For Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman serving time in Georgia for nonviolent offenses, it seemed like something akin to victory.
After years of denying her hormone therapy, housing her with male prisoners and failing to protect her from sexual assault, the Georgia Department of Corrections changed its treatment policy, released Ms. Diamond on parole and reached a settlement in her lawsuit. She became a leading voice for incarcerated transgender people.
Five years later, it is as if she had never won.
Ms. Diamond was sent back to prison about a year ago for a parole violation. Once again she has been housed with men, and says she has been sexually assaulted more than 14 times since her return, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on Monday by her lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
She has again been denied treatment, leading to attempts at suicide and self-castration, the lawsuit says.
Ms. Diamond has repeatedly notified prison authorities of abuse and assaults, including an episode in which she says she was locked in a windowless office by a corrections officer. The officer instructed her to set up a makeshift bed and then mocked and sexually abused her for hours, the lawsuit asserts.
She is now housed in a cell with a door that does not lock, and has been brutalized and assaulted there by multiple assailants, the lawsuit says.
“Five years after changing its policies in response to our first lawsuit, G.D.C. tragically continues to flout its legal obligations to protect transgender people in its custody,” said Beth Littrell, senior attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, referring to the state corrections department. “The assaults and threats that Ashley continues to face on a daily basis are inexcusable.”
The Georgia Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Though transgender prisoners are at high risk of sexual violence, only a handful of states have granted requests for them to be housed in facilities with people of the same gender, according to Lynly Egyes, the legal director of the Transgender Law Center. “The protections that exist to keep transgender people safe are inadequate and fail every time,” she said.
In 2019, Georgia adopted a new policy for the “Classification and Management of Transgender and Intersex Offenders” that is supposed to make placement decisions on an case-by-case basis, give serious consideration to the transgender person’s own views regarding safety, provide inmates with the opportunity to shower separately, and reassess their placement after any incident of sexual abuse.
None of that has happened for Ms. Diamond. In practice, officials assign people based solely on their assigned sex at birth, and punish them for “perceived gender-nonconformity,” the lawsuit said.
“I’m really hurt that I’m having to sue G.D.C. over the same set of circumstances,” Ms. Diamond said in an email sent to her lawyer. “It is no easy task taking on a principality of evil like the prison system. But I refuse to let my people be mistreated because of a lack of basic human understanding and decency.”
Chinyere Ezie, one of her lawyers, said Ms. Diamond’s statements were general because her emails are monitored and she fears retaliation if she recounts the details of what she is experiencing.
The lawsuit claims that prison officials disregard their own policy of providing individualized medical treatment, instead offering only hormone therapy, often in subtherapeutic doses “due to lack of monitoring, interruption and delay.”
Ms. Diamond, 42, comes from Rome, Ga., and has lived as a transgender woman since adolescence, beginning hormone therapy at 17. During a high point in her life, she lived in Atlanta, performed as a cabaret star and Whitney Houston impersonator and appeared on Sally Jessy Raphael’s talk show.
But at times she struggled. She was arrested for stealing checks and breaking into a friend’s apartment. Her major charge was burglary, but she also faced several other charges, including attempted escape during an arrest. She was convicted and sentenced to more than a decade in prison.
Just as Laverne Cox was becoming famous for portraying a transgender prisoner in a woman’s facility on the television program “Orange is the New Black,” Ms. Diamond was facing the horrors of being strip-searched in front of men, housed with them and sexually assaulted. She experienced the reversal of years of treatment aimed at giving her a woman’s body shape and appearance, and grew facial hair for the first time.
Prison doctors gave her diagnoses of bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder and warned that the gender dysphoria she had successfully managed for years was flaring up, leading to attempts at self-harm.
She made illicit cellphone videos to tell people about her plight. “While it seems like the whole world is obsessed with ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ I’m living it,” she said.
After her story gained national attention in 2015, the Justice Department backed her lawsuit and, in the final year of the Obama administration, launched an investigation into Georgia’s treatment of gay and transgender prisoners. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment on the status of that investigation.
Ms. Diamond was abruptly released in 2015 but was placed on parole for the rest of her sentence, which was due to run until 2023. Nationally, parole and probation systems are a driver of mass incarceration, because violating the strict conditions of parole can land someone back behind bars even if they do not commit a new crime. The rapper Meek Mill spent almost a decade on probation before a Philadelphia judge sentenced him in 2017 to two to four years in prison for violations.
Relative to its population, Georgia has far more people on parole and probation than any other state, in part because it allows lengthy terms that give people ample time to trip up. In 2019, Georgia courts heard more than 80,000 probation revocation cases.
When Ms. Diamond was released, she had to return to Rome, where her initial parole conditions included a 4:30 p.m. curfew. She was required to pay monthly monitoring fees — the first month cost $72. She stayed out of trouble for four years.
Official records do not make clear exactly why Ms. Diamond’s parole was revoked, according to Ms. Ezie, the lawyer. But she said that poverty often serves as a barrier to success.
Ms. Diamond received a settlement of at least $250,000, but her home was burglarized, she had high medical expenses, friends and family relied heavily on her for financial help, and the money ran out, Ms. Ezie said.
Her car was impounded after she was unable to make a payment on a payday loan; she missed appointments with her probation officer; and she left the state without permission to attend a wellness retreat paid for by a benefactor, Ms. Ezie said.
“Try as she might, she was also never able to get a job as a black trans woman with a criminal record, living in rural Georgia,” Ms. Ezie said, and by the time she was jailed again, she was experiencing homelessness.
Ms. Diamond returned to prison in October 2019 and was placed at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, where she was assaulted for the first time just a few days after arrival, the complaint says.
According to the lawsuit, officials did nothing to mitigate her risk of assault. Shortly before being transferred to a dormitory, the unit manager called a meeting and told the residents that “a freak is about to walk in,” then singled her out and threatened her after her arrival, warning her not to make complaints. An official whose job it was to prevent sexual assault told Ms. Diamond she was complaining only because she was “interested in fame.”
She was moved to Coastal State Prison near Savannah, another facility for men, where the assaults continued, the lawsuit says.