SAN FRANCISCO -- The first time an immigration judge determined that Grace Lawrence was going to be deported, Lawrence wanted to end it all. She went back to her cell, bid a mental farewell to her two children and proceeded to tie her bed sheets together in order to hang herself. A guard arrived just in time to stop her.
“I was mad at my family. I was mad at the world. I felt useless, worthless, unwanted,” said Lawrence, 43.
As a transgender woman from Liberia, the thought of returning to her home country was unbearable. Lawrence had witnessed individuals there burned alive for being gay. But the thought of enduring one more day in administrative segregation – or solitary confinement – was just as unnerving. It was frustrating to be unable to communicate with the outside world, not even with the lawyer who was helping her seek asylum.
Lawrence’s experience behind bars – in Santa Clara County jail, south of San Francisco, and El Centro Service Processing Center, south of Los Angeles -- illustrates how this type of lock up can cut people off from the few legal lifelines available to them.
“The only way I could keep in touch with my lawyer was by writing,” said Lawrence. “I would even write letters to the judge, screaming, ‘Please don’t deport me; this is what will happen.’”
Detainees in confinement are let out at different times each day. Lawrence recalls that oftentimes she wouldn’t be let out of her cell until after 5 p.m., once the official business day was over.
Communicating through regular mail, a sluggish process that can be even slower inside a jail facility, was sometimes her only option.
“It’s harder to prepare a case for someone who is spending 23 hours a day in administrative segregation. It’s hard 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,” said Cara Jobson, a San Francisco attorney. Jobson represented Lawrence and has handled hundreds of cases involving immigrant LGBT detainees for more than 10 years.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains male-to-female transgender individuals in facilities with men when they still have their male parts. While no policies exist to determine how and where to place transgender detainees, each immigration detention center and each jail facility that houses immigrants can use its own discretion to decide whether to put them in confinement or house them with the general prison population.
Currently, ICE does not keep records of how many detainees are transgender or how many are put in confinement. Lawrence, who was moved around to different facilities in California and Nevada, was placed in confinement each time.
Studies show that male-to-female transgender women are subject to physical and sexual abuse by other detainees when placed with the general population because of their physical appearance. Immigration officials say keeping transgender detainees in confinement is supposed to create a safeguard against these dangers.
Still, lawyers argue this is also creating a buffer between transgender detainees and the people who can give them information about their legal options and provide help.
The road to detention
Grace Lawrence first came to the attention of ICE after she served two months in Santa Clara County jail.
As a transgender woman with no legal documentation, her options for making a living had been limited, she said. She lived in an SRO in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. She hustled night after night -- prostituting and selling drugs -- to make the daily rent of $75.
In 2006, police arrested her for possession of crack cocaine, which is considered to be a deportable crime. As soon as she served her sentence she was turned over to ICE.
Lawrence was held in ICE custody for nearly three years while she sought asylum. For all but six months, she was kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. During the hour she and other transgender detainees were allowed out of their cells, jail administrators had to lock down the rest of the jail facility in order to protect them from the general population.
But ultimately, Lawrence was lucky. Jobson was able to prove that she would be tortured and killed for being a transgender woman if she were deported to Liberia. She received asylum under the United Nations Convention Against Torture – one of the harder types of asylum cases to win.
“But that’s just me,” said Lawrence. “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.”
Locked up and shut off
Because solitary confinement can be extremely difficult, transgender detainees are often convinced to sign an order of voluntary departure and be removed from the country.
Jobson said she often comes across transgender clients in custody who have a prior removal order – meaning they entered the country illegally a second time and were detained by ICE again. Consequently, they have fewer legal options for fighting deportation.
“They’re in that bind because their first time in ICE custody, they had so little access to information that they gave up,” said Jobson.
The refusal by jail staff to let segregated detainees out of their cells can be another barrier to the legal process.
