A Grim Reminder: Solitary Confinement Is Deadly for Trans Folks

Stacy Lorraine Naber

A 30-year-old transgender woman who was locked in a legal battle to change her name has died while incarcerated in a Florida men’s prison, allegedly by suicide, several media outlets have reported. 

The Miami Herald reports that Stacy Lorraine Naber was found dead August 6 inside her isolated cell at Dade Correctional Institution near Miami. Although prison officials have not revealed a cause of death, Naber’s family members believe she committed suicide, and they note that she had been particularly distressed by her ongoing legal struggle to change her name in official jail records. 

Lee Kahn, Naber’s 60-year-old aunt, told the Herald that she found it “odd” that Naber was able to end her life while held in “protective custody,” also known as solitary confinement. 

“I always thought [Naber] would never grow old in prison,” Kahn said. “You can’t be in that kind of place and draw attention to yourself.” 

Naber was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole after being convicted in November 2013 of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of her roommate two years earlier. The Herald notes that Naber was initially serving her sentence at Okeechobee Correctional Institution, but was moved to the Dade facility after she filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections seeking a name change. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida picked up Naber’s lawsuit in March, filing a complaint that documented Naber's long history of identifying as a woman, in addition to her repeated assertions and requests of prison staff to recognize her by the female name she had used since adolescence, and provide her with medically necessary transition-related care. The complaint also recounts the numerous times Naber had been denied such treatment. 

In what now appears to be an instance of grim foreshadowing, the ACLU complaint requesting that prison officials address Naber by her chosen name and pronouns notes that "being called a name that does not match a person’s core gender identity can cause significant distress and worsen feelings of dysphoria, leading to serious physical and mental-health consequences, including suicidality and other forms of self-harm."

Upon news of Naber’s death, the ACLU attorney representing her asked the judge to dismiss her case Wednesday. But the national civil rights organization Monday filed another lawsuit, aimed at the Florida Department of Corrections’ refusal to grant another trans inmate, Reiyn Keohane, access to the medically necessary hormone therapy she had been receiving prior to her incarceration. 

Humane treatment for transgender prisoners — especially transgender women — has increasingly become a focus of progressive civil rights and prisoner advocacy organizations. In February, the Southern Poverty Law Center won a landmark settlement in favor of Ashley Diamond, a black trans woman who spent three years incarcerated with men in Georgia, where she was not only denied medically necessary care but was allegedly raped and assaulted repeatedly. While incarcerated, Diamond was also placed in solitary confinement, which is standard practice for trans prisoners across the country — allegedly for the inmate’s own protection. 

But prolonged stints in solitary confinement — where an inmate is held alone in a small cell without human contact for at least 22 hours a day — have been denounced by the United Nations and other international human rights organizations as torture. Last year a transgender woman in Maryland became the first to win a lawsuit against a state prison bureau using the Prison Rape Elimination Act after she was held in solitary for 66 days and tormented by guards. 

Enduring the kind of mental anguish fostered by such isolation can do severe and permanent damage to a person’s mental health and stability. After more than two weeks in “protective custody” in a Georgia women’s prison, black trans man Ky Peterson in 2015 made an attempt on his own life and survived only because a sympathetic guard happened to pass his cell after he had taken too many antiseizure pills. 

Despite the documented detrimental effects of solitary confinement, the isolation is often used as a punitive measure in jails and prisons throughout the country. For transgender inmates, expressing one’s authentic gender can be considered administrative violations, which in turn are penalized with stints in solitary confinement. Trans advocates and prison abolitionists argue that such treatment then further elevates the risk of self-harm or suicide in a population that is already much more likely to attempt suicide than the general cisgender (nontrans) population. 

Although Naber's cause of death has yet to be confirmed, the possibility that she took her own life appears more likely in the context of her placement in solitary confinement. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the department’s Office of the Inspector General are currently investigating Naber’s death, while the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet concluded its report.

Perhaps the most high-profile example of this vicious cycle can be found in Chelsea Manning, the transgender former Army private who is serving a 35-year-sentence in a men’s military prison for leaking classified government documents to the website Wikileaks. The 28-year-old survived a suicide attempt last month and is now charged with administrative violations relating to that attempt that could be punished by indefinite solitary confinement.

“While Chelsea is suffering the darkest depression she has experienced since her arrest, the government is taking actions to punish her for that pain,” said Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project and a trans man who is a member of Manning’s legal team. “It is unconscionable and we hope that the investigation is immediately ended and that she is given the health care that she needs to recover.”

Unfortunately, suicide attempts in prison — particularly by transgender inmates who are housed with members of the opposite sex — are all too common. Strangio previously told The Advocate that incarcerated transgender people are particularly vulnerable to abuse that can severely impact their mental health. 

Manning has already suffered extensively at the hands of U.S. military officials since her 2010 arrest. While held in detention prior to her trial, she was placed in solitary confinement for 11 straight months, confined to a maximum-security cell for 23 hours a day. For the duration of that time, she was denied nearly all human contact, despite being accused of a nonviolent crime and being a model detainee with no administrative violations. At one juncture,she was improperly placed on suicide watch and denied clothing until her lawyers intervened.

The conditions of her pretrial confinement were so severe that they prompted an investigation from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, which concluded that Manning's extended period in solitary confinement amounted to "inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of Article 16 of the convention against torture." A judge eventually ruled that Manning's treatment had been improper and ordered that 112 days be removed from her sentence due to her mistreatment.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included a quote from Naber's initial legal complaint, not the most recent filing by the ACLU. The text above has been corrected to include direct quotes from the most recent filing on Naber's behalf before her death. 

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