As the title suggests, everything on this blog concerns violence against trans women.
The Trans Women's Anti-Violence Project is a trans feminist project addressing issues of systematic, institutional and interpersonal violence and oppression experienced by trans women (those who were coercively assigned male at birth and identify or are identified as women/female) across multiple identities (e.g., race, class, dis/ability, citizen-status, nationality, sexuality, age, HIV status, and form, status, or age of transition, etc.)
Ida Hammer is a writer and social justice communicator. She organizes the Trans Women's Anti-Violence Project. She presents workshops and trainings on cis privilege and being a trans ally. She's also involved in organizing against sexualized violence. She's a proud dyke-identified trans woman and an organizer of the New York City Dyke March.
The issue of prison rape is often belittled by standup comedians, but it’s really no laughing matter – especially if you’re a transgender woman locked up in an all-male facility.
Grace Lawrence, 43, is a transgender woman from Liberia who was in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, for nearly three years. For all but six months, she was kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.
Often, transgender inmates are placed in protective custody – also known as solitary confinement – for their own protection.
“It was hard. But that’s just me, but the same thing was happening to other transgenders that was around me,” says Lawrence.
Transgender women are up to 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted while incarcerated, according to transgender rights groups. The government decided to start gathering data on the issue with the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. This year it was updated to include specific measures to protect transgender, lesbian and gay inmates from abuse.
One measure in particular now limits the use of solitary confinement as the only way to protect transgender inmates. This is in response to advocates saying that the practice isolates individuals and is inhumane. But this and all other protections of the new Act do not extend to immigrants in ICE custody who are held in detention centers or county jails, like Grace Lawrence.
This is why lawyers and advocates argue that continuing to keep immigrant transgender detainees in solitary confinement actually creates barriers for them, including limiting their access to legal help.
The road to detention
Grace Lawrence was born Wellington Felix Lawrence in Monrovia, Liberia.
“I’m the oldest of seven children and I had to live a double life and I couldn’t speak about me being a trans-woman not even to my mother or my best friend because I knew the penalty would be death,” says Lawrence.
In Liberia homosexuality is not legally punishable by death, but Lawrence was still fearful. Sodomy is considered a first-degree misdemeanor and carries a year-long prison sentence. Liberia’s predominantly Christian population is pushing for even tougher legislation that would make being gay or transgender illegal.
Growing up, Lawrence kept quiet and played the role of the eldest son. In her teens, her family moved to the U.S. and settled in Minnesota. Eventually, she got married to a woman and she had two children. It was in her 30s when she realized she could not continue living as a man.
“I told my mom that I wasn’t only gay but I think that I was a woman and they said I was crazy and that they didn’t want to have nothing to do with me. So I was kicked out of the family. So I came to San Francisco and tried to forget my former life,” says Lawrence.
Lawrence is built like a football player – she is muscular and over 6 feet tall. She has breasts, loves to wear neon green, and has her nails done. She was 37 years old when she first arrived to San Francisco and began her transition from male to female.
As an undocumented immigrant who was now transgender, Lawrence felt she had few options for making a living, especially considering the high costs of transitioning. She quickly got caught up in drug dealing and using. Lawrence also depended on prostitution to get by and could only afford to live in a hotel room.
“And if you don’t have rent by 6 in the evening the hotel manager will double lock the doors,” says Lawrence.
In late 2006, police arrested Lawrence for possession of crack cocaine. Drug possession and prostitution are deportable crimes for immigrants like Lawrence, so after she served her two-month sentence, she was turned over to ICE.
Locked up and shut off
While awaiting deportation in Santa Clara County jail, Lawrence was immediately placed in solitary confinement for her protection. That is the general policy for transgender detainees because they are more likely to be assaulted. She was let out for one hour each day, and she says that hour went by fast.
Lawrence says that if she was lucky, she would be let out before 5 pm so she could contact her lawyer. But more often than not, she says she was let out at night, after business hours. Lawrence says that when she got back to her cell, she’d spend her time writing letters, frantically asking for help.
“I would write letters to my friends, to my lawyer. I would even write letters to the judge screaming, please don’t deport me, this is what will happen … Anybody who I could write I would write. So I’d rather die than going over to Liberia having kerosene or gasoline wasted on me and being burned alive. They do those things. I’ve seen it happen to gay people,” says Lawrence.
We couldn’t find reports corroborating Lawrence’s claims, but Liberia’s current president, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, recently defended the country’s current policies, which in essence make being lesbian, gay or transgender a criminal act. This is why Grace Lawrence says she was so afraid of returning to Liberia. She asked her lawyer to help her seek asylum here in the U.S. – but would communicate mostly in writing.
