Ashley Diamond is free for the second time in six weeks.
Diamond, a transgender woman who sued the Georgia Department of Corrections in 2015 after suffering repeated sexual assaults in prison, was released on Tuesday after spending weeks in a single-occupancy cell in the Floyd County Jail.
On Dec. 17, the 38-year-old was pulled over for what police claimed was a broken brake light and detained on an alleged charge of driving with a suspended license. Diamond would be released, but one of the requirements of her parole is that she doesn’t get arrested. When she showed up for a January court hearing, she was locked up yet again.
When she was first brought into Floyd County on Jan. 19, Diamond was initially housed in what’s known as the Sally port, a giant outdoor cage where police bring in new inmates. Prisoners can spend hours there while they’re being processed, often forced to endure freezing cold temperatures. Her sister, Diana Diamond, claims her family brought her thermals to ensure she kept warm.
The inmate’s sibling compared it to being housed “like an old dog, an old stray dog someone allowed to sleep on the back porch.”
After being moved from the Sally port, Ashley Diamond would spend close to three weeksaround 18 daysin a form of solitary confinement-lite. Although she had access to the jail’s staff at all times, her room was closed off by a steel door with a small window in it. A second window would look out into a room where guards and supervisors sit.
It was like being right back where she started.
They knew who she was. They were definitely singling her out.
During her stay in the Georgia prison system from 2012 to 2015, Diamond was often placed in the Solitary Housing Unit (SHU). The cell in which she would spend up to 23 hours a day measured 11 by 7 feet, around twice the size of an average walk-in closet. Guards would often neglect to give Diamond her allotted hour of daily exercise; she was left alone in her somber cage with nothing but the sound of her voice for comfort.
Diamond, a former Whitney Houston impersonator, would sing from dusk until dawn to keep from losing her mind. A favorite was “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by Elton John. “Don't discard me just because you think I mean you harm,” she sang to no one. “But these cuts I have they need love to help them heal.”
Pinky Shear, director of Freedom Overground, says Floyd County separated her from the other inmates “for her safety.” She also believes Diamond was held in the Sally port much longer than is customary (although this could not be verified prior to publication).
“They were concerned she would be assaulted if they put her in general population,” Shear tells INTO. “If they put her with women, it really wouldn’t be an issue, but they didn’t want to put her with women. The state of Georgia is really, really struggling with how to house its trans population. Most of the smaller county jails are not equipped for that.”
Floyd County Deputy Sheriff Carrie Edge confirms in an interview with INTO that Diamond was held in “protective custody” during her stay in the jail.
“That was felt to be what would be best for Ms. Diamond,” Edge says in a phone conversation. “We look at each individual inmate and attempt to meet all of their concerns as best we can, given it being an institution.”
“Our primary concern is the health and wellbeing of our inmates,” she adds.
But family members questioned whether the county met those needs. Because the county lockup isn’t designed to house trans people, they say Diamond was refused the daily hormones she needs to maintain her transition. Both Floyd County Jail and CorrectHealth, a Georgia-based company contracted by the lockup to provide healthcare for inmates, claim they could not confirm or deny these reports under federal law.
Edge states Diamond was “provided proper care” but claims offering further information would be a violation of Diamond’s rights through the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, popularly known as HIPA. The 1996 law was designed to safeguard patients’ medical information.
“Being incarcerated is already a terrible enough experience for anyone, much less having someone share your private information,” she says.
“We had photographs. We had receipts. We had everything.”
The situation is not a matter of happenstance, sources tell INTO.
After Diamond was released from the Augusta State Medical Prison in August 2015, at least seven individuals interviewed for this story say she was routinely targeted by police officers in Rome, the Georgia town to which she would be confined as a condition of her parole. These detailed allegations were extremely consistent and corroborated by documentation provided by interviewees.
These sources, which include friends, family, and community advocates, claim law enforcement would subject her to frequent random stopsas many as four times in a single day.
Shear was with Diamond one of the many times a police officer pulled her over, alleging she failed to stop at a stop sign. The prison justice advocate claims that Diamond acted according to the law but says the patrolman falsely claimed it was a “rolling stop.” What has stuck out to her about the brief encounter is that he already knew Diamond’s name before he asked for her identification.
“Ms. Diamond, can I see your license and registration, please?” she remembers the officer asking.
Rhys Harper is an activist and filmmaker who had been interviewing Diamond during the time of the alleged harassment, and some of those testimonials accompany this story. He claims local police “knew her car by sight.” A statuesque black trans woman driving a white Mercedesand later a Ford Expeditionwas relatively easy to spot in a town of 36,000 people.
Nearly every time the two met to record a segment for his documentary, Diamond would get pulled over. He says he “lost count” of how many times it happened.
“They knew who she was,” he alleges. “They were definitely singling her out.”
Although family members and friends say Diamond avoided anything that could put her back in prison, the infractions continued to pile up: a broken tail light here, a speeding violation there. Her sister alleges she was stopped 19 times in a single year; she says “everyone” in Rome knew what was happening.
