Lambda Legal won a victory Monday, securing safekeeping housing for Passion Star, a black trans woman who has been fighting alleged abuse and rape she faced in Texas prisons for over a decade, reports the San Diego Gay and Lesbian News.
Incarcerated in seven all-male facilities since she was convicted of aggravated kidnapping as a teenager, the now 31-year-old woman says in her legal filing that she has faced repeated rapes, been forced to perform sexual acts to avoid violence, and been threatened with sexual assault while imprisoned.
Star's conviction, she claims, resulted from her boyfriend refusing to return a used car he was test-driving, instead driving for several hours with the car salesman in the passenger seat and Star in the backseat. She is currently serving a 20-year sentence.
Filing complaint after complaint about her alleged sexual abuse over the years, Star says Texas Department of Criminal Justice staff did not attempt to protect her, but rather displayed "deliberate indifference" to her safety — an act declared "cruel and unusual punishment," and therefore an Eighth Amendment violation, by the Supreme Court in Farmer v. Brennan (1994). Star claims in her legal filing that prison officials have told her to "suck dick," "fight," or stop "acting gay" to escape assualt; she also says she has been placed in close proximity to inmates who have threatened her, including one man who sliced her face eight times with a razor in November 2013, after calling her "a 'snitching faggot' who should be killed."
"TDCJ has an obligation to protect people in its custody from sexual and physical violence without subjecting them to indefinite detention in isolation — a form of torture — if they complain about abuse," Lambda staff attorney Jael Humphrey explained to the News. "TDCJ officials over the years had repeatedly denied Passion [access to] safekeeping, a program established to help protect prisoners vulnerable to abuse in the general population."
In response to Lambda's emergency motion seeking to protect Star from further assaults and threats, the TDCJ Monday agreed to move Star to safekeeping quarters.
In that motion, Lambda pointed out that aside from any potential Eighth Amendment violations, the Prison Rape Elimination Act should have been used to help protect Star even before she was placed in detention. The PREA, which was passed unanimously by Congress in 2003, was established to protect inmates from sexual assault and recognizes that trans women are particularly vulnerable to rape in men's facilities. The act demands that prisons assess "case-by-case" the steps needed to prevent and eliminate risks for trans inmates — but audits on whether prisons have complied with PREA did not begin until 2013, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The News reports that former Texas governor Rick Perry, who was in office when PREA passed, was dismissive of the act and decided to not use funds earmarked for the TDCJ's prevention of sexual assault.
Star's case — which represents an ongoing, widespread issue for trans prisoners, according to trans advocates — mirrors several others that have made headlines recently, including those of detained trans women LeslieAnn Manning in New York, Ashley Diamond in Georgia, and Nicoll Hernández-Polanco, who is currently detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona.
“Somebody, somehow, needs to shed light on what is taking place here in Texas prisons,” Star explained in a statement of her continued resolve to fight her treatement. “TDCJ officials get away with so much and disregard so many legitimate threats to people’s safety, and it needs to stop somewhere. I fight for my life every day in here. Safety from rape and assault is not a privilege. It’s a right, and I hope that this lawsuit will help make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Lambda Legal will continue to pursue Star's claim for damages from TDCJ while she is in safekeeping.