Attorney Paula Greisen is crying through the phone.
Her transgender client, Lindsay Saunders-Velez, is back in the same unit where she was reportedly raped hours after she asked a court for protection from threats of sexual assault. Now, she is at risk of a third attack.
“How do you explain to a 20-year-old how this is happening?” Greisen asks. She pauses. Her voice drops below a whisper. “I really don’t know. It’s so inhumane.”
Greisen doesn’t usually cry during a press call, and she’s had a lot of them. The Colorado Attorney represented David Mullins and Charlie Craig, the gay couple from the Masterpiece Cakeshop case that was decided at the Supreme Court in June.
Saunders-Velez’s case is different. Mullins and Craig were fighting for the basic dignity of equal service at a business, the right to purchase a wedding cake from a baker who had religious objections. If Saunders-Velez’s allegations are true, the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), a federal judge and the state are subjecting her to extraordinary torture and violating federal law.
Saunders-Velez reported that she was first raped in custody last December while housed with men. The rape came in the wake of a string of abusive incidents by fellow inmates who reportedly tore down Saunders-Velez’s privacy curtain, demanded sexual favors from her and exposed themselves.
Under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), correctional staff are required to place trans detainees on a case-by-case basis with prisoner safety as the first priority. That means a transgender person is not to be jailed based solely on the gender they were assigned at birth.
In Lindsay’s case, she has been living as female for 12 years, according to court documents.
Earlier this year, she was sent to a punishment pod at Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility for kissing a fellow inmate, an accusation she denied. In an emergency affidavit, she begged Chief Judge Marcia Krieger of the District Court of Colorado to move her, citing rape threats from four inmates in the pod.
Krieger denied the request. Hours later, Saunders-Velez was reportedly raped a second time.
The fallout from Saunders-Velez’s case made national headlines and catalyzed a state resolution calling for CDOC to adopt better policies for housing trans detainees.
State Rep. Leslie Herod carried the non-binding resolution. She attempted to visit Saunders-Velez in July. The visit was canceled when she arrived without warning, she said. She now hopes to gain access to Saunders-Velez in September. She wants to see Saunders-Velez for herself, and she wants answers to questions she has been asking for months.
“I know that Lindsay is some pretty abhorrent conditions right now,” she said. “It is inhumane to put her in a place where she is continually threatened”
None of that, however, has been incentive to move Saunders-Velez to a women’s facility.
In a bizarre order that almost ignores Saunders-Velez’s claims of assault, Krieger again returned Saunders-Velez to the same unit where she was raped. Her justification, she wrote, was that Saunders-Velez’s argument for moving involved a dispute over a television set.
Krieger wasn’t wrong. In her request for a hearing, Saunders-Velez reported that another inmate promised her protection if she would keep a TV for him. When the TV was confiscated by prison staff, he threatened to assault her, she said.
On Wednesday, Saunders-Velez called Greisen and told her she had been raped a third time and hospitalized. She was transferred to isolation, ostensibly for her own safety, where Greisen says she worries Saunders-Velez’s mental health will deteriorate.
A staffer in Krieger’s office declined to comment and Krieger did not return a phone call.
Governor John Hickenlooper’s office says that the state is fully compliant with PREA regulations and that all three of her sexual assault reports have been or are being investigated.
“The Governor takes these issues seriously, is aware of concerns that have been raised, and is constant communication with the Colorado Department of Corrections,” said Jacque Montgomery, a spokesperson for Hickenlooper, in an email to INTO.
Montgomery furnished a nine-page report, detailing an investigation into the first two reported rapes. In the first case, the inspector general concluded that Saunders-Velez lied about the identity of her assailant, finding the DNA did not match the accused she reluctantly named.
The report alleges that Saunders, in refusing to identify the perpetrator from the first case, told officials, “You guys will figure it out, he’s gonna get hurt. Multiple people know and multiple people said they’re gonna take care of it.”
In the second reported assault, the inspector found Saunders-Velez must have had consensual sex because she was reportedly flirtatious with the accused, a finding that flies in the face of basic understandings about sexual assault.
“At first, [the accused] denied any sexual assault activity but later recanted his story stating that they did have sex but it was consensual,” the report states.
It further states that Saunders-Velez claimed her assailant pushed her head into a bed frame, but that investigators couldn’t find a matching injury and that she had waited to report the rape because she didn’t want to want to be sent to solitary confinement. Also suspicious was her failure to mention the rape in a phone call she made to friend that evening, the report found.
Research shows that false reports of sexual assault are exceedingly low, but not unheard of. According to experts, many survivors never report because of the intolerable scrutiny they face from law enforcement, the public, and even friends and family.
In December, Dr. Darren Lish, Chief of Psychiatry for the CDOC, testified that there were approximately 100 transgender women on hormones in CDOC custody. Lish’s testimony was used in the case of Jayde Moonshadow, a transgender woman who sued CDOC in 2016 after she was allegedly denied gender-affirming undergarments and personal products.
Greisen says she has reached 20 other trans women who have reported sexual assault in CDOC custody. She wants the names of the 80 other women Lish referenced in his testimony.
“I anticipate I will bring further legal action in another form to address the global concern,” Greisen said.