homelessness, there needs to be more study.

“We need more research on what ends homelessness specifically for LGBT young people: the housing model, what intervention strategies, what will it take to end homelessness among LGBT young people,” Wade said.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless posted a blog on the CCH’s website about the study. Authors Andrew Phifer and Jeff Krehely listed five key findings from the studies and the action needed in response to each finding.

One such finding showed nearly 60 percent of the responding agencies reported, “that transgender youth are in worse physical health than other youth,” according to the blog.

As a response, Phifer and Krehely wrote, “action needed: improve data collection by including sexual orientation and adding gender identity metrics to the Center for Disease Control’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey at the state level.”

Most statistics about LGBT youth come from local or regional surveys, so the authors wrote in support of a national survey conducted on a regular basis.

“The results of this survey act as further confirmation that America’s next generation of gay and transgender youth need us to stand with them so that they can stand on their own,” Gregory Lewis, executive director of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, said in a Williams Institute statement accompanying the report.

Audrey Cheng is a reporter with The Chicago Bureau.

Photo from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

LGBT Youth Over-Represented in Juvenile Justice System

A disproportionate number of LGBT teens are represented in the nation’s juvenile justice system, possibly making up as much as 15 percent of the total juvenile justice population in the United States, according to a representative of the Center for American Progress.

The findings were discussed last month in Washington, D.C. at an event sponsored by the National Council on Crime & Delinquency and titled “Unfair Criminalization of LGBT Youth.”

Aisha Moodie-Mills, a LGBT policy and racial justice advisor at the Center for American Progress, presented findings on behalf of Dr. Angela Irvine, one of four authors of “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Youth and the Juvenile Justice System.”  The results from the report, which were published in the 2011 book, “Juvenile Justice: Advancing Research, Policy, and Practice,” state that while gay and transgender teens make up only 5 to 7 percent of the total youth population, they represent an estimated 13 to 15 percent of the population of young people involved with the nation’s juvenile justice system.

Moderating the event, Moodie-Mills said that stressors from family and school could potentially make LGBT teens more vulnerable than the general population to violence, prostitution and homelessness.

Shortly after the event, survey findings from a joint project involving the Williams Institute, the Palette Fund and the True Colors Fund found that almost 40 percent of the nation’s homeless or at-risk youth are gay or transgender.

Panelist Maya Rupert, a representative of the National Council for Lesbian Rights, said that several institutions, such as the nation’s education and legal systems, were failing the country’s LGBT teens.

“These are not systems set up to serve youth, let alone LGBTQ youth," she said, the Human Rights Campaign reported.

Also speaking at the event was Marie Williams, a representative of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) who criticized many schools for inducing “pushout of LGBT kids,” adding that her organization has documented “significant” instances of LGBT students leaving schools out of fear of their own safety. In the most recent National School Climate Study conducted by GLSEN, researchers indicate that approximately one-third of LGBT students have skipped at least one day of school because of safety concerns.

“Got Rights Project” Seeks to Inform LGBT Students of Legal Rights

lgbt student rightsThis month, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and The Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY) have partnered to launch the “Got Rights Project,” to inform Massachusetts youth about their legal rights as students.

Following the passage of the state’s 2010 anti-bullying law, representatives of GLAD and BAGLY united to create and distribute materials for students, including brochures and a video package, providing youth with access to legal assistance and information.

According to BAGLY Director of Programs Jessica Flaherty, the “Got Rights Projects” provides several opportunities for LGBT students to gain knowledge of their legal rights as students, as well as speak to legal service representatives of GLAD.

“Systemic homo/bi/transphobia blocks access to much needed accurate legal information and support,” she is quoted in a recent article. “LGBTQ youth disproportionately experience discrimination, harassment and violence in and out of school settings.”

The “Got Rights Project” workshops will feature representatives from BAGLY as well as a lawyer from GLAD. A video package - produced by GLAD and the youth theater group True Colors - will be screened at the events.

Five workshops are scheduled for May, with the first event at a SWAGLY (Supporters of Worcester Area Gay and Lesbian Youth) meeting on May 16. Subsequent events are planned in Pittsfield, Salem, Hyannis and Holyoke.

