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Black transgender woman files second lawsuit against Georgia Department of Corrections for not keeping her safe

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Ashley Diamond, a Black transgender woman, says she is being abused and raped while in prison. Diamond filed her second lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections for not protecting her or providing the necessary health care she and other incarcerated trans people require. CBSN's Lana Zak spoke to Diamond's lawyer, Chinyere Ezie, about the lawsuit and the impact it could have on the trans community.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: The Department of Corrections in Georgia is facing a significant lawsuit claiming it fails to protect transgender inmates and provide adequate health care. Ashley Diamond filed the lawsuit. She is a Black trans woman who is currently in prison for a parole violation. This is the second lawsuit she has filed against the GDC.

In 2015, she filed a suit against the Department for, quote, "abusive conditions" facing incarcerated transgender people. Diamond settled with the Department, but her case made her a leader in the treatment of incarcerated trans people.

And joining me now is Diamond's lawyer, Chinyere Ezie, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Thank you for being with us, Chinyere. When was the last time that you spoke with your client? And how is Ashley?

CHINYERE EZIE: I spoke to Ms. Diamond earlier this week. As you could imagine, her situation is quite dire. She is flabbergasted, as am I, the lawyer and her original case, to be in the same circumstances, to see the same wanton indifference to her constitutional rights and her health and safety needs. And so, you know, Ashley is very determined to litigate this case, but is reluctantly a pioneer yet again for these critical issues related to trans right.

LANA ZAK: In a YouTube video the Southern Poverty Law Center posted in 2016, Ms. Diamond describes what she experienced during her prison sentence. I want to play that for our viewers.

ASHLEY DIAMOND: Because not only was it just, you know, me being raped and abused and mistreated medically, this was uniformed bigotry. It was regulated. I grieved it, and I wrote letters. I verbally said to you that I'm being raped and I'm being attacked, and I'm being harassed. And they're hurting me and help me.

LANA ZAK: How are conditions now since she has returned to prison?

CHINYERE EZIE: I think what's particularly dismaying is that conditions are virtually identical to 2015 when Ashley Diamond was incarcerated in Georgia the first time when we began our initial lawsuit. You know, it's something that shocked even the cynic in me that so little would have changed-- despite our landmark lawsuit-- the ways that Georgia became under scrutiny even from the Department of Justice at the time; how there was almost universal condemnation for the ways that they were just leaving transgender women to the wolves both in terms of health care and safety.

And to find that the same cynical practices of denying medically necessary treatment to transgender women and all transgender people in prison, denying any sort of meaningful access to safety or housing placements that keep them reasonably safe, it's really been-- it's been a theme of this new lawsuit sort of how little has changed. But I can say that both as Ashley's advocate and as a lawyer, it's just-- it is dismaying, and it's kind of an unspeakably sad aspect of this case.

LANA ZAK: For someone not fully aware of the struggles of the community, can you explain why there's a growing number of incarcerated transgender inmates?

CHINYERE EZIE: Sure. You know, it's something that I often attribute to what I've termed the discrimination-to-incarceration pipeline. We live in a society where until just last year, there was no clarity through the Supreme Court about whether transgender people are protected in the workplace, where for decades, we've had histories of exclusion and education, in employment that have forced transgender people into underground economies into ways of survival that are often criminalized.

And so you know, Ashley Diamond is incarcerated because she wrote bad checks, [LAUGHS] $300 worth of bad checks. You know, that was enough to get her this 12-year sentence that she's currently still serving time on. And it really is an indication of what happens when we deprive people of their own means of survival because of the ways that we marginalize them in our society.

And unfortunately, we know that transgender people continue to be extremely marginalized. If any evidence is needed, just look at the number of deaths and murders that we have each and every year out of transgender women of color in this country.

LANA ZAK: Certainly a crisis. Chinyere, I want to also ask about transgender men because there has been more attention, rightfully, that our society is starting to recognize the high rates of murder of transgender women. But transgender men receive less attention. Have you heard of any cases like this ongoing for them?

CHINYERE EZIE: Absolutely. Important to raise those circumstances of transgender men. Many of them are incarcerated for their survival as well. Someone who also has spent time in Georgia Department of Corrections and really had a harrowing experience is Kai Peterson.

I lift up his story because he was incarcerated for defending himself against rapists, you know? And that was enough to-- notwithstanding the doctrines of self-defense and so forth that should have been available to him-- to give him a significant sentence of incarceration. And Kai's story was one of not necessarily the safety problems that Ashley experienced, because transgender men do tend to be housed by their sex assigned at birth, which means they tend to be in women's facilities, which are safer on the whole than men's facilities.

They still have the same challenges regarding access to health care, access to anything that affirms their gender. And so you have transgender women in men's facilities being told, you know, you're men. Act like men.

And you have transgender men and women's facilities being told, you know, stop acting like a boy. You're really a girl. And so it's really an additional form of torture an additional form of punishment to each and every day have your gender identity disaffirmed when you're in prison and jail.

LANA ZAK: I understand that there's not one solution. There's multiple things that need to be done. But I'm wondering, from your perspective, from your client's perspective, does the prison system need to build separate spaces for transgender inmates?

CHINYERE EZIE: I think at a minimum-- and it's one of our lawsuit's essential demands-- transgender people need to be housed with safety in mind. And so in the case of transgender women like Ashley, people who have a feminine appearance, who have a history and risk factors for victimization in men's prisons, there should be every effort to consider whether those are the proper placements, and whether, in fact, it would be better for them to be housed on the women's side in women's facilities.

You know, it's not going to be the solution that everyone needs or requires. But Ashley, 14 sexual assaults into her second stint of incarceration, absolutely needs and deserves consideration for placement in a women's facility.

LANA ZAK: If you do win your case, what will it mean for the transgender community as a whole?

CHINYERE EZIE: I think it will mean that although prisons are not a safe place for anyone, that transgender people will not have to have-- have rape, have forced detransition as part of the punishment for their crimes, which, again, in many cases, are economic, are survival-based.

And you know, hopefully for Ashley, it will be a vindication of all of the forced torture that she was experienced at the hands of Georgia. It'll be evidence that her struggle has not been in vain.

LANA ZAK: We did reach out to the Georgia Department of Corrections. We have not heard back.