“Anybody knows that’s not normal,” Diana Diamond claims. “She’s not the best driver in the world, but she’s certainly not the worst.”
During these frequent stops, patrolmen would reportedly misgender Diamond. Her mother claims to have witnessed this on at least one occasion. Diane Diamondwho, it must be noted for purposes of clarity, shares a very similar name with her daughtertells INTO the officer on duty “refused” to call her Ashley or recognize her identity. Instead, he addressed her by the name given to Diamond at birth.
A police report of the January arrest provided to INTO by the Rome County Police Department appears to confirm this account, referring to Diamond as “Mr.” and “his.”
When INTO questioned Captain Mark Tison about the allegations, he says in an email that Diamond neglected to file a complaint with the department over any mistreatment by officers. “She did not present any reason to complain other than he [sic] was arrested,” Tison claims.
Assistant Chief Debbie Burnett says that she has “no knowledge of these incidents.”
Burnett tells INTO in a phone conversation that many officers with Rome’s police force are new to the department and may misgender her on a first interaction; if that is the case, they are later corrected by supervisors and advised to refer to her as Ashley.
The officer adds that Diamond “did have a brake light out” the evening of her initial arrest, claiming it’s “very obvious” when someone is experiencing a signal malfunction. All stops made by the Rome Police Department are recorded via a 911 call made prior to the interaction, Burnett says. She has promised to provide documentation of these encounters at a later date.
“Ashley should feel free to call us,” Burnett claims. “We will look into it. We will take any statement and talk to any witnesses she has. We’ll be happy to go over it with her.”
After INTO requested access to Diamond’s file from the Rome Police Department, seven allegations against Diamond were presented dating from 2015 to present. Four of the records were for driving-related offenses: a charge of following too closely from July 2016; speeding and driving on a suspended license in June 2017; speeding and failure to show proof of insurance also in June 2017; and another charge of driving on a suspended license in December 2017.
The other stops alleged by multiple sourcesincluding instances in which family and friends claim to have been presentwere not accounted for.
There are a series of unrelated allegations in her official record involving burglary, theft, and battery. Shear says Diamond wasn’t perfect and was dealing with a great deal of trauma after her 2015 release from Augusta State Medical Prison but questioned the validity these admittedly serious charges.
“If any of those charges were valid and they had any evidence or proof, she would have been in violation of her parole and she would have been sent back to prison,” she claims.
Sources further allege the premises of her arrest following the December stop are inaccurate.
Diana Diamond says her sister received a notice in the mail that the temporary permit she was driving under wasn’t due to expire until Dec. 19two days after she was apprehended by police. Shear confirmed that characterization in a series of text messages to INTO, although the existence of the document could not be verified.
Those who were close to Diamond believe these repeated clashes with Rome’s police force are a result of her advocacy.
Diamond sued the Georgia Department of Corrections for the abuse and sexual assault she experienced after being sentenced to a men’s prison. She alleged in the lawsuit that she was sexually assaulted eight times by other prisoners and refused access to transition-related care. Diamond wrote and filed her federal case against the state of Georgia herself, although the Southern Poverty Law Center would represent her in a civil suit against the state.
In 2015, Diamond won her civil suit and was subsequently released after serving less than a third of her term, a highly unusual outcome. Inmates typically have to wait until they’re eligible for parole for release.
The justice she toiled day and night to achieve, though, would be short-lived. Shear says the goal of law enforcement was to keep chipping away at that sum by “getting every penny they could from her back.” Every ticket, every stop, and every suspect charge was a step closer to reaching that goal, she claims.
What made matters worse is that Diamondwho had been out as transgender for most of her lifewas reportedly experiencing harassment from all sides.
At the same time sources say Rome’s police force chose to make an example of her, members of a local Ku Klux Klan chapter allegedly launched a full-fledged campaign targeting Diamond. The Loyal White Knights of the KKK, whose headquarters are in Pelham, N.C., passed out fliers in her neighborhood calling transgender people “freaks [who] are jeopardizing the safety of bathrooms all across the nation for our women and children.”
“There is no confusion: If you have a penis, use the men’s restroom,” reads a leaflet Shear provided to INTO. “If you have a vagina, use the ladies’ room. If your [sic] confused and don’t know what sex you are today, use a tree out in the backyard.”
The flier further incites residents to take action against the presence of people like Diamond living next door: “Join and help us stand up and boycott this abomination.”
These extremist dictums were frequently tacked to her front door and the windshield of her car, yet another reminder she wasn’t welcome in her own community. When Diamond didn’t come home to a torrent of white one-sheets in her yard, she would find feces smeared on her door or a noose hung in the entryway.
The vandalism continued to escalate until Diamond’s apartment was reportedly broken into, ransacked, and looted by a group of unknown assailants in March 2017. Her computer and cell phone were stolen during the robbery, but friends say what upset her more is the vandals took everything she owned, placed it in the center of her living room, and poured trash all over it. The garbage was collected from the cans outside of her house.
“They urinated on her property,” Shear claims. “They wrote transphobic slurs on her walls. They just destroyed her home and everything that she had, just completely destroyed it.”
