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Fenway Institute; Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights


In 2016 according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 856,130 youth were arrested and 45,567 juveniles were held in 1,772 residential juvenile facilities across the country. Detained and confined youth share many characteristics: most are from poor communities and lack access to quality health care. Mental illness and sexually transmitted infections are prevalent. Compared to their non-confined counterparts, incarcerated youth also experience higher rates of substance abuse and homelessness, are educationally behind their peers, are disproportionately identified as needing special education services, and are more likely to have had traumatic experiences (including sexual and emotional abuse) and injuries including traumatic brain injury, among other health issues.

Increasingly, youth-serving justice professionals believe that community-based alternatives to incarceration are preferable. Incarceration should be used only as a last resort. To the extent that youth are incarcerated, this resource provides best practices for making juvenile justice facilities as safe and affirming as possible for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex youth.

Traditionally, many juvenile justice professionals have had a strong commitment to the rehabilitation and treatment needs of youth in their care. In fact, most youth are held in facilities that screen for educational needs, substance abuse, and mental health needs. Many strive to create a therapeutic environment for adolescents. Actually achieving that goal is a challenge for many institutions, one that this paper strives to highlight and address.

Juvenile justice administrators and staff must create a professional, non-discriminatory environment where all youth in their charge are physically and emotionally safe and treated respectfully. To meet this professional goal, including the mandates of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, administrators and staff need to understand how to create and maintain a safe and secure environment within the juvenile justice system for a particularly vulnerable population that is at disproportionate risk for both confinement and sexual abuse: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and intersex youth (collectively, LGBTQI youth).

Youth, regardless of whether or not they are in custody and/ or identify as LGBTQI, experience developmental and social challenges during adolescence. LGBTQI youth not only face the changes and challenges of adolescence, but also the stress of developing and living with a stigmatized identity including—too often—family and societal rejection. Juvenile justice facilities should offer mental health and other support services to all youth in their care to aid them in the process of maturation. These services should always be offered and tailored to the unique needs of each individual. This in turn will allow facility staff to create a safer, more secure facility for all youth in their care and custody, along with a supportive rehabilitative environment.

We have created this informational guide to offer important background about LGBTQI youth in confinement, along with promising practices for their proper and effective management and treatment. We trust it will be a useful resource to better equip all juvenile justice administrators and staff with needed and more precise tools to better address the particular needs and vulnerabilities of this population. This, in turn, will allow correctional staff to execute their jobs more effectively and create a safer, more secure facility for all youth in their care and custody, along with a supportive rehabilitative environment.