Last spring, Lindsay Saunders-Velez, a transgender inmate in the Colorado Department of Corrections system, was in solitary confinement — or "the hole," as her attorney, Paula Greisen, put it — not for an infraction, but to prevent her from further harm following two in-custody rapes during a few months.
A year later, Saunders-Velez, twenty, has agreed to a settlement with the CDOC and the office of Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser that should improve her life during the final stretch of her confinement (as Greisen understands it, she's due for release as soon as October) and holds the promise of doing likewise for transgender inmates in Colorado and beyond.
"We believe this settlement signifies that the State of Colorado is committed to continuing its work to hopefully set a national standard for the humane and fair treatment of the LGBTQI community and all of our citizens, especially those in the custody of the state," notes Greisen, speaking on behalf of her law firm, King & Greisen, LLP. "This can save lives."
The monetary details of the pact are confidential, and while one news agency has reported a dollar amount, Greisen requests that the figure be kept under wraps to protect Saunders-Velez. But she and the aforementioned state agencies are able to share systemic changes intended to prevent the routinized exploitation and mistreatment that transgender inmates have suffered for years.
Saunders-Velez is a case in point. As Greisen told us last year, she was neglected and abused by her parents and sexually assaulted as a child. After she made her gender-identity announcement when she was in elementary school, she bounced around foster care before winding up in a youth correctional facility for females, to which she was assigned after filing her own pro se lawsuit.
In the years that followed, Saunders-Velez was charged and convicted of felony menacing after having an extreme response to being restrained during a therapy session — "a normal reaction for children who've been abused," Greisen allowed. Her parole was subsequently violated after Saunders-Velez engaged in what Greisen characterized as "self-harming behavior," and she was sent to a men's prison.
In December 2017, Saunders-Velez was raped while at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility in Chaffee County. Next, she moved to the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City, which was initially an improvement, since she was placed in an honors section for inmates. But after a guard claimed he'd seen her kiss another inmate, which she denied doing, she was sentenced to a thirty-day loss of privileges and plans were put in place to send her to what's known as Territorial's "punishment pod."
At that point, Greisen entered the picture, but before her efforts to stop the move through a variety of legal tactics could achieve success, Saunders-Velez was raped again. At that point, she was given four options for new housing that excluded female facilities and the honors section. She chose the least objectionable — a different pod at Territorial, where she didn't know anyone.
But everyone knew her, thanks to media coverage — including a Denver Post article in which several other transgender inmates expressed hostility for Saunders-Velez under the theory that her advocacy was making it harder for them to fly under the radar. And they weren't the only ones to see her in negative terms.
"People in custody have full access to the news," Greisen said in 2018, "and she's been labeled a snitch far and wide throughout the entire system. Through no fault of her own, it's clearly created different camps of people, and as a result, she's repeatedly been bullied and subjected to harassment."
New threats against Saunders-Velez led to her aforementioned stint in solitary. But she didn't back down, and just over a year later, Greisen's efforts on her behalf bore fruit.
Here are the Colorado Department of Corrections' explanations of four policy shifts being made as a result of the settlement:
• CDOC has expanded medical provider responsibilities to assume the treatment and monitoring of transgender offenders at intake and post-intake, and has implemented an intake process to address housing and placement options on a case-by-case basis and in coordination with the Gender Dysphoria Treatment Committee.
• Once placed in a particular facility, transgender offenders are re-assessed by the mental health clinician, primary health care provider, and the living unit supervisor (CO III or equivalent) every six months to review housing arrangements, program and work assignments, and any threats to safety experienced by the offender. This information is then sent to the Gender Dysphoria Treatment Committee for review.
• Colorado is one of only a handful of states that allows transgender offenders to access and purchase personal hygiene and commissary items that are appropriate for their gender identity.
• CDOC has implemented agency-wide training regarding the use of pronouns and respectful interactions with transgender offenders.
This last change is particularly key, in Greisen's view. "Addressing these women properly, using the correct pronouns and using their names, represents basic human rights. And making sure procedures are in place that recognize the unique circumstances surrounding these women at the very beginning of their entry into the system are very important changes the Department of Corrections has agreed to make as a result of legal action."
In a statement, CDOC Executive Director Dean Williams, who was named to the position earlier this year, underscores his commitment to the new policies.
"Having recently come to Colorado from another state corrections system [Alaska], I can attest to the fact that the Colorado Department of Corrections is leading on issues relating to transgender rights," Williams maintains. "Colorado DOC has worked diligently to develop and implement policies and procedures directly aimed at the fair, appropriate and respectful treatment of transgender offenders. The corrections environment presents unique challenges and issues that are not present in ordinary community settings, but we strive to achieve the best possible balance between the desire to protect the dignity of all offenders [and] the need to ensure their safety. We will continue to be inclusive and sensitive to the needs of all of our LGBTQI offenders."
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser seconds these emotions in his own statement: "The settlement with Lindsay Saunders-Velez specifically addresses claims she has brought against the State. Colorado is on the forefront of this issue and has already implemented progressive policies aimed at the fair and dignified treatment of all transgender offenders. This settlement reflects Colorado’s commitment to these values and continuous improvement. My office is committed to continuing to work with and support the CDOC as it explores ways to enhance its policies and continue its leadership in this area."
None of this would have happened without Saunders-Velez's determination to speak out, Greisen believes.
According to her, "The bravery of Ms. Saunders-Velez to assert not only her rights, but the rights of all of these women, and to stand up for fair treatment — it just takes an enormous amount of courage to do that, especially when you are in a very challenging environment even for people who are not transgender. She's made huge changes, and we are hopeful that this is just the beginning of more changes to come. There are still problems left to fix, but I think this certainly signals to Ms. Saunders-Velez, and hopefully it signals to the other women who find themselves in this situation, that they do have a voice and there are people both inside and outside the system who are working hard to respect and protect them."
Right now, Greisen estimates that there are around 130 transgender inmates being held by CDOC, and many hundreds of others across the country. "As society changes and people understand that they should be allowed to live in accordance with their gender identity, more people are identifying," she points out. "So I do expect the number will increase significantly not just in Colorado, but around the nation."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
As a result, Greisen sees this settlement as "the first important step. We're talking about additional protections and additional changes that we feel need to be made, and the state and the Department of Corrections certainly appear to be working in good faith to continue these discussions and bring about further changes on behalf of all women who are in very similar situations to Lindsay. I am hopeful that those talks will continue to be productive."
She adds, "This was not easy, and it's still challenging. But for the first time in a long time, I think we have a governor [Jared Polis] and an attorney general who get it."
When asked about Saunders-Velez's reaction to the settlement, Greisen begins by outlining the difficult road she's traveled. In her words, "Lindsay has been incarcerated for many years, both in the youth correctional system and in the adult system, primarily because of the issues she has related to not only being transgender, but also suffering years of abuse as a result of her gender identity."
However, she continues, "this gives her the ability to start over. It gives her the ability to find a place to live and get basic services. Transgender women are often the victims of sexual violence, and she has been the victim of extreme sexual violence since she was a child. So I can say that, for the first time, I think she has hope — and I think she also must feel that although it was scary and came at a very heavy price, there's an enormous amount of satisfaction she has that she was able to be the voice of this community, which is so disenfranchised and so victimized. So this is a new start, a fresh start and a very empowering start. There have been a lot of smiles."