On May 7, Colorado representatives introduced a resolution urging the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) to create a policy in line with federal regulations protecting transgender inmates.
The resolution was inspired by Lindsay Saunders-Velez, a transgender inmate who was reportedly raped just hours after a judge denied her request to be moved from a disciplinary unit where she was being tormented by other inmates.
But little if anything has been done to help 20-year-old Saunders-Velez, according to her attorney Paula Greisen. She continues to be housed with men and faces daily abuse. The media attention surrounding her case has only agitated her situation behind bars.
Her case raises serious questions about CDOC’s ability and willingness to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), federal regulations that aim to crack down on sexual assault behind bars.
Saunders-Velez has identified as female since childhood. Over two years ago, while incarcerated by the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections, she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. At age 17, she started hormone treatment. Despite this, prison staff refuse to acknowledge her as a woman, she says.
According to court documents, she has suffered extreme harassment by her fellow inmates at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility. A privacy screen she had set up to use the bathroom was ripped down. Inmates have demanded sex from her. To escape the abuse, she swallowed razors and was hospitalized. According to a lawsuit she filed, she was sexually assaulted for the first time behind bars in December.
Earlier this spring, she was sent to a punishment pod for kissing another inmate, an accusation she denied. In an emergency affidavit, she reported that others in the pod were those that threatened to sexually assault her.
But Judge Marcia S. Krieger denied her request to be moved from the unit.
“The Court finds that Ms. Sanders-Velez has not made a showing of either an imminent and irreparable injury, nor a likelihood of success on the merits of her claims, that would warrant issuance of a temporary restraining order,” Krieger wrote.
A few hours later, Greisen says, she was brutally raped.
She was hospitalized and then sent to the infirmary. The Associated Pressreported that her medical records indicated rectal and other injuries. A nurse who examined her said her accused assailant might be HIV-positive.
But CDOC still wouldn’t house her with women.
Instead, she was offered four options, says Greisen. Return to the punishment pod where she was raped, choose from two male lockups where she wouldn’t have support groups or move into a cell at the same facility with men.
Velez asked to be transferred to unit where she had friends and a support group. Her request was rejected. She moved into a unit where she didn’t know anyone.
Demoya Gordon, staff and Transgender Rights Project attorney at Lambda Legal, says PREA violations like those alleged in Saunders-Velez’s case are incredibly common.
“If any system defaults to housing people according to the sex they were assigned at birth or by genital status, that does violate PREA,” Gordon said. “PREA requires you to conduct an individualized assessment of where is the best, safest, most suitable place to house a transgender person. It also requires that the prison officials take the person’s own opinions about those issues into consideration. In fact, it requires that they give it significant weight.”
Saunders-Velez’s anguish doesn’t end there.
“We call her a him,” Paula Marie Thompson told the Post, “Nobody wants to be around him any more.”
“The five inmates interviewed on May 4 blamed the rape on what they called Saunders-Velez’s provocative behavior or said they thought it was a consensual prison liaison,” the Post reported.
The story goes on to say that while the trans women at the prison also want change at Territorial, the trans women felt that being locked up in a men’s prison was not always dangerous.
“To stay safe behind bars, transgender inmates must dress modestly and not flaunt their breasts, said Monica Anaya,” the story reads.
Finally, the women claim, Saunders-Velez showers with the men at Territorial when she could shower alone and repeatedly claims she was raped, drawing “attention that is potentially dangerous attention to all of them.”
Greisen alleges that prison officials that the women were offered preferential housing to talk to the press.
“These women then called Lindsay a liar, even though they didn’t witness the event,” Greisen says.
Department of Corrections spokesperson Mark Fairbairn denied that claim to The Denver Post.
State Rep. Leslie Herod said she read the piece and found it “disgusting.”
“They wouldn’t have been interviewed without the permission of the DOC,” said Herod.
Herod is the sponsor of the resolution that urges CDOC to create a policy on housing transgender prisoners. The measure is not binding, but she says she plans to meet with CDOC officials about Saunders-Velez’s case. If they don’t come up with a solution, she will push legislation.
“This case is an egregious example but it’s not the only one,” said Herod. “There are more cases like this, and the department needs to have a policy that acknowledges that there are transgender inmates, and that they need to be protected. It’s shameful.”
Fairbairn did not respond to a request to comment for this piece, including a question about how many trans women CDOC had been placed in women’s facilities. He previously declined to comment on Saunders-Velez’s case due to the pending litigation.
By the time Saunders-Velez got to her new housing assignment, media attention made her story known throughout prison. The cycle of harassment started in her new cell block, and she reported the abuse. Rather than transferring her to a women’s facility, she was moved to solitary confinement, where her mental health degraded.
Desperate to get out of solitary, she recanted the harassment complaints, says Greisen. She was returned to the hostile cell block.
It’s worth noting that Colorado’s track record on LGBTQ rights as of late is markedly better than the Saunders-Velez case would suggest. In fact, Greisen knows first hand.
Greisen is the attorney representing Charlie Craig and David Mullins in the infamous Masterpiece Cakeshop case that just came down from the Supreme Court.
In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which revolved around a Colorado baker’s claim that he can’t be forced to make a gay wedding cake because of his religious beliefs, Greisen and the state of Colorado were battling on the side of a gay couple that experienced discrimination.
“It is very interesting that the state of Colorado is standing with me and my client in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case against the Department of Justice and the Trump administration when it comes to services for the LGBTQ community,” Greisen said. “But with respect to this issue, they have certainly not shown their commitment to equality and dignity.”