NYC’S Homeless Teens at Risk Due to Budget Cuts, Says LGBT Advocate

lgbt homeless youthNew York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recently released executive budget could cut $7 million in funding to the city’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Services, effectively eliminating 160 beds from youth shelters across the city.

According to a representative from the Ali Forney Center  - the city’s largest LGBT youth shelter - the need for shelter beds has increased dramatically in recent years, with the waiting list for the Center growing by 40 percent last year.

The Ali Forney Center claims that there are only 250 shelter beds available in New York - despite an estimated homeless youth population of almost 4,000. Carl Siciliano, the Center’s executive director, told The Advocate he considered Bloomberg’s budget cuts to be “cruel, reckless and contemptible.”

“These cuts create an even bigger crisis for the LGBT teens who are thrown out of their homes and forced to endure homelessness on the streets of our city,” he said. “The Ali Forney Center and all those who work with and care about LGBT homeless youth will not be silent in the face of this decision, which offends us as a community and needlessly puts our young people in harm’s way.”

A New York City Independent Budget Office report from March predicted (on page 35) homeless shelter budget cuts, with the investigation identifying an increase in average shelter stay durations as well as the cessation of subsidy programs, such as Advantage, as the primary factors for budget shortfalls.

While Bloomberg’s tentative executive budget entails cuts to the city’s youth shelter programs, the proposal for the 2013 fiscal year also involves more than $13 million in renovations to family shelters, and almost $15 million for the combined rehabilitation of the city’s Help 1 and adult shelters.

An official final budget will be announced by Bloomberg and the City Council in late June.

In 2010, Bloomberg’s administration released a report recognizing the perils that homeless LGBT youth faced in the city, including an increased risk of violent assault and a greater likelihood of AIDS infection - concluding the city should create an additional 100 beds for its at-risk youth populations.

To advocate for funding the new beds, the Ali Forney Center, alongside several other allied LGBT organizations, launched the Campaign for Youth Shelter and is urging state officials to put up $3 million annually.

Photo via ProjectSpeak OutLoud

Are LGBT Youth Safer in School This Year?

LGBT stock photo - Clay Duda, JJIE.orgIt gets better. That’s the message many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth have heard since last fall when multiple cases received high-profile media attention concerning teens being bullied and/or committing suicide for being gay, or perceived to be gay. But is it safer for LGBT students entering school this year?

Some LGBT leaders are doubtful, despite the positive changes that are occurring, according to an article by the Keen News Service.

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, acknowledges that more schools are aware of what to do and more resources exist, but she told a reporter for the news service that there is still "a lot of work to be done."

“LGBT students still experience bullying and harassment at an alarming rate," said David McFarland of The Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT and questioning youth.

In June 2011, JJIE reported that LGBT youth are more likely to experience abuse and bullying.  JJIE also told the story of a transgender youth who experienced bullying while in school.

What is being done?

On the federal level several actions have been taken, including an anti-bullying conference hosted by the While House in March 2011 and a number of letters issued to educators by the U.S. Department of Education.

On the state level, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut and Rhode Island have enacted anti-bullying legislation that explicitly prohibits bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Currently, 14 states have similar laws.

Georgia passed a new anti-bullying law in 2010. Starting last month, schools must begin notifying parents when their child is bullied or bullies another.

What needs to be done?

"Schools and communities need to take concrete steps, creating safe spaces where youth can receive support from caring adults,” McFarland said.

Both the Trevor Project and GLSEN are among the organizations that provide training to help them do so, according to the article.

Why aren’t changes happening faster?

The economy and state budget cuts are one reason why changes aren’t happening fast enough for LGBT youth, as pointed out in the article.

Byard said federal anti-bullying legislation "would make an enormous difference." Right now, three pairs of bills in the U.S. House and Senate would address anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools and universities but seem unlikely to pass.

Ty Cobb who serves as legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s LGBT civil rights organization, wrote  an opinion for JJIE about one of these bills, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which is still pending in the House and Senate.

Even though there’s still room for improvement, things are better.

“For the first time, the challenges of LGBT youth are no longer invisible on a local, state, or national level," McFarland told the reporter.

JJIE has resources about bullying and a regularly updated Tumblr blog focused on the bullying of LGBT youth.