365: An End to Solitary Confinement for Transgender Detainees

By Jamila Hammami, MSW, Executive Director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project

December 10th is the United Nations International Human Rights Day. This year, the Convention against Torture is celebrating its 30th year, and the United Nations (U.N.) theme for 2014 Human Rights Day is Human Rights 365, the idea being that: everyday is Human Rights Day. However, this is not the case for queer and transgender detainees who face the violence of the United States (U.S.) immigration detention system or Immigration Customs & Enforcement (ICE) a part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Transgender and queer immigrants flee their home countries seeking safety from sexuality- and gender- based violence. So many of these individuals flee to the United States every year seeking a better, safer life, one in which they may be able to live freely and express their gender identities and sexualities without fear. Unfortunately, for too many this dream is not fulfilled

In November of this year, U.S. government officials met with representatives at the U.N. to discuss the country’s compliance with the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).The United States came under fire for the lack of compliance with the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva, as again, the U.N. has repeated it’s concerns of the U.S. government utilizing solitary confinement as a means to imprison individuals. However, the United States continued to refuse to acknowledge it’s use of prolonged solitary confinement by stating, “there is no systematic use of solitary confinement in the United States” within its prison system, immigration detention facilities, Guantanamo Bay, etc. However there is clear targeting of queer and trans immigrants for this inhumane practice of prolonged, often months to nearly a year or more, solitary confinement in the U.S.

In a recent report by Fusion, over 300 people are in solitary confinement in ICE custody every night, including many trans detainees… ICE houses 75 trans detainees each night, 90% of them are transgender women, while 10% are transgender men”. But why are transgender women so often placed in solitary confinement? Currently, in the U.S. there are 249 facilities that house the 34,000 immigrants that ICE holds each night. For every 500 individuals in immigration detention, one individual is transgender; however, one in every five confirmed sexual assaults in immigration detention is a transgender individual.  In 2003, the U.S. passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), to provide recommendations to protect individuals from prison rape. However, ICE only recently, in March of 2014, created PREA standards for those held in immigration detention after refusing the DOJ (Department of Justice) standards. The American Civil Liberties Union found that prior to the implementation of PREA standards by DHS in March of this year, there had been over 200 reports of abuse against LGBT immigrants in detention since 2008, including numerous reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Within these PREA standards, DHS claims to have a zero- tolerance policy for sexual assault in immigration detention. They also claim that these standards assist in placing individuals in facilities based on the safety of the individual and the individuals’ gender self-identification– not on physical anatomy or identity documentation. For transgender women, this standard is incredibly important– as more often than not, they are frequently housed among men soley because of their assigned sex at birth. Without these PREA standards, they are 13 times more likely to be at risk of sexual assault. However, it is important to note that transgender women are still typically placed in men’s facilities or in solitary confinement to protect them from the general detainee population, as LGBT immigrants are at increased risk of verbal abuse, sexual assault, and physical assault in detention.

The reality of all of this is clear: ICE is a rogue agency. They fail to follow their own policies and standards to keep transgender folks safe. They fail to follow the U.N.’s standards against torture. And they fail transgender women by placing them in facilities with men, in solitary confinement, and/or occasionally within LGBT pods, which the DOJ rules banned and the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission has deemed “demoralizing and dangerous. None of these options are the answer. They all completely ignore transgender women’s needs and their safety.

There are clearly broader concerns to be had with the way that ICE chooses to handle queer and trans folks in immigration detention. Not only is solitary confinement a form of torture, but immigration detention as a whole is nothing more than another level of torture. Queer and trans folks come to the United States seeking asylum, seeking safety, however, instead of gaining safety and asylum, they are placed in immigration detention. Transgender women are misgendered and placed in men’s facilities, leaving them at risk to face incredibly disproportionate levels of sexual violence at the hands of other detainees, as well as guards. ICE is fully aware of these issues, and rather than addressing them by placing transgender women in gender- appropriate facilities to keep them safe, allowing transgender folks, the most vulnerable, out of detention and into alternative to detention programs, they choose to cover up attacks by pressuring transgender women to sign statements that their rapes were consensual and force them into solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time to keep them “safe” from the other individuals in the facilities.

This year, for World Human Rights Day, stand with transgender women in immigration detention. Stand with transgender women who not only have to face torture via prolonged periods of time in solitary confinement, but also face the violence of being misgendered and placed in men’s facilities- leaving them to endure extreme levels of sexual assault. Stand with transgender women to demand that the DHS/ICE agencies follow their own policies through PREA to place transgender women in facilities that are based on the safety of the individual and the individuals’ gender self-identification to prevent rape. Stand with transgender women to demand that the United States follows the recommendations of the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Stand to demand 365 days of Human Rights for transgender women detainees.

Join the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project & Immigration Equality on the World Human Rights Day for at noon on Human Rights Day, December 10th, for a rally outside of the U.N., at Dag Hammarskjöld Plazato demand an end to solitary confinement by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) & Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for queer and transgender immigrants.

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