“It’s harder to prepare a case for someone who is spending 23 hours of the day in administrative segregation. It’s harder for them to get out and call me. It’s harder for them to get out and call whatever legal advocate might be helping them,” says Cara Jobson, a lawyer in San Francisco who has handled hundreds of cases involving immigrant LGBT detainees.
Jobson says cases like Lawrence’s drag on longer because of their limited access. Jobson said that many of her transgender clients end up agreeing to leave the country voluntarily.
“Which they accepted without fighting because the conditions were so bad in jail and because they had no access to information about asylum. And we see a lot of times people don’t get their hormones. It’s very depressing. It’s very physically traumatic for them. It’s emotionally traumatic,” says Jobson.
Lawyers say the negative treatment transgender detainees receive is difficult to control from the outside, especially in the Bay Area where there are no federal immigration detention centers. Detainees are farmed out to county jails such as Yuba, Sacramento and Contra Costa, and each facility operates at its own discretion.
Lawrence says that as a transgender woman in an all-male facility, it was difficult to go unnoticed.
“So we were called names you know, ‘faggots,’ you know, ‘sissy,’ you know, different names. They call me ‘sexual issues’ – that mean we’re tranny … When we was taking showers for those of us who have breasts they would look at us and comment about it and stuff like that,” says Lawrence.
The Department of Homeland Security declined to be interviewed, stating that the agency does not offer comments on specific allegations. But DHS did provide this statement: “ICE has a strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities and takes any allegations of such mistreatment very seriously.”
Lawrence suffered a mental breakdown during her three years in detention. The first time an immigration judge ordered her to be deported, she attempted suicide.
“Because I know there was no life for me in Liberia if I was deported. I said goodbye to my two children, you know, in my heart. I was mad at my family. I was mad at the world. I felt useless, worthless, unwanted. I had nothing left. I have no family member here in California and so it was the end, it was the end for Grace Lawrence. So I took my sheets, the bed sheets and rip it,” says Lawrence.
But a guard arrived just in time to stop her. Lawrence spent the next six months in the psychiatric ward of an immigration hospital in San Diego. She was prescribed medication and would attempt suicide again when faced with another possibility of deportation a year or so later.
Just when Lawrence had lost all hope, she got some good news. In late 2009 she was called to appear in court. She remembers the Judge’s exact words.
“This case is dismissed. I wish you luck Ms. Lawrence, and that’s what the judge said. When I went back in the holding cell and then I was on my way back to Santa Clara, shackles as usual, but this time I was so happy, I was so happy because I knew that when the paperwork go through I would be coming downtown to San Francisco and they would release me,” says Lawrence.
Lawrence’s lawyer, Cara Jobson, had proven that if Lawrence were deported to Liberia, she would be tortured and killed for being transgender. She was granted asylum under the United States Convention Against Torture – one of the more difficult types of asylum cases to win.
“Most people who live it and go through it the majority of them are deported and never make it back like me to be able to tell the story of what goes on in there,” says Lawrence.
Lawrence now has a driver’s license and a work permit. She volunteers with the TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, where she provides guidance to other transgender immigrant women.
There may be hope for those who are still in detention. President Obama has directed the Department of Homeland Security to draft its own standards for protecting LGBT immigrant detainees from physical and sexual abuse. This would include alternatives to the use of solitary confinement. DHS has until mid-September to comply.
(Nancy Lopez, Cross Currents/NPR-KALW)
The word “fear” is repeated constantly in Esmeralda Soto’s testimony. Soto, a transgender woman, says that in 2003 she was forced to perform oral sex on an employee of an immigrant detention center in San Pedro, Calif. The government will soon adopt new regulations to protect victims of sexual abuse in prison—but those detained for their immigration status won’t be included under the protections.
“I desperately wanted to get rid of the taste of the officer’s semen, but the investigators wouldn’t let me wash my mouth out until they got the sample for the rape kit. The assault happened at 2:00 pm and I wasn’t taken to the hospital until the next morning. The memory of the taste is extremely upsetting and I have these memories all the time,” Soto said in testimony compiled by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC).
She is not alone. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), since 2007 in California alone, there have been at least 17 complaints of sexual abuse in prisons in Yuba, Santa Ana and Otay. The state of Texas is leading in this tragic statistic, with 56 complaints in the same period.
The problem isn’t limited to immigrant detention centers; it exists in the general prison system across the country. That’s why in 2003 a law was passed to eliminate rape in prison, called the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
Under that law, sexual assault in state or federal prison constitutes a violation of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution. The law also demands that all establishments apply a zero tolerance policy to address the problem.
The law called for a comprehensive study and new regulations to address the problem. In January 2011, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a first draft of regulations subject to comments and changes. In it, immigrant detention centers were not included.
