Southern Poverty Law Center, Getty, MTV

New Laws Highlight The Dangerous, Devastating Lives Of Transgender Inmates

If prisons in the US are required to protect the incarcerated, why were 40% of transgender inmates assaulted in the last year?

MTV News recently wrote about how hard life is for women and girls in prison, but a survey of recent headlines makes it clear that transgender prisoners also face their own devastating injustice: They're routinely put in dangerous situations, denied necessary medication, and treated with disrespect by the entire prison system.

Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman being held at a men's prison in Georgia, is no longer putting up with this. She's recently made national headlines because she has chosen to step forward and reveal the truth about what prison is like for trans people.

Her story has sparked a debate between activists, lawmakers, and prisons themselves over the health and safety of some of their most vulnerable inmates.

The Rape and Abuse of Ashley Diamond

Ashley Diamond was imprisoned in 2012 for violating probation after being convicted of theft, and since then she has been housed in a series of facilities reserved for the most violent male prisoners in Georgia.

In February 2015, Ashley filed a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections because she was denied the hormone treatments she’d been taking for 17 years prior to her arrest. Court documents state that without her hormone therapy, Ashley’s body has been “violently transformed.”

Stopping hormones has caused Ashley's voice to deepen, her breasts to shrink, and facial hair to grow where none used to be. Because the body stops making its own hormones after being on prolonged hormone treatment therapy, symptoms of withdrawal include intense mood swings, depression, tiredness, and irritability.

Ashley was able to secretly film herself from inside the prison:

Despite the painful, involuntary changes to her body, Ashley is still a woman. The physical and mental toll of being without hormone therapy has caused Ashley such intense gender dysphoria, or distress over the incongruity between her perception of herself and the state of her physical body, that anxiety and depression have set in. As a result, Ashley has made attempts to castrate herself and to end her own life several times.

According to Ashley's lawsuit, she has also been raped by inmates at least seven times. She has been forced into solitary confinement for “pretending to be a woman,” and has been called derogatory slurs by prison officials.

Ashley says that when she was arrested, officers refused to check the box on her intake forms designating her as transgender, and also refused to list her hormone therapy treatments among the medications she was currently taking.

Her repeated requests to be moved to a safer facility have all been denied.

What the Law Says vs. What Really Happens in Prisons

Prisons in the U.S. are required by law to provide inmates with adequate medical and mental health care, and to protect them from abuse and sexual assault. A number of Supreme Court decisions have determined that a prison’s failure to do so violates prisoners’ constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Despite these protections, Ashley Diamond’s case is not unusual. According to a report from the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, nearly one in six transgender people, including 21% of transgender women, have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that nearly 40% of transgender prisoners reported being sexually assaulted or abused in the last year by either another prisoner or prison staff. This means that transgender individuals are imprisoned at a much higher rate than the general population, and are victimized nearly 10x more than other inmates.

“Sadly,” Harper Jean Tobin, attorney and Director of Policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality tells MTV News, “Ms. Diamond’s case appears typical of what transgender women experience around the country: being housed with men, raped, humiliated, denied medical care, and ignored, mocked, or punished further when she pleaded for help. Despite federal rules, most states still house all trans women with men. Predictably, most are sexually assaulted. What trans people experience is a concentrated form of the degradation and abuse that pervade American prisons.”

“But we also have to ask why Ms. Diamond is serving a decade-plus sentence to begin with," Ms. Tobin adds. "Here is a woman who was kicked out of [her] home as a youth, deemed unemployable as a trans person, and resorted to low-level theft to survive. Why have 47% of black trans women been incarcerated at some point in their lives?"

New Requirements Bring Some Hope

A law created in 2005 in Wisconsin, banning all hormone treatments for transgender inmates, was overturned by a federal appeals court back in 2011 for violating prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights. That case made it clear that the physical and mental anguish experienced by transgender prisoners who are denied hormone therapy treatment can constitute cruel and unusual punishment if prisoners' medical needs aren't assessed on an individualized basis. But many states have avoided providing hormone therapy for transgender inmates by enacting “freeze frame” policies, which allow inmates to continue treatment they were receiving before they were arrested, but won’t allow them to receive any new treatments, like changing hormone dosage or electing to have gender reassignment surgery.

Thursday, April 2nd, the Transgender Law Center announced that they won a court order requiring a California prison to provide “adequate medical care, including gender-affirming surgery, to Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, a transgender woman being held in a men’s prison.”

The following day, the Justice Department issued a brief in support of Ashley’s lawsuit, stating that "Failure to provide individualized and appropriate medical care for inmates suffering from gender dysphoria violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment."

This is a big deal because it’s the first time the Justice Department has ever directly commented on whether states are required to provide hormone therapy for transgender inmates.

“Between the ruling in Michelle Norsworthy’s case and the brief in Ashley Diamond’s both the court and the Department of Justice affirmed last week that no one, including transgender people, should be denied the medical care they need," Kris Hayashi, Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center told MTV News. "Medical decisions should be based on conversations between a patient and their doctor, and the state shouldn’t intervene with treatment a doctor says is necessary.”

How You Can Help

Hayashi adds that we still have a long way to go. The Transgender Law Center is advocating for the removal of all blanket healthcare exclusions for transgender individuals--whether they’re in prison or not--for oversight and implementation of the existing Prison Rape Elimination Act, and for training and oversight of all prison staff regarding interactions with transgender prisoners.

To get involved with transgender prison advocacy or offer pen pal support to LGBT prisoners, check out TGI Justice Project and Black and Pink.