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.
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