Post submitted by Beth Sherouse, former ACLS Public Fellow, HRC Senior Content Manager

[Trigger Warning: sexual assault]

When Zahara Green was 23, she was arrested for shoplifting. Despite having identified and lived as a woman since she was 17, the State of Georgia placed her in a men’s prison where she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by another inmate, Darryl Ricard, who was known to be a violent sexual predator.

According to Zahara, Ricard demanded sexual favors and threatened to kill her if she denied him. Prison guards allegedly knew what was happening and did nothing. For months, she was too scared to even ask for help. When she finally managed to get into protective custody, Ricard was waiting for her in what was supposed to be a private cell, where he violently raped her and threatened her with a razor. The prison guards who were supposed to be checking on her every 30 minutes left her alone with her rapist for 24 hours.

Zahara is now suing the Georgia prison that subjected her to such torture.

When discussing the issue of transgender women of color in prison, it is important to realize how some of them got there – that it is not their transgender identity, but rather the stigma ascribed to it that put them at heightened risk for arrest. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NDTS), 50 percent of Black respondents and 34 percent of Latino/a respondents reported being forced to work in underground economies such as drug sales or sex work for income. In other words, the racism and transphobia these women face is so severe that some are unable to get education or employment, so they are compelled to commit crimes in order to simply survive.

Thirty-eight percent of Black respondents had been harassed by police. As criminologists Carrie Buist and Codie Stone have argued, “many transgender people are wary of police interactions due to the potential for re-victimization by police.”

Transgender women of color, moreover, are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, especially when they are incarcerated. The NDTS found that 38 percent of Black respondents who had been to jail or prison had been sexually assaulted by a fellow inmate or a staff member. A study of California prisons showed that transgender women housed in men’s prisons were 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted as non-transgender inmates.

Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003 with the explicit goal of eliminating sexual assault in prisons, jails, and other confinement facilities.  The Justice Department’s rules implementing PREA state that decisions on housing transgender inmates must be made on a case-by-case basis, and that officials must give serious consideration to an inmate’s own views regarding his or her own safety. Yet, Zahara Green, Ashley Diamond, Carey Smith, and many other individuals are proof that transgender inmates’ pleas to be placed in gender-appropriate housing aren’t heeded by prisons officials.  And cases like Zahara’s story are the tragic result.  These standards are only effective if they are implemented uniformly. It is clear that we – and the Justice Department – still have significant work to do.

Filed under: Communities of Color

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