Incarcerated LGBTQ Americans find little to no support system upon release

LGBTQ people are incarcerated at a rate three times higher than the general population. But when they are released from prison, experts say many reentry programs fail to meet their unique needs. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports for our series, Searching for Justice.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are incarcerated at a rate three times higher than the general population.

    But, as special correspondent Cat Wise reports, when LGBTQ people are released from prison, experts say many reentry programs fail to meet their unique needs.

    This story is part of our ongoing series Searching For Justice.

  • T.J. King, Nebraska AIDS Project:

    It's now called Das Haus, but…

  • Cat Wise:

    For T.J. King, visiting Das Haus, an LGBTQ bar in Lincoln, Nebraska, is bittersweet. About a decade ago, King, who uses the pronoun they and is nonbinary, meaning their gender identity is not strictly male or female, was a partner in a nightclub at this location.

  • T.J. King:

    We were one of, I would say, maybe three or four Black business owners that actually had a nightclub. However, that was a period in my life when things were about to about to spiral drastically out of control. I was in the throes of my addiction.

  • Cat Wise:

    In 2016, King pleaded guilty to possession of ecstasy and two counts of theft by deception, leading to a just-over-four-year prison term. King had served time for other drug and fraud charges over the years, but, this time, they vowed to make a change once they were released.

  • T.J. King:

    This time, I'm like, look, you're going to be 50. You're going to be 50. You don't — you don't have — you don't have a lot more chances.

  • Cat Wise:

    But King feared that a traditional reentry housing service, like a halfway house or temporary emergency shelter, would leave them vulnerable to harassment.

  • T.J. King:

    I'm going to be in there with the same people that I was just in prison with. I don't want that.

    If you're somebody that is Black, gay and HIV-positive, in the prison system, it's just not — it's just not cool.

  • Cat Wise:

    King's story is not unique. An estimated one in 12 people in prison identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

    But experts and advocates say many reentry programs fail to meet their needs once they're released, among the most vulnerable, trans women.

    Jasmine Tasaki, Director of Advocacy, Black & Pink: Because I was transgender, I was policed in a different way.

  • Cat Wise:

    Jasmine Tasaki is an advocate for the trans community who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee.

  • Jasmine Tasaki:

    When I was young, there was no term called transgender or no term to really help me understand who I was. But I can remember, as early back as about 3 years old, seeing other little girls and seeing grown women and literally idolizing them, knowing that one day I would be beautiful, and knowing that this is who I was, right?

    But I also had the awareness that whatever I felt about myself was considered to be wrong, was considered to be untrue, and was considered to be dangerous for other children.

  • Cat Wise:

    She was sexually assaulted as a child, and later turned to sex work to make a living.

  • Jasmine Tasaki:

    It was a way for me to regain control over my life, over my sex life, but also over my life, because sex had taken control over my life. As a child, you shouldn't have to go through that.

  • Cat Wise:

    Tasaki was jailed at least 14 times for charges related to sex work. Her experience is common. A 2018 study found that, for every time a young trans woman is incarcerated, her odds of recidivism increase, and it said her ability to reintegrate after incarceration may be hindered by the added stigma of being trans.

    Tasaki says there are few housing options to help stop the cycle.

  • Jasmine Tasaki:

    Once they see that you're trans, you're not getting in the door. Shelters are not letting trans people come in as themselves, and trans people should not be forced to go to one-gender shelters.

  • Cat Wise:

    Sociologist Joss Greene studied reentry programs in San Francisco's Bay Area.

  • Joss Greene, Syracuse University:

    No women that I formally interviewed or met in the course of my field research wanted to or felt safe in men's housing programs.

  • Cat Wise:

    He found that many women's shelters admitted cisgender women, that is, women whose gender identity matches the sex they are assigned at birth, but excluded most trans women.

