A booking photo of Lindsay Saunders-Velez.
A booking photo of Lindsay Saunders-Velez.
Colorado Department of Corrections

Lindsay Saunders-Velez, Transgender Prisoner: Two Rapes and Still Not Safe

Since being transferred to a men's prison from a juvenile correctional facility for females, Lindsay Saunders-Velez, a nineteen-year-old transgender woman, has been raped twice within a matter of months, her attorney says. Yet thus far, Colorado officials refuse to place her into a women's prison even though her most recent alleged attacker has been returned to the general inmate population at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City, where she's currently being held.

"It's incomprehensible," says Paula Greisen, the lawyer who represents Saunders-Velez. "Here you have a nineteen-year-old kid who's essentially been thrown into the wolf's den."

Greisen is among the best known and most respected defense attorneys in Colorado. She spearheaded a case known as Montez v. Colorado Department of Corrections, in which the state was required to provide disabled inmates with equal access and services. And more recently, she's been part of the team backing Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a gay couple whose complaint against Masterpiece Cakeshop over the refusal of its owner, Jack Phillips, to make them a wedding cake because of his religious beliefs led to a controversy that is currently awaiting a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

In recent weeks, she's stepped in to help Saunders-Velez, whose plight is hardly unique. According to her, the mistreatment and abuse of transgender prisoners "is a huge, pressing issue, and it has been for some time. We have not come to an acceptable resolution about how we're going to deal with these individuals, and that's way overdue."

Here's Greisen's overview of Saunders-Velez's story and present plight.

"Lindsay had been a kid who was neglected and abused by her parents, and she was sexually assaulted as a child," Greisen says. "She actually announced her gender identity when she was six or eight years of age, so essentially her whole life, she's lived as a female. And she's very ambitious, very smart. She wanted to go to law school, she wanted to be a district attorney. She wanted to live the dream we all hope for our children. But her parents rejected her because of her gender identity."

As a result of what Greisen refers to as "her history of abuse and violence," Saunders-Velez "moved in and out of foster care and eventually wound up in the youth correctional facility.  She filed her own pro se lawsuit to be placed in a female facility, and the State of Colorado agreed to put her in one — and she started hormone replacement therapy at the age of sixteen. As I said, she's always presented as a female."

Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City.
Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City.
Google Maps

But Saunders-Velez remained a troubled soul.

"When somebody tries to restrain her, she'll punch and kick to try to get away, which is a normal reaction for children who've been abused — and I believe she was upset at one point while talking to a therapist and threw a chair. For that, she was charged and convicted of felony menacing and she was put on probation at the female facility — and when she engaged in some self-harming behavior, they violated her probation and sent her to a men's prison" over Saunders-Velez's objections, Greisen says.

After being relocated, Saunders-Velez, who was eighteen at the time, "requested a number of things," Greisen points out. "She asked not to be body-searched by male guards, but the Department of Corrections refused. The guards also refused to use the correct pronouns for her or let her go by her female name. She's not allowed female undergarments or hygiene or any of the things you would be allowed in the woman's facility."

Over the course of the year or so Saunders-Velez has been in the men's system. "She's moved around to several different facilities," says Greisen. "She was at Territorial, and then she moved to Buena Vista, where she engaged in self-harm behavior to get out of a really bad situation — she swallowed razor blades to get away from people who were threatening to rape her. And she was ultimately raped in December of 2017."

A few months later, in April of this year, Greisen got involved, "and I found out she had been convicted of a disciplinary charge. One of the guards claimed he saw her kiss another inmate, which she denies — and for that, she was sentenced to a thirty-day loss of privileges. Now, there are a couple of different ways you can serve that kind of punishment. One is called a loss of privileges in place, where you stay in your same housing unit, but you don't have your electronics or any of the extra things you get. But the other thing they can do is move you to what's called the punishment pod."

At that time, Greisen reveals, Saunders-Velez "was living in the incentive pod at Territorial, which is sort of like the honors unit. You have to have very good behavior to stay there, because the most well-behaved people live in that unit. And comparatively speaking, she felt safe and secure there. She had her support group and generally trusted the people in the pod as much as you can in that kind of situation. But because of the discipline charge, they wanted to move her to the punishment pod — and that's when I was retained."

Lindsay Saunders-Velez, left, with mentor Meghan Baker in a photo from earlier this year.
Lindsay Saunders-Velez, left, with mentor Meghan Baker in a photo from earlier this year.

