What It's Like to be a Transgender Woman in a Texas Prison

By November 2013, Passion Star had already faced a decade's worth of sexual assaults and death threats from other inmates when she again pleaded with prison officials at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Hughes Unit to put her in what's called "safekeeping," a classification category for "offenders identified as being more vulnerable than the average general population offender." Under TDCJ's Safe Prisons Plan, such vulnerable inmates, rather than being punished with solitary confinement or isolation, are housed separately but afforded the same programming and privileges as the rest of the prison's general population.

If anyone qualifies for safekeeping status, you'd think it would be Passion Star. Born Joshua Zollicoffer (which is still her legal name), Star is one of an untold number of transgender women in locked up in men's prisons across the country. And in TDCJ's own Safe Prisons Plan, guards are told that LGBT status should be given "serious consideration" when determining where to house an inmate and whether they're at increased risk of sexual assault.

However, not only did prison guards ignore Star's repeat requests for protection and deny the litany of grievances she filed contesting her housing assignment, their cold ambivalence made Star easy pickings inside lockup, according to court documents in a federal lawsuit Star filed against the state prison system last year.

According to court records, Star filed an emergency request at Hughes on November 19, 2013 begging prison officials to switch her housing assignment. In her request, Star wrote that she was in "constant threat of being hurt" because a gang member she calls "J.T." routinely threatened to attack her if she wouldn't have sex with him. ("He told me that refusal was not an option and that since I was gay, I had to 'stay in a ho's place,'" she wrote in affidavit filed in court.)

Prison officials, however, wouldn't act, and the next morning, "J.T." and other gang members jumped Star from behind as she headed to breakfast. Calling her a "snitching faggot," the man proceeded to slash Star's face with a razor blade, sending her to the prison infirmary.

Two days later, prison officials denied Star's emergency appeal with this Kafkaesque line: "the committee did not find sufficient evidence to support your allegations."

Star, 31, has been in TDCJ since 2003, when she was sentenced to 20 years in prison for aggravated kidnapping (according to her lawyers with Lambda Legal, Star claims her boyfriend had been test-driving a used car when he took the vehicle on an hours-long joy ride, with the car salesman held captive in the passenger seat and Star in the back seat).

In an affidavit and prison records she filed in court earlier this year, Star describes the hellish, years-long ordeal she's faced as a transgender woman in prison. She was first sent to the Telford Unit in New Boston, where a gang member forced her to have sex in exchange for protection -- Star claims the inmate choked her whenever she tried to end the "relationship."

In 2006, Star was transferred to the Allred Unit in Iowa Park, where her cellmate "threatened me with a knife, held me down, and raped me." Start says that prison staff took no action when she reported it and even put her back in the cell with her rapist; the cellmate threw a fan at Star, causing a gash in her head, when he found out she'd reported the incident.

Over the next few years, Star was transferred to two other TDCJ units, where she begged prison staff to put her in safekeeping because inmates routinely forced her to have sex (ostensibly in exchange for protection); when Star tried to cut off the "relationship" with one inmate, he punched her in the jaw, breaking one of her teeth and puncturing her lip, Star says in her affidavit.

In 2011, Star landed at the Hughes Unit in Gatesville. When she told one prison guard that a gang member "regularly called me a 'faggot,' attacked me, punching me in my head, face and torso," the guard, instead of taking the complaint, seriously, "called me a 'snitch' and a 'punk' in front of other inmates during lineup," Star claims. She says other officers routinely pretended to grab her ass as she walked through the cell block -- they called it the "grab-ass game."

By 2013, the threats had reached a fever pitch. Star says one gang member attacked her in the prison church, again sending her to the infirmary. After "J.T." attacked Star's face with a razor blade in November 2013, she was moved to the Robertson Unit in Abilene, where prison officials again put her in general population. When she continued to file requests for protection (what are called "Officer Protection Investigations", or OPIs), this was the response she got from one prison guard, according to her affidavit: "He told me to 'suck dick, fight or quit doing gay shit but quit running me with OPIs.' He was very clear that he cared more about not having extra paperwork than protecting my life."

Lambda Legal took up Star's case last year as part of its broader fight to make sure LGBT inmates are covered by the protections in the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which Congress approved in 2003. In October 2014 Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit in federal court against numerous TDCJ officials and guards who denied Star's repeated requests for protection. The following month, TDCJ transferred Star to the Clements Unit, which, according to Star's attorney Jael Humphrey, is "a unit known for having some of the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual assault in the nation and where Safekeeping status is not available."

Soon after Star arrived at Clements, one inmate told her she'd be murdered if she didn't stop filling complaints about sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Last month, Star's attorneys filed an emergency order asking the federal court to force TDCJ to put Star in safekeeping. As first reported by the Advocate, TDCJ acquiesced at the end of March.

Here's a statement Star's lawyer Humphrey issued after TDCJ finally agreed to put Star in protective housing:

"This is a tremendous relief for our client, who has been fighting for years for protection from horrific sexual and physical violence and constant threats of further assault and even death if she continued to speak out about the abuse she suffered as a result of her gender identity. 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. TDCJ officials over the years had repeatedly denied Passion Safekeeping, a program established to help protect prisoners vulnerable to abuse in the general population. We hope that Passion's placement in Safekeeping will keep her safe as we continue to pursue her claim against TDCJ officials for damages from past assaults. At last Texas officials have taken appropriate and long-overdue steps to protect our client."

We asked TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark why it took over a decade, multiple rapes and assaults in lockup, and months of legal action to finally put Star in safekeeping. He emailed us this response yesterday:

I cannot address Zollicoffer's situation specifically because there is pending litigation regarding this offender. The well-being of offenders is a top priority of the agency. We are committed to the safety of those confined within TDCJ. Also, has a zero tolerance policy against sexual encounters of any kind within the system. The agency, in conjunction with several independent entities such as the Office of Inspector General, the Special Prosecution Unit, and the PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) ombudsman, has an extensive Safe Prisons program aimed at preventing, investigating, and prosecuting sexual assault and other acts of violence. This program is in operation at all TDCJ correctional facilities.

Clark says that as of March 31, 2015, the day after TDCJ put Star in protective housing, 1,569 TDCJ inmates were housed in safekeeping.

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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas