Despite the failure of the US to ensure equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens, LGBT people around the world still see it as a place where they can live their lives freely and openly, without fear of imprisonment or torture. Thousands have come to the US seeking asylum after facing horrific persecution in their home countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And though LGBT asylum claims remain difficult to win, many people are alive today thanks to the US asylum system.
But many LGBT asylum seekers who manage to make their way to the US must face a final form of torture before they are granted asylum. Held for months or even years in immigration detention facilities, LGBT detainees are routinely housed in segregation units, often in conditions of solitary confinement.
In a recent article, The Advocate recounts the stories of several transgender detainees who were locked in segregation simply because ICE doesn’t know what else to do with them. Kripcia, a native of El Salvador, was held in solitary confinement in Virginia for eight months after she was arrested for failing to pay a cab fare. Dulce, a transgender woman from Mexico who fled to the US after a sexual assault, was arrested for shoplifting a pair of shoes and placed in solitary confinement, often referred to as “the hole,” for six days. She was eventually transferred to the same segregation unit as Kripcia, which was primarily used to house male sex offenders. Both have subsequently been released from ICE custody, and Dulce has been granted authorization to live in the US. But their experiences in solitary confinement continue to haunt them.
For its part, ICE insists it is working to institute humane conditions for LGBT detainees. Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, the ICE Public Advocate, cites the recently-released 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS), which include rules mandating the provision of hormone therapy for transgender detainees and strengthening protections for victims of sexual assault in detention centers. The PBNDS also shift away from the presumption that transgender detainees should be held in segregation units by mandating a more systematic analysis of whether they can be housed safely in the general population.
But advocates who work with detainees say that ICE has a long way to go. The PBNDS are not legally enforceable, and many smaller jails that house immigration detainees alongside criminal inmates will have little incentive to modify their contracts to incorporate the new standards. And while the PBNDS include provisions aimed at stopping sexual assault in immigration detention facilities, the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE, has refused to allow detention facilities to be regulated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which, unlike the PBNDS, is legally binding and enforceable. Despite overwhelming evidence that ICE is not doing enough to protect detainees from sexual assault, when the PREA regulations are issued in a few weeks, immigration detention facilities will likely be exempt.
Meanwhile, LGBT detainees continue to languish in detention centers, subject to abuse by guards, ICE officers, and other detainees. They have little practical recourse when they are thrown into solitary confinement, a convenient way for detention facilities to deal with an inconvenient population. While ICE is taking concrete steps to improve detention conditions for LGBT detainees, the good intentions at ICE headquarters fail to filter down to local ICE offices.
Given the mental and physical abuse that LGBT detainees suffer on a regular basis, it is little wonder that Kripcia became suicidal after eight months in solitary confinement. “I just want to die,” she told an LGBT advocate. “I’m going crazy. But if I have to die, I want to go back to my country. I can’t die in here.”