Transgender woman draws national attention for Georgia prison lawsuit

Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman who drew national media attention this year for suing Georgia Department of Corrections officials over her treatment behind bars, recently spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her experience. Her answers were edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: I understand you have been diagnosed with Post-traumatic stress disorder. What are the symptoms you are experiencing? What are the dreams like?

A: The dreams are (about) the rapes and the assaults.

Q: That happened in the state prison system?

A: Yes, they are still very vivid. I always still feel like I have to look over my shoulder. I think that I have a hypervigilance… I am still afraid.

Q: What are the things that you do that illustrate your hypervigilance — that you didn’t normally do?

A: I am always funny about doors and doorways and people standing behind me and sitting behind me.

Q: Why is that an issue — going through passageways and doors?

A: Because there are a lot of blind spots in prisons. I weigh 135 pounds. It is very easy for someone to snatch you into a stairwell. It has happened to me before, several times. Anywhere where there is not an open… space for me to be able to see puts me in a weird spot.

Q: Tell me about your darkest moment in the state prison system.

A: I will never forget it. I was thrown into solitary confinement in Rutledge State Prison for ‘pretending to be a woman.’ All I had asked for was medical care. I filed a grievance. I had written letters to the warden, the commissioner. I was just asking, ‘Can my family even send in the hormones? This is serious.’… While I was in there I was taunted. I had been through several rapes at that point. I was ready to die, so I cut my wrists.

Q: You see this legal case you brought as bigger than yourself?

A: Absolutely. I think this case is an example of where we are at in terms of people accepting the transgender community. I think it is an eye-opener because a lot of us are from impoverished families, impoverished neighborhoods. A lot of us aren’t able to work… It’s important that we get this out here so people can start to see human beings. And then other great things will happen. If a person can’t be who they are, there is no worse hell than that. And that is like a prison within a prison.

Q: I notice you have a crucifix. Are those incongruous at all — Christianity and being transgender?

A: I grew up in a Southern Baptist family. Church is very important to me. It always has been. Some would say… what I am doing is unacceptable in the eyes of God. But God is omnipotent. He is wonderful. I think he made me just the way he wanted me… I feel like I am just a branch — a creation — of something that is bigger than me. I don’t feel like God makes mistakes. I used to think I was a mistake.

Q: Some people would not agree with providing taxpayer-funded hormone therapy. How do you respond to that?

A: When you haul a person from the free world and you strip them of every means — protection, medical, food — I think you become responsible for that person. We need to get over this idea that people in prison don’t deserve medical care… They are human lives, regardless of whatever crimes they committed. And when you need help, you need help. And that help should be there. If a doctor mandates this – if it has a medical, psychological profile – then we should treat it just as such.

Q: What do you hope for your future?

A: I am writing a memoir about my experiences in the Georgia Department of Corrections. I definitely hope to do more music and be an advocate for the transgender community because it is a community I am passionate about… I am looking forward to just living a normal life. And, yes, if fame comes out of that, I am OK with that.

Ashley Diamond’s darkest moment in Georgia’s prison system came two years ago in solitary confinement when she tried to take her own life. Prison officials, Diamond said, were blocking her from being who she believes she was always meant to be: a transgender woman.

She survived and has emerged as a national symbol in the fight for transgender rights, filing a lawsuit against Georgia’s Department of Corrections alleging mistreatment. At the heart of the case was the state’s refusal to give her the hormone treatment she said she requires for her gender identity condition.

Advocates say Diamond, 37, won an important victory when the state in April overhauled its policy for treating inmates like her. The change came just days after the U.S. Justice Department weighed in on her case, saying Georgia’s previous policy denying her treatment was unconstitutional. Conservative groups, meanwhile, are questioning the effectiveness of the hormone treatment while citing the cost to taxpayers.

Diamond’s activism comes as transgender people — including Caitlyn Jenner and “Orange Is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox — are receiving a surge of media attention. In his State of the Union Address in January, President Barack Obama condemned transgender persecution. Now the U.S. military is considering allowing transgender people to serve openly within the ranks.

Speaking to reporters for the first time since getting out of prison last month, Diamond talked about plans to advocate for transgender people, including through a new foundation that would bear her name. She said she knows of at least 30 others who are behind bars in Georgia.

“If a person can’t be who they are, there is no worse hell than that,” Diamond said during an interview in downtown Rome, her hometown tucked in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. “And that is like a prison within a prison.”

