(Los Angeles) – Dozens of transgender women, including asylum seekers who have come to the United States seeking protection from abuse in their home countries, are locked up in jails or prison-like immigration detention centers across the country at any point in time, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Many have been subjected to sexual assault and ill-treatment in detention, while others are held in indefinite solitary confinement.
The 68-page report, “‘Do You See How Much I’m Suffering Here?’: Abuse against Transgender Women in US Immigration Detention,” documents 28 cases of transgender women who were held in US immigration detention between 2011 and 2015. More than half of the transgender women Human Rights Watch interviewed were held in men’s facilities at some point. Half also spent time in solitary confinement, in many cases allegedly for their protection. But solitary confinement is a form of abuse in and of itself, and many who had spent time there experienced trauma and profound psychological distress.
“Many trans women arrive in the US seeking protection from violent abuse in their home countries,” said Adam Frankel, coordinator in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Instead, they face further mistreatment under detention policies that put them needlessly at risk of violence and abuse.”
Until recently, transgender women in immigration detention were routinely held in men’s detention facilities, where many have been sexually assaulted and frequently harassed by male detainees and guards – the same kinds of abuses that drive many transgender women to flee their home countries in the first place. These women said that they were forced to sleep and shower in the same communal areas as dozens of men, and that guards often refused to protect them and stood idly by without intervening when they were abused.
In June 2015, the US government announced a new set of guidelines intended to improve their detention conditions, making it a priority to place them in units that exclusively house transgender women. The new policy is an important development, but the measures lack an independent oversight mechanism to ensure that they are carried out at individual detention centers, Human Rights Watch said.
“When trans women are placed by the state into a male facility, you’re setting them up for sexual violence,” said Isa Noyola, director of programs at Transgender Law Center, and a leading national advocate for immigrant transgender women. “Many of our community members have had to lose a lot, face a lot of violence to get here, and to then be further placed in situations where they experience, on a daily basis, more violence, is not okay.”
Today, a majority of transgender women in US immigration detention are housed in a segregated unit at the Santa Ana City Jail, in Southern California. But Santa Ana is hardly the model of responsible practice it is made out to be. Transgender women there told Human Rights Watch that they are regularly subjected to humiliating and abusive strip searches by male guards. Many say that they have not been able to get adequate medical services, including hormone replacement therapy, and have spent unreasonably long periods of time in solitary confinement.
Current detention policies continue to allow immigration authorities to house transgender women in men’s facilities or in solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time. Transgender women held outside the segregated unit at Santa Ana often face even more abusive conditions, including being housed with men or in prolonged isolation.
“At the very least, the US government should ensure that transgender women who are detained are held in a setting that is free of abuse and respects and provides for their medical and mental health needs,” Frankel said. “If it is unable or unwilling to take the necessary steps to do so, it should not hold transgender women in immigration detention at all.”