Shortly thereafter, Greisen allows, "I started to prepare an emergency request for the court to stop them from moving her into the punishment pod, and I talked with the Colorado Attorney General's Office, Cynthia Coffman's office, and essentially begged them not to move her. But I was told they were too busy to deal with this — that I could file something and they'd take a look at it and try to respond the next week. They said, 'Offenders just don't get to ask where they want to go.' And I said, 'This is very different than just a preference.'"

Indeed, Greisen feels Saunders-Velez's circumstances can be applied to the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which she describes as "a federal law enacted to protect the LGBTQ community from rape and assault in prison. And I didn't believe the unit she was being sent to was what we call PREA-compliant because of the low level of supervision there. But I was told, basically, 'That's our policy. That's what we're going to do.' And they did move her. I'd filed a motion asking the court to make them put her back into her old pod at least until we could fully guarantee that appropriate safety precautions were in place. But at 4:30 or 5 on Friday afternoon on April 20, the judge [U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Krieger] denied the motion, and later that night, Lindsay was brutally raped."

The request and denial documents are accessible below.

After the sexual assault, Greisen continues, "Lindsay was taken to the hospital and then [was] returned and placed in the infirmary. And on Monday the 23rd, I had another hearing; when the judge had denied my motion, she said we could talk about what was going on after the weekend. But by then, it was too late. I informed the court, 'My client was raped,' and the attorney general's office confirmed that she was in the infirmary. The court said at that time the Department of Corrections was not allowed to move her out of the infirmary unless it was to a location that was 'agreeable' — I put that in quotes. And they had to give me at least four days notice of where they were going to move her."

As a result, Saunders-Velez spent the rest of the week in the infirmary, which Greisen characterizes as "almost a solitary situation. She couldn't go to classes, she wasn't allowed to see other prisoners, she had no support group, and she got no mental health treatment after what happened to her. And for someone like Lindsay, who suffers from severe depression and who had just been raped, this was one of the worst things that could happen."

Just as frustrating: The four housing options for Saunders-Velez presented by the Department of Corrections didn't include a women's facility, "and one of them was to go back to the place where she had just been raped," Greisen divulges. "She could also go to Sterling, where she didn't know anyone, and Buena Vista, which she'd swallowed a razor blade to escape. And the only other one was cell house one in Territorial, where she didn't know anyone, either."

That's where Saunders-Velez is at this writing, and based on recent conversations, Greisen says "she's extremely fragile right now, as any victim in this scenario would be. She's been deeply traumatized, and I think there's enormous fear that she'll be harmed again."

Saunders-Velez's alleged attacker was briefly placed in solitary, but he was subsequently moved out of that confinement after he maintained that the sex between the pair was consensual. Moreover, Greisen believes the powers-that-be at Territorial feel the same way, based on video footage of Saunders-Velez and the man in question having a conversation earlier on the day of the assault that ended with her smiling.

Inside the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility.
Inside the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility.

Using such an exchange as evidence that a rape was consensual makes no sense to Greisen. "Something like that would rule out any kind of acquaintance rape — and we know statistically that you're more likely to be raped by an acquaintance than a stranger."

Right now, Greisen says, "My most important objective is to get Lindsay out of the male facility. That's my number-one priority. She should never have been there in the first place, and the State of Colorado needs to get her out."

She contrasts the Department of Corrections' insistence upon keeping Saunders-Velez jailed alongside men with officials' behavior in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. "All the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, the State of Colorado stood up to the Department of Justice and said, 'These people should be protected and given basic human rights and dignity. The LGBTQ community deserves to be treated with the same respect as any other group.' But that's not how the state is acting now. They're hiding behind what their current policy is — and it needs to stop."

By Greisen's estimate, somewhere between thirty and fifty transgender women beyond Saunders-Velez are being held in male prisons across Colorado. She guesses that number is closer to 3,000 or 4,000 nationwide — "and these individuals are between ten and thirteen times more likely to be raped when placed in that kind of setting than other individuals."

In her opinion, "This is a systemic problem across the country. Even as we've evolved in our thinking about this community, we continue to throw them into horrific situations — and it's not just throwing them into prison. The juvenile system is failing them, the mental health system is failing them. These kids, who are often abandoned by their families, often come into contact with law enforcement or the state — and the state hasn't developed the tools they need to deal with them properly. Lindsay is a perfect example of that."

Is a lawsuit over how Saunders-Velez is being treated a possibility? "Let me put it this way," Greisen replies. "I've been working on the Montez case for 25 years now, and when I see injustice, especially of such an egregious nature as this, I won't be quiet."

Click to view two documents related to Lindsay Saunders-Velez: Greisen's request for an emergency temporary restraining order and Judge Krieger's denial of the order.

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