Georgia officials paroled Diamond unexpectedly on Aug. 31. She was serving time on a parole violation for a theft conviction. Her release made much of her legal case moot. But Diamond - who alleges she was raped repeatedly in prison - is still suing state prison officials for unspecified damages and her legal costs. This week, a federal judge denied the state’s request to dismiss the suit.

Gwendolyn Hogan, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections, said her agency would not comment on an active lawsuit. But in court filings, the agency said Diamond received medication and mental health counseling in prison.

“Her needs have clearly not been disregarded,” the state agency said in an April 10 court brief.

Seventeen transgender inmates are now receiving various forms hormone therapy or treatment for Diamond’s same medical condition, Hogan said. State officials declined to provide details about Diamond’s care or its cost, citing patient privacy issues.

But a doctor with California’s prison system said drugs cost about $20 per month for female hormones, like estrogen, and about $60 to $80 a month for male hormones, including testosterone. Medical care in prison comes at the taxpayer’s expense.

Born a male, Ashley Alton Diamond said she knew as a young child she was supposed to be a girl. At age 5, she put on some clip-on earrings and announced to her family that she was different. She raised eyebrows in her kindergarten class when she showed up dressed as her favorite female cartoon character, Jem, a brightly clad singer who goes on adventures with a band called the Holograms.

Her parents initially resisted her wishes, and other children teased her mercilessly. Diamond was hospitalized for a suicide attempt at 15. She later received a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, a condition that can cause extreme distress when a person identifies with the gender opposite of his or her birth sex. At 17, she began hormone therapy with estrogen treatments and testosterone blockers and eventually developed full breasts.

Between 2009 and 2011, Diamond ran afoul of the law, racking up convictions for burglary, theft and forgery in Floyd and Carroll counties, prison records show. She described those crimes as acts of survival, saying numerous employers had fired her for being transgender. A probation violation sent her to prison.

Diamond filed her lawsuit in February, accusing prison officials of violating her 8th Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment. She said they stopped the hormone therapy she had been receiving for 17 years. They also confiscated her female clothing, placed her in solitary confinement for “pretending to be a woman” and transferred her between several prisons for male inmates, who sexually assaulted her, the lawsuit says. Prison staffers gave her this advice: “guard your booty” and be prepared to fight.

Without her treatment, Diamond’s breasts shrunk, she experienced chronic pain and she vomited often. She attempted to commit suicide, slashing her wrists with a razor and trying to sever her penis.

“The anxiety attacks were completely horrible because my body started changing,” she said. “A beard — where there had never been a beard ever before — started to grow… Then that sent me into another psychological downward spiral.”

Prison officials eventually restarted her hormone treatment, though she contended the dosage was inadequate. In April — after the Justice Department weighed in on Diamond’s lawsuit — state prison officials disclosed they had changed their policy. Now it requires “constitutionally appropriate medical and mental health treatment” for people like Diamond.

The Transgender Law Center — a civil rights group — hailed that outcome, while pointing to another victory for transgender people in California. In a settlement filed last month in that federal case, the California Department of Corrections agreed to refer a woman — Shiloh Quine — for sex-change surgery and to transfer her to a female facility.

“Other jurisdictions – particularly in the South – may look at Georgia as an example of what can start happening in other states,” said Flor Bermudez, the center’s detention project director.

Conservative groups say they aren’t convinced hormone therapy and sex-change operations are effective ways to treat gender dysphoria.

“We certainly think that taxpayers have a right to object to their taxpayer dollars being used for this type of therapy,” said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies with the Family Research Council, a Washington-based Christian lobbying group.

Diamond said she now is struggling with painful memories of her time behind bars. She has trouble sleeping, is constantly looking over her shoulder and is uncomfortable with people standing behind her. She agreed to speak to reporters – but at a downtown Rome hotel so she would not bring attention to a relative’s home where she is staying. She said she is trying to protect her family from gangsters who extorted money from her for protection in prison.

Diamond is writing a memoir about her time in prison. She mentioned the possibility of a reality show starring herself. And she hopes to get back into singing, a skill she picked up performing in a Baptist church choir. Before she went behind bars she was known for her dead-on Whitney Houston impersonations. Asked to demonstrate, she willingly belted out “I Will Always Love You.”

“Bittersweet memories,” she sang unflinchingly into an Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographer’s video camera. “That is all I’m taking with me. So, goodbye. Please, don’t cry. We both know I’m not what you, you need.”

Diamond said she is starting to feel like herself again. She now wears a long dark wig, lipstick and eye shadow, things she said she was denied in prison.

“I can look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, well there she is. She is not gone anymore. She is still here,’” she said. “And I think that is good.”