Credit: Amy Lieberman
SANTA ANA, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)-- Weave through mid-morning traffic in downtown Santa Ana, about 100 miles north of the border with Mexico.
Circle the nondescript office building resting on a square plot of manicured, healthy looking lawn and swaying palm trees.
Park and then take a broad flight of steps up into a simple lobby, which leads to a heavy door and a maze of stark white hallways that end in a carpeted room.
This is where people come to get booked into the Santa Ana City Jail, or, in this case, just a room visitors rush through on the way to witness a national experiment to better the treatment of gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants who are detained as they seek asylum in the United States.
The GBT (Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Pod at Santa Ana is the only place that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, sets aside for GBT immigrant detainees in the custody of ICE to bunk and live together. It was formally established in April 2012.
In August, when ICE granted Women's eNews this tour, there were 14 transgender women among the 31 people in the GBT Pod.
These 31 detainees are housed separately from the general population. ICE presents the GBT Pod as a scalable model for other detention facilities and jails that house immigrants.
Yet attorneys and LGBT and immigration activists from Orange County are cautious. They say that while the project is promising, it is still an unsteady step forward. Despite the sensitivity training last summer that guards and staff on site received, some observers remain concerned about reports of discriminatory treatment by guards in the pod.
Eight transgender detainees housed in the Santa Ana GBT Pod in 2011 filed complaints alleging denial of access to HIV medication and hormone treatment, as well as harassment, assault and inappropriate use of solitary confinement, according to one set of government documents obtained by Women's eNews through the Freedom of Information Act.
These eight allegations made up nearly half of the 17 complaints by transgender immigrants in detention across the country that the U.S. Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is now investigating.
Virginia Kice, a spokesperson for ICE, noted in an email to Women's eNews that these complaints, which specifically mention a segregated pod for transgender detainees, pre-date the official foundation of the GBT Pod.
"The creation of this pod was predicted largely on input we received from CRCL [the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties] about how to better serve this special needs population," Kice wrote.
ICE officials based in California said, in interviews where they requested anonymity, that complaints like these have subsided, in part due to recent sensitivity trainings for the GBT Pod guards. ICE officials granted a tour of this facility on the condition that their names be withheld for this story.
Inside the GBT Pod
In the booking room inside the GBT Pod a few men are sitting, heads down, waiting to be interviewed and registered in the system. Directly behind them is a row of narrow cells with open doors that reveal exposed toilets without seats.
Of the 520 total jailed inmates here, about 250 are undocumented immigrants, covered by a contract with ICE. ICE houses between 20,000 to 30,000 immigrants in detention in the U.S. daily.
Since 2012, at any given time, about 30 of these 250 immigrant detainees have been transgender women and gay or bisexual men. Transfers from other detention facilities in California and around the country help account for the high concentration of transgender, gay and bisexual detainees in this jail.
The asylum seekers in the GBT Pod are all appealing for protection from the United States and the right to legally remain in the country and gain citizenship because they fear returning to their home countries. Most often they are from Mexico and Central America. Almost all have past charges in the U.S. that range from solicitation of prostitution to attempted robbery to attempted murder.
Stays in the Santa Ana GBT Pod average 45 to 60 days, but can range from three days to a year-and-a-half, depending on the duration of detainees' asylum cases.
To reach the pod from the booking room you pass through more hallways, take an elevator and then find the pod past a door at the end of a long hallway.
The pod is an open, well-lit room with two visible levels connected by a set of exposed stairs. The top level of the room overlooks the L-shaped bottom floor.
On the ground level there is one flat-screen television and a metal cart with some books: a Jodi Picoult novel in English, some paperbacks in Chinese, a Holy Bible in Spanish. The downstairs T.V. remains off, as does the desktop computer that an ICE official introduces as the law library for detainees.
Narrow, rectangular cells with bunked double beds, low-lying toilets and a sink run along the perimeter of the pod's ground level. Up one flight of steps are more cells with beds, punctuated by two showers that are shielded from public viewing with white plastic curtains.
Near the end of lunchtime -- served at about 11 a.m. -- a roomful of people sit together on the main floor in small clusters of three to five, hunched over plastic trays. They wear their own creations of the same bright orange jumpsuits, some with orange pants and gray long-sleeved tops, some all in orange, top to bottom. They look up from eating oranges, their dessert, to observe the visitors as we walk around.
Every detainee has the right to access free hormone treatment, ICE officials said, but sometimes it can take a bit of time to get the right dosage, especially when a detainee arrives taking hormones from illicit dealers, not prescribed by a doctor. The most common complaint they hear is that detainees want to get out.
One transgender detainee in the GBT Pod said in an interview in a room with mounted video cameras that she had few complaints about her accommodations. She was placed in contact with Women's eNews through a pro-bono attorney.
"Everything is good. I feel safe here, being housed with people who are also transgender," said Jessica Ramos-Garcia, leaning forward to face this rare visitor a bit closer across a long table. "There's no problem with their guards. They just do their job, and it's only if we misbehave do we have some sort of problem then."
The 23-year-old Mexican native is known officially as Jose Ramos-Garcia in this jail, which she has not left for the past six months.
But Romos-Garcia also says that some of the guards, employees of the Santa Ana City Jail who are contracted by ICE, also call her and the other transgender women "Señores," instead of "Señoras," the polite way to address a group of women in Spanish.
Romos-Garcia is transgender, but has elected to not undergo hormone therapy or have any surgical procedures. "We feel a bit offended. No one says chicas, señoras. But it's a jail for men, so they are accustomed to saying that, I understand."
