Assisting LGBTQ+ Individuals in Criminal Justice

President Biden proclaimed June 2022 as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Pride Month, which provides a fitting opportunity to review interactions of the LGBTQ+ community with correctional services.  As identification terms have evolved, so has the acronym representing this group.   Research reviewed from different periods is evident by changing terms, which is a dynamic process that becomes more inclusive through time.  Regardless of the terms used, research shows that discrimination of this group is inherent within correctional services.  One survey by Black & Pink National showed that 85% of LGBTQ respondents had been in solitary confinement at some point during their sentence.

Discrimination has been measured within many social spheres and affecting diverse populations.  This group is no exception and is overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice system.  In fact, a Bureau of Justice Statistics National Inmate Survey showed that 7.9% of adults in state and federal prisons identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, as did 7.1% of individuals in city and county jails.  During that same time, Gallup reported only 3.8% of all adults in the United States identified as LGBT.

LGBTQ+ youth are also overrepresented in the criminal justice community.  In 2021, the Prison Policy Initiative reported that while the general population held 9.5% of these youth, they represented 20% of youth in the juvenile justice system.  Similar to adult statistics, this is approximately double the general population.

While discrimination as a broad term may explain this overrepresentation, a variety of factors can be identified that lead to their corrections system involvement.  According to the Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project, individuals can be pushed into the system by: 

  • Family rejection and negative child welfare system experiences 
  • Unsafe schools and school to prison pipeline 
  • Employment, housing and healthcare discrimination 
  • Homelessness 
  • Unemployment and poverty
  • Inability to update identification documents 
  • Lack of social services

Once incarcerated, LGBTQ+ individuals are not provided appropriate, nor caring services and are, in fact, subjected to especially harmful conditions behind bars.  There are however, a number of programs dedicated to assistance including:

Who Speaks for Me:  An advocacy-and activist-driven organization, working to create alternatives to incarceration for women, girls and LGBTQ people of color who are impacted by the justice system.  Programs offered include reading and writing, a speakers’ bureau, food justice in women’s prisons, trauma informed justice training, and advocacy for housing security.

Prisoner Correspondence Project:  A solidarity project for gay, lesbian, transsexual, transgender, gender variant, two-spirit, intersex, bisexual and queer prisoners in Canada and the United States, linking them with people who are a part of these same communities outside of prison.

LGBT Books to Prisoners:  A trans-affirming, racial justice focused project sending books to incarcerated LGBTQ-identified people across the U.S. They are a donation-funded, volunteer-run organization based in Madison, WI that sends books and other educational materials, free of charge, to incarcerated LGBTQ people across the United States.

Black & Pink National:  An organization dedicated to assisting LGBTQIA2S+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS who are affected by the criminal punishment system through advocacy, support, and organizing.  Founded in 2005, it now has a strong grassroots network of more than 20,000 current and formerly incarcerated members located across the country.

Each of these programs offer support to those incarcerated and/or during reentry and work to provide needed services to the LGBTQ+ community. Certainly there are others not identified here.  However, with such levels of discrimination still at the core of the problem, much more work and support within the criminal justice system is clearly required.  How can we assist from within the criminal justice system itself?  Some recommendations are offered:

  • Include nondiscrimination provisions in all government-funded re-entry programs.
  • Ensure that prison and jail re-entry programs provide a holistic assessment of an individual’s needs.
  • Employ wraparound assessments to help youth succeed following release from juvenile justice facilities.
  • Remove barriers that people with criminal records, including LGBT people, face when it comes to finding employment, housing, health care, and participating in civic life.
  • Revise laws governing the use of sex offender status and registries to better balance community safety and the rehabilitation of individuals convicted under sex offender statutes.
  • Expand opportunities for individuals to clear their records.

As attempts are made to improve the criminal justice system and increase successful outcomes, we must be aware that our system needs improving for everyone.  The Responsivity Principle tells us to work with clients in a manner that is responsive to their needs. This principle does not discriminate, but directs helpers to offer appropriate services for all clients.  New developments should also assist the nine million LGBTQ+ people across the nation; some of whom have become involved with correctional services.  At every level, we can reduce discrimination and be mindful to increase opportunities that help individuals change their lives for the better.