  • Joss Greene:

    They were disbelieved as to really being women. For the women that were able to enter these programs, there were then a series of other challenges connected to the harassment they could experience, both from cisgender women in the program and from the staff themselves.

  • Cat Wise:

    Back in Nebraska, King says this time coming out of prison was different.

  • T.J. King:

    I knew it was going to be a safe space. And that was the thing that was most important to me.

  • Cat Wise:

    That safe space was this home on a quiet street in Omaha called Lydon House. It's a free housing and support program exclusively for formerly incarcerated LGBTQ people run by Black & Pink, a national nonprofit.

    Founded in 2020, it was the brainchild of Black & Pink's former head, Dominique Morgan. King and Morgan were incarcerated together more than 20 years ago.

    Tell me about the first moments you walked in here? How did you feel?

  • T.J. King:

    Coming from a space where I lived in a room probably about the size of this with six other gentlemen, where I was able to go into a space where I was able to close the bath — close the door to the bathroom was wonderful.

    I was able to go upstairs and sleep on a bed with a comforter and a real pillow. I could just rest for a second.

  • Cat Wise:

    Just hearing you describe how important the rest was for you…

  • T.J. King:

    Peace.

  • Cat Wise:

    Peace.

  • T.J. King:

    Mm-hmm. And I think Lydon House — that's what Lydon House is for a lot of people.

    Andrew Aleman, Black & Pink: You will notice that everybody will have their own individual bedroom.

  • Cat Wise:

    Andrew Aleman, a licensed social worker who helped launch Lydon House, says the home is designed to be affirming and comfortable.

  • Andrew Aleman:

    When they move in, we give them a little welcome pack. And so, in the welcome pack, there's like fuzzy slippers, socks, a journal that they can write in, little things to welcome them and just say, this is your place. We want you to be here. We welcome you here.

  • Cat Wise:

    On top of covering groceries and utilities, Black & Pink provides personalized services to ease the reentry process, like helping residents apply for jobs, yoga and mindfulness sessions to cope with trauma, cooking and budgeting classes, and helping residents navigate the health care system.

  • Andrew Aleman:

    That could be mental health care access. That could be access to hormone therapy or just gender-affirming care in general. We try to keep a list of providers that we know are informed and affirming of LGBTQ individuals. And it's the same for people living with HIV.

  • Cat Wise:

    Ten people, including eight trans women, have lived in Lydon House. Unlike some other transitional housing programs, residents can stay for as long as they need.

    Trans activist Tasaki oversees some of Black & Pink's programs.

  • Jasmine Tasaki:

    It is a space for LGBTQIA people to come after they are released, and not only have a safe place to live, but this is a place for them to thrive and experience joy.

  • Cat Wise:

    But she says the help Lydon House provides is too rare. It is the only residential reentry program in the Midwest that primarily serves trans people. And only three residents can live there at a time.

  • Jasmine Tasaki:

    If I had Lydon, I know that I would have been able to make better choices, but also I would have felt safe.

    Well, we want to have spaces for people where they are welcome and where they're celebrated.

  • Cat Wise:

    King says staying at Lydon House for more than a year gave them the opportunity to find their calling. Today, they work at the Nebraska AIDS Project, the only community-based AIDS service organization in the state.

    King aims to give clients hope, something King says they needed when they were diagnosed with HIV in 1993.

  • T.J. King:

    I never, ever, ever want anybody to ever feel the way that I felt when I got my result.

    My main goal is making sure that the diagnosis that I have just given you is life-altering, but it's not life-ending.

  • Cat Wise:

    King now lives in their own apartment and has been sober for more than five years.

    Where do you think you would be today if you hadn't found Lydon House?

  • T.J. King:

    Had it not been for Lydon House, a lot of things would have probably turned out different for me. I say that because, for me, I owe a lot to Lydon House. I owe a lot to them.

  • Cat Wise:

    With the help of a supportive landing place, King is leading a life they couldn't have imagined just a few years ago.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Omaha, Nebraska.

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