There was no record in the Rome Police Department on file of this incident.
That’s because matter would not be investigated by law enforcement, sources say. After she reported the incident to local authorities, Diamond tried to claim damages through her insurer. A representative for the company allegedly told her she would not be entitled to the full amount because police never filed a report of the burglary.
“We had photographs,” Shear says. “We had receipts. We had everything.”
“It’s hard to see someone you love so much be mistreated and abused."
Hoping to escape the near-constant terror she endured just to survive, Diamond requested her parole be moved to Atlanta. She would be safer there. The Georgia metropolis is a mecca for queer and trans people of color, ranked by The Advocate as America’s queerest city in 2010. Diamond used to perform cabaret at clubs in Atlanta, which is just over an hour’s drive from Rome, prior to her incarceration.
But her parole officer reportedly wouldn’t allow the transfer. When Diamond detailed the extreme harassment and threats she was experiencing, it failed to move the officer assigned to her case. According to Shear, the official would state that she was required to be in Rome as a condition of her release and would remain there.
A representative from the Department of Community Supervisionwhich oversees parole in Floyd Countycouldn’t comment on details of Diamond’s case, but advocates say such obstinacy is unusual.
“People who are on parole move their place of parole all the time,” says Black and Pink Founder Jason Lydon, who began lobbying for prison justice 13 years ago after his own release. “That is not some exceptional practice. That is a common practice. It was a matter of her parole officer deciding to perpetuate violence against her and keep her in a space where she felt at risk.”
The officer’s behavior further corresponds to a larger pattern of “how people are treated when they resist the prison-industrial complex,” he claims.
When inmates engage in advocacy work to reform prisons from the inside, he says it’s common for them to experience retaliation from guards and other staff members. They might be forced into solitary confinement or denied lunch. That’s the reality of the U.S. prison system: Anyone who fights against routinized dehumanization is dealt their resistance back to thembut twice as hard.
The blowback is even more severe when you’re transgender. During their meetings, the parole officer allegedly refused to refer to Diamond by her correct gender and pronounsor even touch her. The first time Diamond met with the officer, she tried to shake the woman’s hand. The officer instantly recoiled, Shear claims.
“Don’t come near me,” the parole officer reportedly said. “I don’t want to catch what you have.”
I think it’s important to find a place where she’ll be free from harassment
“While Ashley is an incredibly unique and extraordinary person, what she’s going through is, unfortunately, anything but unique,” Lydon says. “It is the normative practice of how our system treats transgender women of colorparticularly black trans women. What’s happening is mundane and horrific in that it happens all the time.”
He claims she’s being set up to repeat the same cycle over and over again by a system that wasn’t designed for women like her to succeed: Forty-seven percent of black trans women have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, as the National Center for Trans Equality reports.
Those disproportionate rates are fueled by extreme bias in nearly every aspect of trans women’s lives, including high rates of homelessness, poverty, and targeting by law enforcement.
Advocates are working with DCS to get Diamond a new parole officer, and officials have reportedly been open to the conversation. Transcending Barriers, a partner organization and trans advocacy group, has already set up a safe house for her outside of the county. It includes everything Diamond needs to function in her day-to-day life (e.g., food, clothing, and hygiene products), as well as therapy and trauma care.
A major part of the program will be making sure that she’s able to earn a living for herself.
Since leaving prison two years ago, it’s been difficult for Diamond to find a job; she briefly volunteered part-time at a local animal shelter. Transgender people are twice as likely to be unemployed as the average person due to rampant discriminationwhether it’s being fired or not hired in the first place.
“I think it’s important to find a place where she’ll be free from harassment,” says Transcending Barriers Co-Founder Zahara Green. “Law enforcement won’t know who she isinstead of being in a small town where everyone knows who she is.”
Family members say that Diamond has long dreamed of finding refuge on a farm somewhere, a peaceful place where she can ride a mule and feed the chickens.
Such a vision of pastoral tranquility couldn’t be more different than the reality to which she continues to be subjected. Floyd County claims her cell was located directly next to the booking department, the major hub of activity at the jail. Prisoners constantly come and go. The last time she visited Diamond before her release, her sister was rattled by the creaking of doors and clanking of keysthe unceasing sound like being smothered by an atonal symphony.
Diana Diamond, who suffers from PTSD, claims she struggled to breathe amidst the tumult. Experiencing chest pains, she went to the doctor after the visit.
Friends and family say that Ashley Diamond’s voiceonce melodious and ebullientno longer carries its effortless tune. She has discussed taking her own life, and during conversations, she’s often in a daze, as if she’s in a quiet place she has imagined for herself.
They claim it’s not a matter of her spirit being broken; the person they once knew is no longer there.
“Each little thing that the police and the people in this town do to her, it’s further killing her soul and leaving a shell,” Diana Diamond says. “It’s hard to see someone you love so much be mistreated and abused, and there’s not one thing you can do as her family.”
“They’re torturing her,” she continues. “It’s intentional torture.”
Note: Diamond was unavailable to comment prior to this story’s publication, but INTO is in touch with her representatives. Further comment will be added should she become available.