For trans teens, America’s juvenile detention centers are hell on earth

AP Photo/Eric Gay

The nation’s juvenile detention centers are largely ill-equipped to handle transgender teens, leaving them vulnerable to bullying, sexual assault, depression and suicide, advocates say.

Young trans people are too often sent to girls’ or boys’ lockups based on their anatomy, not their gender identity, and can end up suffering psychologically and getting picked on by other inmates or staff members, according to advocacy groups. Even when they are assigned to detention centers that correspond to their gender identity, they are often victimized.

“There are many systems that are basically clueless as to what the best practice should be, and they end up mistreating transgender girls particularly, just placing them in hallways or handcuffing them to desks,” because the institutions don’t know where to house them, said Flor Bermudez, detention project director at the Transgender Law Center.

Maine plans to review its practices after a 16-year-old transgender boy charged with setting fire to his house killed himself while on a suicide watch in a girls’ unit in the Portland area. The current policy is to house transgender juveniles on a case-by-case basis and not by anatomy alone, in accordance with federal standards.

Michelle Knowles said that her son, Charles, was sad to be in with the girls and that he also struggled with depression, symptoms of schizophrenia and other psychological problems.

“Some of these issues are relatively new to a lot of the people working in the settings,” said Shannon Wilber, youth policy director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which also works on behalf of transgender people. She said there is “a lot of ignorance and misconceptions around transgender people.”

Anne Nelsen, president of the Juvenile Corrections Council, a national organization for juvenile-justice professionals, said in the industry’s defense that some juvenile systems are overcrowded and understaffed, lacking clinicians and others adequately trained in dealing with transgender teens.

Nelsen said the profession is still learning.

“Transgender youth are no more common than they ever were, we’re just more aware of them,” she said. “Students are aware and families are, too. What facilities are seeing now are more transgender youth who are coming out as transgender youth.”

The U.S. Justice Department last spring issued a reminder that under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, transgender inmates, including minors, can’t be assigned housing based solely on their genitalia. Prisons are supposed to take into account such factors as how much danger these inmates face and their own view of where they belong and where they would be safest.

Advocates say juvenile centers too often put transgender youth in solitary confinement for their own safety. But the federal standards prohibit routine use of solitary for LGBTQ prisoners and require detention centers to look for alternatives, such as single-person cells within the general population.

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