Judge Blasts Hawai’i Juvenile Detention Facility for Pervasive Harassment of Gay and Transgender Youth

Affiliate: ACLU of Hawaii
February 8, 2006 12:00 am

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Issues Findings in ACLU Federal Lawsuit on Youths’ Behalf

HONOLULU – In the first case in the country to specifically address the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in juvenile facilities, a federal judge has agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union that conditions at the Hawai’i Youth Correctional Facility (HYCF) are dangerous, that harassment is pervasive, and that the facility is “in a state of chaos.”

The ruling came in response to a federal civil rights lawsuit the ACLU filed in September on behalf of three young people who say they’ve been abused and harassed because of their sexual orientation and gender identity while at the facility. The judge is expected to issue specific instructions on what steps HYCF must take to address the problems at the facility within the next two weeks.

“While the conditions at HYCF are particularly bad, this should serve as a wake-up call to the juvenile justice system throughout the U.S.,” said Tamara Lange, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “Citizens entrust the government to protect our most troubled youth and teach them how to be productive citizens, and this facility has failed miserably at providing even the most basic guarantee of safety for these vulnerable young people.”

In his 77-page order, U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright blasted HYCF officials for allowing such incidents as the following to take place:

  • Staff routinely call LGBT youth slurs like “fag,” “butchie,” “fruitcake,” “fucking little bitches,” and “fucking cunts.”
  • Staff deal with complaints of harassment by isolating the victims, rather than dealing with the harassers themselves. One transgender ward was placed in solitary confinement for six days, where she spent 23 hours per day under video surveillance with nothing other than her pillow and a blanket, all for her “protection.”
  • Frightening incidents of physical harassment in the living quarters and showers are inadequately addressed, including one incident in which one ward smeared semen on a gay ward’s face.
  • Although incidents of harassment are often reported, the judge found that “…with respect to the vast majority of instances, staff took no action. Even when staff documented incidents, disciplinary measures were either non-existent or were ineffective.”

The Hawai’i Youth Correctional Facility (HYCF) is one of two facilities is the state where minors who have had trouble with the law are sent primarily for rehabilitation. The court made preliminary findings that paint a picture of a punitive, terrifying atmosphere for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth at the facility. Citing an extensive list of shocking incidents, the judge found that officials at the Hawai’i Office of Youth Services and HYCF ignored and sometimes even participated in an atmosphere of anti-gay harassment, humiliation, and fear for youth in the facility, despite repeated pleas by doctors and psychologists who were concerned about the wards’ safety and well-being.

“We’re certainly pleased that the judge understood just how hazardous the conditions at HYCF are for the young people in its care,” said Lois Perrin, Legal Director of the ACLU of Hawai’i. “This ruling clears the way for what we hope will be tremendous, desperately-needed changes in Hawai’i’s juvenile justice system.”

Representing a 17-year-old male-to-female transgender girl, an 18-year-old lesbian, and an 18-year-old boy perceived to be gay, the ACLU claims that the young people are being singled out for mistreatment by staff because of their sexual orientation and gender identity and that the facility failed to adequately protect them.

The ACLU of Hawai’i has long been involved in efforts to improve conditions at HYCF. In 2003, the ACLU issued a 34-page report detailing systemic problems at the facility. A year later, the U.S. Department of Justice also launched an investigation into conditions, policies, and practices at HYCF, and on August 4, 2005, released its findings. Like the ACLU, the Department of Justice found widespread violations of the Constitutional rights of juveniles in the facility.

Recognizing that youth often face anti-LGBT harassment and abuse in foster care and out-of-home care, including in juvenile detention and correctional facilities, the Child Welfare League of America will soon publish best practices guidelines for working with LGBT youth in child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

The ACLU of Hawai’i is working with the national ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project in handling the case, with assistance from Paul Alston and Mei-Fei Kuo of Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing and Angela Padilla, Matthew Hall, Derik Fettig, Maya Hoffman, and Natalie Naugle of Morrison & Foerster LLP.

The judge’s order, other legal documents, and additional information on the case, R.G., et al. v. Koller, et al. can be viewed online at:

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