Jobson represented a transgender client who had a prior DUI. The judge said he would release her client from detention only after she had completed a rehabilitation program for alcoholics. Although the jail had an AA program, solitary confinement made it impossible for Jobson’s client to attend.
“She had to stay in custody much longer than she would have if she wasn’t being housed in what I see is this problematic way based on her transgender status,” said Jobson.
Legal aid workers have to go out of their way in order to help these detainees.
Holly Cooper, a lawyer and professor at UC Davis, runs the school’s Immigration Law Clinic. Every month or so, she and her law students visit immigrant detainees held at Yuba and Contra Costa County jails to give presentations educating them about their legal rights. Although they have full access to the jail, the only way to reach those in confinement is by going to each of their cells. Jail administrators won’t let detainees in confinement out for these presentations.
Visiting with each immigrant in confinement is not the most efficient thing to do – in Yuba, there are up to 400 immigrant detainees to get information to – so Cooper said presenters sometimes skip these detainees. For her part, she makes it a point to visit those in confinement because they are usually the most vulnerable populations with the least access to legal information.
Solitary confinement is also debilitating for detainees. It can take a toll on their mental health and jeopardize their case. Lawyers say this is the first thing they notice when they sit down with a client who has been locked up for 23 hours each day: There is a level of paranoia, said Cooper, and it can bring on its own mental illness.
“So my biggest hurdle when they’re brought to visit is that they’re disoriented in space and time. They don’t want to focus on their legal case,” said Cooper. One client was too thirsty and distracted to pay attention as Cooper debriefed her on her case.
Jobson said her clients often look tired and depressed.
“Part of the job is saying, ‘Look, you have to hang in there. If you can hold out another few weeks, or another few months, you’re going to get relief. You’re going to be able to have a driver’s license, a social security card, all these things that are necessary to function in American society,’” said Jobson. “It’s keeping them on the way to the finish line.”
Lawrence said the dismal setting of her lone cell always got the best of her. She attempted suicide twice. She went into a deep depression and spent six months in the psychiatric ward of an immigration hospital in San Diego.
“When ICE took me into their custody, my whole world was broken down. Everything that I had, I lost it because I was in immigration detention for that long,” said Lawrence, who now takes anti-depressants.
Transgender immigrants who have been convicted of a crime and file an asylum application are held in detention until they can prove to a judge that they would be persecuted for their gender identity or sexual orientation if deported. Given the backlog of cases, some asylum seekers remain in detention for several months or years as they wait for a decision. But, Jobson said, when detainees are confined to administrative segregation, the process can be even longer.
Is there hope for transgender detainees?
Lawyers say the treatment transgender inmates receive while incarcerated is hard to control from the outside. In the Bay Area, for example, there are no federal immigration detention centers so detainees are often farmed out to different county jails throughout the state, which include Yuba, Sacramento and Contra Costa.
“That’s, then, kind of the Wild, Wild West of treatment of transgender immigrants,” said Jobson.
Lawrence recalls being called derogatory names because of her gender transition. Some ICE officers called her “sissy” and said she had “sexual issues.”
In her report, “Punishing the Innocent,” Laurel Anderson, a law clerk at Executive Office for Immigration Review, argues that ICE must find less punitive ways to house transgender detainees, such as not relying on the use of confinement as the only way to ensure their safety. She also suggests that ICE expand an existing provision that would allow detainees to be released from custody if they are applying for asylum and have credible grounds for fear of persecution in detention.
Lawrence said she felt a wave of relief wash over her when she was eventually released from ICE custody in 2009. Now living in Section 8 housing, she volunteers with the TGI Justice Project in San Francisco mentoring transgender women.
But the memory of her time in ICE custody is vivid. She remembers the steel bed and the steel toilet. She recalls feeling scared and overwhelmingly lonely. She did find one way to manage.
“I believe in God and I read the bible from start to finish when I was in custody,” said Lawrence, “And that was a good thing.”
This story was made possible through funding from the Rosenberg Foundation’s California Immigration Reporting Project at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
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