Ashley Diamond, a 37-year-old transgender woman who is suing the Georgia Department of Corrections, received an unexpected parole last week.
In the three years she spent housed in men’s prison facilities, Diamond said she faced multiple sexual assaults and was denied the hormone therapy she’d received for 17 years before her incarceration.
On a Tuesday morning, our conversation was the first of a marathon of press interviews set up for the day at a hotel in Rome, Georgia, where she’s from.
Dreams To Nightmares
Diamond is tall and poised in her blazer and jeans. When she turns her head to speak, her dangling silver earrings jingle lightly.
“I was always lucky. I was always friends with the well-to-do families,” said Diamond. “We went to high school; we sang; we went to the cheerleading. We did all the normal things that kids do.”
In Rome, she was active in theater and dreamed of working in the music industry.
Diamond said she first told her family that she was a girl when she was 6 years old. After a suicide attempt at age 15, she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the medical term for wanting to live as a gender other than the one assigned you at birth.
Her father kicked her out, and she was taken in by friend’s families. Looking for work as a teenager, she ran into resistance immediately. Diamond remembers applying for a job at a McDonald’s.
“When they asked me for my Social Security card and my ID, she looked down at it and said, ‘Oh this must be a mistake.’ And I said, ‘No ma’am.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’m absolutely sorry. We don’t do that here,'” she said. “That. Here.”
Finding and keeping work did not get easier. More rejections followed, and Diamond began stealing.
“The crimes, you know, I accept full responsibility. I’m very sorry for the people I’ve hurt. I needed the money to survive,” she said.
She was arrested and put on probation for theft in 2010. About a year later, police say Diamond ran from then when they tried to deliver another warrant.
By the time she was given an 11 year sentence, Diamond had been on hormones treatments for 17 years. That ended when she got to prison, bringing on painful physical and emotional changes.
“On The Inside, She’s Gone”
As she speaks, Diamond dips in and out of a deep pool of horrifying experiences she faced in prison. In her lawsuit, she said she was raped seven times in Georgia prisons. Before incarceration, Diamond said she’d only ever had three boyfriends.
“I went from that to multiple partners that I had no say over. I think you lose a part of you. And so much of me is lost,” she said.
For now, Diamond is staying with her younger sister, Diana Wilson, who remembers her as a different person.
“We were poor growing up, but she made her style,” said Wilson.
“She would take the guess jeans symbol and sew it to every different pair of pants that she wore. And I just think of how beautiful she was. She had Madonna and Mariah Carey posters everywhere, and that’s all she sang. She became them.”
At home, she said Diamond is despondent. She suffers panic attacks. Wilson said she’s found her grimacing in pain from rapes and beatings she endured in prison. While there, Diamond attempted suicide and self-castration with a razor, according to court filings.
“It’s hard, because she’s not who she was when she left. She’s her on the shell, but on the inside, she’s gone. It’s like they emptied out all of her insides and sent her back,” said Wilson.
When she does speak, said Wilson, it’s about the lawsuit.
In February, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Georgia Corrections officials on Diamond’s behalf ─ for failing to protect her from attacks, and for not providing adequate medical care, including hormone treatments. Diamond’s lawsuit against Georgia corrections is ongoing.
Continuing The Fight
The U.S. Department of Justice weighed in on the case this summer, saying Georgia’s “freeze frame” policy of offering inmates only the same level of treatment they’d received before incarceration violated the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.
Shortly thereafter, the department announced they’d changed that policy, but Diamond’s lawyer, Chinyere Ezie, said there’s been no real difference. Months after the change, Diamond, who for most of her time in prison, had been denied hormones, said the department did begin allowing her treatment, but at inadequate levels.
“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors currently in the department of corrections. People continue to be denied care under the same terms and under the same lines as they always had,” said Ezie.
Recent court filings cite other Georgia inmates who’ve been refused hormone treatment on the same grounds as the old policy.
A corrections spokesperson said that because Diamond’s lawsuit is pending, the department cannot comment.
Currently seven Georgia inmates are receiving treatment for gender dysphoria. One of them is getting hormone therapy. That’s out of a population of about 54,000 incarcerated persons.
Flor Bermudez, with the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, said there aren’t hard numbers for how many transgender people are in American prisons.
“When transgender people are booked and placed, most likely they are being booked and placed based on their sex assigned at birth,” said Bermudez.
Once incarcerated, many may be reluctant to live openly because of the risk of violence. One University of California study found that transgender women housed in men’s prisons were 13 percent more likely to experience sexual violence than the general prison population.
Diamond said it’s been incredible to see transgender activists like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock raising awareness of these and other issues. But in reality, the world she’s returning to in Rome, Georgia, is largely the way she left it. Except now she has a felony conviction, and the accompanying physical and emotional damage of her time in prison.
“Right now I am as worried as anybody about what the next step is going to be,” said Diamond.
Her sister is blunter about Diamond’s prospects in Rome, where for now, she’s required to stay.
“I don’t think she has an option here. The people here are so cruel and so bigoted,” said Wilson. When they’re out, she said, people stare and are disrespectful.
“She doesn’t have a chance for a job here. I want her to go, but they’re tellin’ her she can’t go, and they’re setting her up to stay here,” she said.
Wilson said she knows her sister loves fighting for other people, and that for now, it’s that sense of mission that’s keeping Diamond going. But she has serious fears about her surviving life in her hometown.