U.S. Army / Reuters

Transgender inmate takes on Georgia prison system amid Manning transfer

Lawyer for transgender woman says prison’s withholding of hormones and health care is ‘cruel and unusual punishment’

Ashley Diamond was raped by a fellow inmate at a male prison in Georgia, her lawyers told Al Jazeera. She has also reportedly spent most of her time while incarcerated in solitary confinement — the prison’s apparent response to constant threats of physical and sexual abuse against her.

Instead, solitary has kept Diamond, a transgender woman, from receiving life and employment counseling as well as prevented her from having recreation time, her lawyer said.

Still, her legal counsel at social justice advocacy group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said it’s a lack of much-needed medical treatment for Diamond that is tantamount to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“We’d like to talk to the [Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC)] about a number of other things,” SPLC legal director David Dinielli, said.

“Right now we are only demanding they provide the right medical care,” he said. SPLC submitted an open letter to the GDC on Tuesday.

Diamond was 34 when she was processed into Georgia's prison system in 2012, after being convicted of burglary. Dinielli said that since then prison authorities have denied her female hormone treatments and mental health care she has received since she was 17.

Her voice has reportedly begun to change and facial hair has begun to grow back, among other radical physical reversals.

The SPLC plans to file a federal lawsuit against the prison system if it does not offer Diamond the care she needs by the end of the month.

GDC's policy maintains that prison authorities are supposed to continue medical treatment that prisoners receive prior to incarceration.

“If someone goes into prison with insulin, no one would think they should be denied insulin," Dinielli said. "But for some reason some people feel free to think what she's taken for over half her life was voluntary.” 

The GDC declined to respond to questions regarding Diamond’s situation, citing medical privacy, and had not responded to questions regarding medical treatment for transgender inmates at time of publication. 

News of Diamond’s predicament has surfaced amid reports that Pentagon officials have made a deal whereby national security leaker Pvt. Chelsea Manning may be transferred to a civilian prison where she would receive treatment for her gender disorder. Yet, advocates say that such a transfer might not guarantee that Manning will receive hormone therapy because the U.S. civilian prison system has a long way to go before it stops the systematic mistreatment of transgender people.

Dinielli said that although SPLC has not conducted an exhaustive investigation into the refusal of medical care to transgender prisoners, he is aware of similar cases and Diamond has indicated she is not the only woman who has been denied care.

Questions regarding whether prisons have a responsibility to maintain the gender identity and health of their inmates have also arisen outside of Georgia.

Massachusetts prison officials late last week argued that convicted killer Michelle Kosilek did not need a sex change operation, after a court had previously ruled that the state should pay for the procedure.

Still, medical care in prison is only one part of a larger issue surrounding the way members of U.S. law enforcement treat transgender people, in or outside of prison system.

Miss Major, the 71-year-old director of the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex (TGI) Justice Project, said that outside of prison police often profile transgender women as sex workers. If the women are sentenced without previously having had gender reassignment surgery, they are typically sent to men’s prisons where Major says they are subjected to institutionalized rape.

“If there is a gang leader [making trouble] in the prison, they put a trans woman in the same cell so he will rape her and calm down,” Major said.

And Major sees putting rape victims in solitary as a longer-standing women’s rights issue: the phenomenon of blaming the victim.

“When one of the women complain, [prison guards] take her and put her in lock-up and not the person who perpetrated the act. He still gets to be with his friends. We are made to suffer for their actions,” Major said.

SPLC’s Dinielli expressed some doubt that putting transgender women in female prisons would solve their problems.

“At least offer them the option,” Major said. "They are taken away from their existences. At least let them have the choice. In regards to assignment, there is so little recourse we have to challenge this thing on a regular basis.”

Major said that not much has improved for transgender women since her days as Queer Community leader in the landmark Stonewall Movement — what was for many in the U.S., the beginning of the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. Many in her community are still afraid to leave their homes for fear of physical and sexual threats — and she said they aren’t protected by the law as “born women” are.

Major believes that transgender people’s rights have largely been forgotten amid the national bid to sanction gay marriage

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