Not only does criminalization and mass incarceration disproportionately affect people of color, immigrants, and low-income Americans, the disparity is also apparent among LGBT people in those demographic categories, a recent study by the Center for American Progress found. The analysis noted that more than 7 percent of people in U.S. prisons and jails, identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. That is almost double the percentage of Americans overall who identify as such.
Francis Nichols is a pretrial-service officer in Washington D.C. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Nichols about his job, the vulnerability of the LGBT community in the criminal-justice system, and how being openly gay in the law-enforcement community affects his perception of his job. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: How did you get started working as a pretrial-services officer?
Francis Nichols: I started off living in Atlanta, Georgia, and working for the Department of Family and Children Services. When I left Atlanta, I came back up to Washington D.C. looking for better employment. I have a criminal-justice degree from the University of Maryland, so I thought, “let me look for a criminal-justice job.”
I got the job at the D.C. pretrial service agency, and I started off at the bottom of the barrel as a drug-testing technician. In D.C., there are more African American men in the criminal-justice system than any [other group]. And in society, the average black male already has strikes against them. I am an openly gay, African American man, and so I am like “wow” that's already three strikes against me: I’m black, male, and gay. I’ve always wanted to change the stigma that all gay, black men want to do is party. I definitely have a great job, and I am responsible.
Also, in the prison system, the LGBT community is often mistreated and there is not a lot of protection for its members. They are just thrown in there. They are mistreated by the prisoners and by the guards. That's one thing I fight to stop by engaging with the other law enforcement agencies. Making sure that no one has to experience injustice is the reason why I have gotten into what I do, and I take it very seriously. I see so many people being mistreated, even the people who work there. There's not too many openly gay people in my office, and when I [was hired] there actually weren’t any out gay or lesbian people in my agency [that I knew of].
Green: What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
Nichols: I am a pretrial-service officer in the diagnostic unit, and I have been doing this almost 10 years now. I work on the second shift, from 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., and when I come to work I am responsible for preparing reports for the defendants that are arrested in arraignment court. We run their fingerprints through the FBI database to compile a criminal history, and once we do that, we write a report and make recommendations to the court of what the conditions of release should be based upon flight risks and community safety. We make sure we provide the court with updated information as far as addresses and employment. We update compliance information, so if someone is on probation or parole and they do get in trouble, we contact the probation or parole officer.
Green: How did you feel, when you came out, about being one of few openly gay people in your workplace?
Nichols: After I came out—I don't want to say that I brought them out—but there have been more people who have felt comfortable enough to come out because I am telling my story and they see I don't change for anyone. What you get is what you get. In this day and age, everyone has this filter. My life has no filter.
When I came for the interviews, I actually didn't even think I got the job. A week later, I got a call back saying, "Hey you got the job." On my first day, it was like [people in my office] had seen Frankenstein walk through the door. There was a whole bunch of whispering and people were coming from different offices to look and see who I was. It was almost like a freak-show; that's what it felt like to me.
I feel that I am well-qualified for the job, but when I was getting harassed by a defendant I had to call upon the union. That's when I got heavily involved with my union work because It felt as though I was being discriminated against to a certain extent. I cannot pinpoint it, but I am pretty sure it was my sexuality.
Nichols: When the defendants would come through, I was called every name in the book. Any gay slur, I have been called it. Being in the law-enforcement community, you can't react to it. Of course, you could tell your supervisor, but you can't really do much.
I have even had to go and talk to my supervisor about one of my coworkers making slurs against me, and I had to just handle it. You would think that because we are in a professional environment, that we are going to be treated the same. That definitely is not so.
My coworkers, of course, were a lot better than the defendants because they have a professional obligation. But still, it was not the most pleasant experience in my first six months there.
Green: Statistics show that LGBT and African American communities are particularly vulnerable to abuses and oversights of the criminal-justice system. Members of these groups are likelier to be on the wrong side of police abuses and prison walls. How do those realities affect your perception of your job?
Nichols: That really makes me look at my job and analyze it. I don't show any bias towards LGBT or black people when they come comes through the system, but it makes me think. They are being perceived in the media as targets and I have witnessed it with my own eyes. It makes me think, how did they get here?
If I see a transgender person, for example, they always seem like they're last to get treatment when they're coming through the system. They're like, "Oh I cannot find a bed for this transgender woman that's coming through the system." I am always pushing making sure this person isn’t overlooked just because they are transgender. This person is addicted to drugs, just like everybody else that is coming through here, and they need help just like everyone else. If a lesbian comes through the system, she might be overlooked for professional programs [and someone might say], “oh, she might not be a good fit.” I have never heard anything first-hand, but I can see how some people interact with them.
Nichols: I have seen my agency change a lot. When I see something, I definitely say something, and my agency is both proactive and reactive. If I say, “hey, this might be a problem,” they always are proactive in making sure that they handle it. I've seen different policies and procedures come out that have strengthen the LGBT community in terms of making sure that they know this is a safe place.
I talked to the D.C. Department of Corrections and they have actually put together a LGBT/Transgender policy on training to help officers become aware and making sure trans people are treated properly. For example, making sure they're using the correct pronouns, such as not calling a transgender woman “he.” When I first got there, there was no LGBT community training. Twice so far, I have given LGBT sensitivity training to my agency and it was a packed house, a “sold out show” so to speak.
Green: What would you say is the most challenging part of your job?
Nichols: The most challenging part of my job is actually seeing so many people in the system and hearing the stories of how they got there. It just saddens me. I am so fortunate that I had the opportunities I have had. A lot the ones I did have, I definitely had to fight for.
I guess just seeing both sides of the fence, seeing how much I've been blessed and how for some people the struggle is definitely real out here. To see that, just how people are being mistreated, that motivates me to make sure that I’m holding people and programs accountable for the services that they're supposed to provide.
Green: Is there a person or situation at work that has stuck with you?
Nichols: Actually, it wasn't my client, it was one of my union brothers. He was a trans man, and he actually took his own life because of mistreatment in the workforce. To think that someone is going through it so bad to take their own life really stuck with me [and I want] to make sure that I fight tooth and nail, because I never want someone to lose someone because of mistreatment.
I think about that every day. I have to show people that yes, I'm an openly gay black man, but I'm also educated and successful. So if I can do it, anybody can. I have not had it the easiest growing up, but I made sure even going through all of the bad things that have happened to me in my life, I’ve stayed strong, focused, and positive. I moved on.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a prison guard, a construction worker, and a therapist for criminal offenders.