Carla Henry Navas, another transgender woman housed in the GBT Pod, also spoke positively about her time in detention. The 26-year-old from El Salvador has been detained in the pod since July and told her lawyer, Mike O'Reilly, that guards there treat her well.
"She likes it," said O'Reilly in a phone interview. "It's the best facility she has ever been in. The guards like her a lot and she gets on quite well with them. She says they have a diplomatic solution to the question of gender and call her by her last name. She says they are sensitive to everything."
Navas was previously once deported from the United States and had spent time in a Los Angeles County jail for drug charges and for violating her probation. Her only complaint about this facility is that she encountered a seven week delay in getting started on hormone therapy, though she says she understood, at the same time, why administrative reasons caused the lag to occur.
Training for Guards
In July Christina Fialho, co-executive director of the San Francisco-based national nonprofit group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, publicly raised the issue of the majority of jail guards addressing transgender women with male pronouns and telling them to "use their male voice." Shortly after, the group's visitation at the Santa Ana City Jail was shut down, she said in a recent phone interview.
Fialho and a team of 40 volunteers had been visiting the GBT Pod weekly since September 2012 and had interviewed groups of transgender detainees. In November, she said, she became aware that guards at the pod had not received their mandatory full eight hours of specialized training to sensitize them to working with a GBT population.
This summer, guards and other ICE officials working at the jail received three hours of training from gender studies professors at California State University, Fullerton. The session included a PowerPoint presentation on how biological sex does not equal gender, which also does not equate sexual orientation. It also offered "five things to keep in mind" when working with transgender detainees, including not using words like "she-male" and "it," and to honor the detainee's preferred gender identity by using gender pronouns that the person prefers.
Tony Viramontes, director of prevention services at the Santa Ana LGBTQ Center, was also brought in this summer to the GBT Pod to participate in a panel that fielded ICE officials' and jail guards' questions about working with a GBT population. He described the experience on the eight-person panel discussion as positive.
"We discussed hormone therapy and the importance of it all and I was surprised, to a degree," Viramontes said in a phone interview. "I felt the officers who attended the training were very open to learning and had probably already to some degree been informed or had done some research. They were culturally aware of the topic."
Among 169 detainees since 2008 who filed complaints from various facilities across the country more alleged abuse or assault by guards and staff (63) than by other detainees (40), according to documents obtained by Women's eNews from the U.S. Office of the Inspector General.
The complaints were obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for individual complaints filed by transgender immigrants held in U.S. federal immigration detention and processing facilities.
An investigation by PBS Frontline and the American Civil Liberties Union in 2011 revealed that immigrants in detention filed more than 170 allegations of sexual abuse from 2008 through 2011, mostly against guards and staff in the facilities.
Lunch ends around 11:30 a.m. in the GBT Pod.
Afterwards the detainees stack their trays and disperse around the pod.
Three detainees on the upper-level settle into armchairs, turn on a TV and begin to watch a midday show.
Below the second floor of the pod, about 10 detainees gather in a workout space, a metal cube that gathers natural light through slits in the ceiling and one wall, facing the street.
One group starts a game of handball, while two behind them fall into a pattern of sit-ups and push-ups on the two basic workout benches.
One detainee, with her hair in a long braided ponytail, spies the visitors watching her and pretends to sink a basketball into an imaginary hoop. She looks like she is wearing dark eyeliner, pink rogue and lipstick. Though makeup is not permitted inside the pod, some of detainees make use of pencil shavings and artificially colored juice to darken the edges of their eyelids and tinge their lips and cheeks a reddish hue.
Detainees in the GBT Pod have about eight hours a day of free time, when they can freely enter or exit their cells and move around this larger enclosed space. It falls in line with the detention model that ICE is working towards, and away from that of other facilities, like Adelanto Detention Center in Adelanto, Calif., which only permits detainees two hours of free time outside their cells a day.
At about 11:30 a.m., the detainees begin to systematically file into their cells. The doors close shut. The guards go to lunch.
Romos-Garcia said repeatedly that her time in the GBT Pod has given her an opportunity to stay in the United States. She left Acapulco when she was 16 and came to Los Angeles to live with her mother and to look for a job. She found work for a short period of time selling makeup, but was later introduced to sex work by a friend. Romos-Garcia has been arrested for prostitution six times, and also has previous drug charges. The sixth time she was arrested she was also charged with attempted robbery of a laundromat.
"I thought they were going to deport me. I wanted to go to jail, I wanted to find a way to stay in the U.S.," said Romos-Garcia. Her long dark hair is parted down the middle and pulled back neatly into a ponytail that falls down her back. Her face -- even, large features -- remains steady as she speaks.
"Here I have the opportunity to find a way to stay here, to live without criticism, without feeling like these bad things could happen to me if I return to Mexico," she added.
Romos-Garcia does not have a lawyer, though she tried to find one by writing to the many pro-bono contacts ICE posts on letter-sized sheets of paper on a metal pole in the pod. She is now awaiting a hearing in September to appeal a ruling that found her to be ineligible for asylum based on her gender identity as a transgender woman.
Romos-Garcia is unsure of how she will find a lawyer before her appeals hearing. She also expressed concern over an irritating skin condition, which she said a visit to a doctor had not cleared up.
She lingered. When there were no more questions to ask or answer Romos-Garcia headed back into the GBT Pod and straight upstairs. Everyone else was already inside and the doors to their cells were closed.
Amy Lieberman is a journalist based in New York City. She has reported since January from the U.S. and Mexico as part of a reporting grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism on the issues affecting transgender women in detention and seeking asylum. Follow her @amylieberman.
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