Last week the DOJ sent the final regulations to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Several civil rights groups are afraid that despite the criticism, immigrant detention centers will continue to be excluded.
“On our many visits to immigration jails, we’ve never found a place where all the necessary standards have been implemented. Many detainees don’t even know who to talk to in case of abuse,” explained Michelle Brané, director of the Women’s Refugee Commission.
The agency that is the biggest opponent of applying these regulations to immigrant detention centers is the Department of Homeland Security. In fact, on Nov. 30, former NPREC president, Judge Reggie Walton, sent a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, in which he specified the seriousness of the situation in an attempt to change DHS’s position.
“Excluding immigrant detention centers from the PREA requirements and the implementation of the final regulations that the DOJ will adopt, will leave detainees in a situation vulnerable to continued abuse,” argues the letter obtained by La Opinión.
A DHS official explained to La Opinión that the problem is not with compliance with PREA, but with the DOJ. “There are serious budget and operational implications for DOJ—which supervises the prison system—by setting standards for other agencies like the Department of Defense, DHS and Health and Human Services, when they can barely manage their own prison system.”
“This is an example of an agency so mired in its own problems that it charges in any direction to change the subject,” he added.
DHS argues that the zero tolerance policy is already incorporated in immigration detention centers and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has developed “reviews of the standards of detention, with requirements to respond appropriately to sexual abuse,” said Gillian Christensen, spokesperson for the agency.
The clear friction between DOJ and DHS on this issue will put the OMB and the White House in a difficult situation when it comes to delivering the final regulations, especially in a critical election year.
A transgender woman claims she was sexually assaulted by a Corrections Corporation of America guard at the private immigration prison it runs in Eloy, outside of Phoenix.
CCA is the biggest private operator of immigration prisons in the country and holds almost half of the 33,000 people in federal custody on any given day, the ACLU of Arizona said in a statement.
The federal complaint against CCA, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, and the City of Eloy claims that local and federal officials failed to protect Tanya Guzman-Martinez from abusive CCA guards, even after they were notified about the sexual assault and harassment.
Guzman, who was imprisoned for eight months in Eloy, says she was sexually assaulted there twice.
”One incident occurred on December 7, 2009 and involved a detention officer who after repeated harassment, maliciously forced Guzman-Martinez to ingest his ejaculated semen and threatened to deport her back to Mexico if she did not comply with his demands,” the ACLU said. “Guzman-Martinez immediately reported the assault to detention staff and the Eloy Police Department and the detention officer was later convicted in Pinal County Superior Court of attempted unlawful sexual contact.
”Despite this attack, immigration officials did nothing to protect her from further abuse. In a separate incident that took place on April 23, 2010, Guzman-Martinez was sexually assaulted by a male detainee in the same all-male housing unit where she was subjected to the first assault. She didn’t report the assault to local police until about a week later because she feared retaliation by detention staff and other detainees. Soon after she reported the second assault to the police, Guzman-Martinez was released from ICE custody.”
CCA has been sued repeatedly for abuses in its private prisons.
Guzman seeks punitive damages for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, battery, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and other deprivations of constitutional rights.
She is represented by ACLU attorneys Daniel Pochoda, with assistance from Kristina Holmstrom and Kirstin Story of Lewis and Roca.
Courage comes in many different forms. For Esmeralda, a transgender asylum seeker from Mexico, who faced horrific circumstances in immigration detention, it came in the form of seeking justice. Kept in a segregated cell with other transgender detainees, Esmeralda never realized that her experience in detention would match the trauma of discrimination she had faced back home. But her story is also one of hope in its desire to create change.
Source: “Esmeralda: A Transgender Detainee Speaks Out” — Breakthrough
In 1996, Congress passed immigration reform legislation that led to the explosion of the immigration detention system. It is now the fastest-growing incarceration program in the country, leading the rapid expansion of the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. In 2005, the Department of Homeland Security detained 237,667 individuals: an average of 19,619 per day.
Christina Madraso, a transsexual woman, sought asylum in the U.S. after being badly beaten based on her gender identity in Mexico. However, her nightmare continued when she was detained in the Krome Service Processing Center, where she was placed in the men’s ward, and faced harassment by guards and other detainees. She was then transferred into an isolation unit, where she was sexually assaulted twice by the same guard. After the second rape, INS officials told her that she could either transfer to a mental institution, county prison, or give up her asylum claim.
Victoria Arellano, an undocumented transgender woman with HIV, died in an ICE detention facility in California after being denied necessary medication to prevent opportunistic infections, despite organizing efforts by fellow detainees to obtain medical treatment for her.
Source: “Law Enforcement Violence Against Women of Color & Trans People of Color: A Critical Intersection of Gender Violence & State Violence” — An Organizer’s Resource And Tool Kit from Incite! Women of Color Against Violence