Transgender Detainees at High Risk of Assault in US Immigration Facilities
- Maria L La Ganga
- March 23, 2016
- The Guardian
Human Rights Watch finds pervasive abuse in ICE detention centers, including repeated strip-searches, despite efforts to protect vulnerable population
Transgender inmates detained in US immigration facilities are at high risk of being sexually assaulted, repeatedly strip-searched and held indefinitely in solitary confinement, according to a study released on Wednesday by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
Abuse in ICE facilities abounds, said Adam Frankel, coordinator of the organization’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender program, even though US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) created a dedicated housing unit for transgender detainees in 2011 in Santa Ana, California, and drafted new guidelines last June for dealing with the vulnerable population.
In the past, Frankel said, “there have been individual cases reported on, but we were able to demonstrate that, both at the Santa Ana facility and in ICE custody, for transgender women, these abuses are both systematic and widespread.”
ICE’s protective custody unit for transgender women, located in the Santa Ana city jail, is capable of housing up to 62 inmates. On 2 February, immigration officials told Human Rights Watch that there were 26 inmates in the unit; they did not say how many transgender women were housed in ICE’s other facilities throughout the country.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 28 women held in immigration facilities between 2011 and 2015 for the 68-page report titled, Do You See How Much I’m Suffering Here?; 11 of the transgender women were interviewed while in federal detention.
More than half of the interviewees were detained while seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border. Many had been sexually assaulted in their home countries. Around one-third were transferred to immigration custody after being arrested on largely low-level criminal offenses, including drug possession and prostitution.
A dozen women interviewed had been sexually assaulted while in immigration custody and said detention staff “either ignored or failed to adequately resolve their attempts to seek help after they reported sexual assault”, the report said.
Sara V, a transgender woman from Honduras, told the organization that she was raped in an intake cell at a privately run immigration facility in Arizona in 2014. Two men assaulted her while a third blocked the window.
“They said, ‘He thinks he’s a woman but he’s a faggot’,” Sara V recounted in the report. “ ‘In our country we kill these people.’ They made me feel bad and I started to cry.”
After she was raped, she said, “the guard came to get me and took me to the [housing] pod. She didn’t ask me if I was OK or if anything had happened.”
An ICE spokeswoman, Jennifer Elzea, said in a written statement that the agency “is committed to providing a safe, secure and respectful environment for all those in our custody, including those individuals who identify as transgender.
“The agency’s ultimate goal with regard to this population,” she said, “is to find facility partners willing to adopt the best practices detailed in ICE’s Transgender Care Memo.”
Those guidelines, issued in June, say that someone who is transgender “shall be treated as a protective custody detainee for the duration of the intake process”, that “administrative segregation” should be used as a last resort and that decisions about how to ultimately house the detainee should consider where the person will feel safest.
The Human Rights Watch study asserts that those guidelines are not followed on a regular basis.
Chris Daley, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, described the study as probably the largest sample of transgender detainees in ICE custody and said it was an “incredibly important” look at the abuse that exists and the challenges of fixing a broken system.
“There is a lot of will within the Obama administration to fix these problems, and yet they persist on almost a daily basis,” said Daley, a co-founder of the Transgender Law Center. “This is the tension writ large across the US – that reforming conditions in immigration detention, prisons, jails or juvenile justice facilities is an incredibly difficult undertaking.”
In fact, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics’ own figures give credence to the Human Rights Watch allegations.
The National Inmate Survey, released in 2014, estimated that 4% of state and federal prison inmates and 3.2% of jail inmates reported being sexually “victimized” by other inmates or staff during the previous year. The same survey showed that 34.6% of transgender inmates in prisons and 34% in jails reported being sexually assaulted.
In recent years, a small number of jurisdictions throughout the US have tried to improve conditions for transgender inmates, but the results have been spotty.
“There’s a lot of good intent,” Daley said. “Denver has good intent. Cumberland County, Maine, had one of the first policies. There’s good intent in the DC jail system. Chicago at one point really seemed to have good intent. The problem comes down to follow-through.”
San Francisco County jail is in the process of implementing a new transgender inmate policy, an effort that was kicked off by former sheriff Ross Mirkarimi before he left office earlier this year.
Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, who took the helm on 8 January, met with transgender advocates on her first day in office to move the changes forward, said chief of staff, Eileen Hirst. When the new policy is implemented in coming months, transgender inmates will be housed according to their gender identity rather than their genitalia at birth.
Currently, transgender prisoners are segregated in a separate unit in a men’s jail – which the Human Rights Watch report highlighted as a major concern in ICE facilities because it leaves them “extremely vulnerable to abuse by both male detainees and guards”.
San Francisco “is a city that prides itself on leading the way in human rights, but it’s behind a number of other jurisdictions on having even basic policies on this issue,” Daley said. However, “the county has the ability to have the most robust policy on this issue in the country.
“If,” he said, “they’re able to meet the challenges in getting it drafted and implemented.”
Originally posted at: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/mar/23/transgender-detainees-sexual-assault-ice-custody?CMP=share_btn_tw