Eight Months in Solitary

Is a government turf war over immigration detention putting transgender lives at risk?

BY Andrew Harmon

May 07 2012 7:42 AM ET

Beyond this interagency squabble lie serious concerns for detainees from a range of officials and advocacy groups. In January, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), one of four openly gay members of Congress, joined Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) in calling for an investigation of abuse claims in ICE detention facilities (Polis believes that PREA should apply to immigration detention facilities, a spokesman said). Last summer United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez charged that ICE had violated provisions of the U.N.'s Convention Against Torture regarding the alleged abuse of more than a dozen gay and transgender detainees held in California, Texas, Pennsylvania, and other states, as detailed by a 2011 complaint from the advocacy group National Immigrant Justice Center.

Among the more chilling details in the complaint is the story of a transgender woman, referred to in redacted documents only as "B," who was held at the Santa Ana City Jail in Orange County, Calif. “B” was violently forced to perform oral sex on a male detainee while riding in a van en route to an immigration court hearing in 2010. The detention guards detailed in the complaint were often ignorant of the needs of transgender detainees — or simply showed contempt for their very existence. Following the U.N. pressure, ICE responded in a statement that a Homeland Security civil rights office would investigate, though officials declined to discuss the ongoing inquiry. "This is a widespread problem," said Jane Zurnamer, the National Immigrant Justice Center's director of policy. "If ICE can't protect these vulnerable people, they shouldn't be allowed to detain them."

But Andrew Lorenzen-Strait is convinced that ICE can do so, both safely and humanely. An attorney with a background in immigration and child advocacy issues, Lorenzen-Strait joined ICE in 2008 as a senior adviser on detention issues. He was tapped in February to become the agency's first public advocate in a newly created office with 30 staffers nationwide. Lorenzen-Strait is gay and married.

Some critics derided his new office as another example of PR masquerading as actual reform, but Lorenzen-Strait strongly contested this. "The public advocate office is not window dressing. It's a legitimate position that has teeth," he said during a recent interview in his office at ICE headquarters, a few blocks from the National Mall. "We want to make sure that detention is only used to make sure individuals comply with immigration proceedings and to mitigate flight risk. When you're in detention, there should be no degradation. We do have effective oversight to make sure that people don't languish, because they shouldn't."

LGBT issues became a key concern for ICE as President Obama took office. Nearly everyone with expertise on the matter agrees that the current administration better understands the needs of transgender detainees than its predecessors. Under George W. Bush, detention conditions for transgender individuals were severely inadequate in terms of protection and medical care. At least one transgender woman, and possibly two, died in detention during that time.

In formulating the new detention standards, ICE worked with stakeholder groups including the National Immigrant Justice Center, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and Immigration Equality. Over two years, the groups made progress on several key issues. One was a commitment to better hormone therapy access. Despite conservative backlash against ICE, that recommended policy is a no-brainer, Lorenzen-Strait said. "If a transgender individual was taking hormone therapy before they were in custody, it's a medical need, and that's what should be driving the decision, not anything else,” he said. “Prudent minds can and should agree here."

Meanwhile, administrative segregation shouldn’t be considered the default option for transgender detainees who have done nothing to warrant solitary confinement. "Because there's a tendency to believe that a transgender detainee may feel further victimization, there's been a presumption of segregation," Lorenzen-Strait said. "We put out a policy that says 'no' to that presumption. We look at a totality of circumstances, and ask whether a detainee could be housed in the general population with effective monitoring."

Following the National Immigrant Justice Center complaint, ICE created a dedicated protective custody unit for transgender and gay detainees in the Santa Ana City Jail. Lorenzen-Strait dispatched a team member last month to review the facility, and reported that detainees “feel more welcome, and there's a greater understanding of their needs," he said.

Talia Inlender, an immigration attorney who works often with detainees at the jail, had a more mixed review. “Although there have been important improvements for gay and transgender immigration detainees in Santa Ana, problems persist,” she said. “Delays in medical care and complaints of mistreatment remain. Having robust and enforceable detention standards for medical care and legal rights would be a big step forward, and detaining fewer gay and transgender people in these facilities would be an even bigger step.”

Lorenzen-Strait declined to discuss specific policy decisions regarding PREA but was adamant that his office had laid the groundwork for effective response to sexual assaults. "We believe that there's no daylight between PREA and our sexual assault standard, which had robust input from the NGO [nongovernmental organization] community. We have a strong, layered approach to compliance, and we're going to take sexual assault seriously."

The timeline for implementing such standards in the nation's detention facilities is an ambitious one. Lorenzen-Strait said that the detention centers operated by ICE will adopt the regulations by June. Privately run facilities, such as the new Karnes County center near San Antonio, are expected to implement the standards by July, he said, with a goal of all facilities holding detainees becoming compliant by year's end.

Advocates as well as some administration officials are dubious about ICE's ability to do so. This is not to say that Lorenzen-Strait isn’t well regarded among advocates interviewed for this article. His office’s commitment to the well-being of LGBT detainees wasn’t questioned in multiple interviews. But the new standards will require extensive contract renegotiations with large, private contractors, such as Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group, which runs Karnes County. "There's no obligation for any of the contract facilities to modify these contracts," said Chris Daley, deputy executive director of Just Detention International. "And it's not at all clear that facilities, particularly county jails, are going to do this at the request of DHS."

Even if they did so, local jails would be burdened with implementing two sets of standards: those mandated by the Justice Department for inmates, and those put forth by DHS for immigration detainees.

"The standards seem like pie in the sky at this point," said Rosalba Davis, a former staff attorney for Immigration Equality who is now in private practice. "Each detention center operates like its own fiefdom and doesn't feel bound by the national standards. I hope this changes, though. I hope the detention centers start realizing that treating detainees humanely and with dignity is not difficult."

Dulce (left) and Ruby Corado

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