The Georgia Department of Corrections is under federal investigation in connection with its treatment of LGBT inmates. The U.S. Attorney’s office confirms it has started a joint investigation with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The investigation into the treatment of LGBT people in correctional custody is the first of its kind, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
In an emailed statement, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, said, “Transgender and gay prisoners are vulnerable to abuse in prisons and deserve the same right to be treated humanely as any other prisoner. This investigation will help to ensure that no one is targeted for abuse of any kind based on their gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. We are working cooperatively with the state of Georgia in conducting our inquiry and ensuring that prisoners in its custody are safe.”
The investigation comes one year after the Department of Justice weighed in on a transgender inmate’s lawsuit. In that case, Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman, claimed the state corrections department had denied her adequate medical treatments and failed to protect her from sexual violence in a men’s facility.
In its brief, the Justice Department said not providing inmates like Ashley Diamond individualized medical treatment and care for gender dysphoria is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Diamond had served three years of an eight year sentence for a probation violation related to a nonviolent crime.
Chinyere Ezie, who represented Diamond on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center, says the investigation is a welcome development. She said during the SPLC’s work on Diamond’s case, they were aware of many troubling reports “with respect to staff harassment, with respect to vulnerability to sexual assault and sexual victimization, including by members of staff, but not limited to that.”
Diamond had received hormone treatments for 17 years prior to her incarceration, but said prison officials denied her that treatment when she entered a men’s prison. In prison, she was outspoken about surviving violent sexual attacks as well as the emotional damage they caused.
Last year, weeks after the Department of Justice weighed in on Diamond’s lawsuit, Georgia’s Department of Corrections announced it had altered department policy in order to provide adequate hormone therapy to transgender inmates.
“Now that our lawsuit is over, it’s so important to have eyes on the ground that are able to ensure that Georgia is making good on its very many promises, as well as fulfilling the needs of transgender as well as other LGB inmates when it comes to housing and safety needs,” said Ezie.
Ezie said the SPLC has heard positive reports that inmates are now facing fewer barriers to receiving adequate hormone treatment, but that the practice of housing transgender women in men’s facilities remains deeply concerning.
“As a result of those practices, you have very predictable issues of vulnerability and victimization when it comes to sexual assault,” Ezie said.
She said full adherence to the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act would not only include not basing an inmate’s housing placement on genitalia or surgical status, but allowing inmates access to the commissary items, such as undergarments, that affirm their preferred gender identity. Ezie said it’s not clear whether Georgia has taken any steps in that direction, and is hopeful the federal investigation will uncover more information on these practices.
“These departments have broad enforcement authority; they have the ability to request interviews, conduct site visits, request documents,” said Ezie, adding that investigations of this kind are the gold standard for monitoring what she worries are enduring abuses within Georgia corrections.
She pointed to the cases of other transgender inmates in Georgia, including Zahara Green and Ky Peterson, who say they have faced abuses and barriers to appropriate medical care while housed in prisons that are in conflict with their gender identities.
Ashley Diamond was released last August and later settled with the Georgia Department of Corrections for $250,000, according to the state attorney general’s office.
Ezie said since her release, Diamond has continue to advocate for the rights of transgender people both inside and out of prison.
“But it’s never easy transitioning after years behind bars, in particular where so much of your time was spent dealing with sexual abuse, with denial of care and with being housed in solitary confinement, which unfortunately was Ashley’s experience,” said Ezie.
Officials with the Georgia Attorney General’s office declined to comment on or confirm any investigation into the state’s corrections department.