The life of inmate Lindsay Saunders-Velez, a nineteen-year-old transgender woman, has been a living hell since she was transferred from a center for juvenile females to a men's prison. Even though she's been raped twice in a matter of months, Colorado Department of Corrections officials refuse to transfer her to a female institution or even back to her previous pod at the men's facility, where she had friends who supported her.
More recently, Saunders-Velez reported that she'd been threatened by fellow inmates in the section of the prison where she's currently confined — a unit whose dangers have been demonstrated to her on multiple occasions. According to attorney Paula Greisen, who represents Saunders-Velez, her jailers reacted by placing her in solitary confinement, supposedly for her own safety — even though she'd done nothing wrong — before ordering her to stay in the area occupied by those who menaced her in the first place.
"She's been put in the same position as so many other transgender inmates in her situation," Greisen says. "If you report abuse and threats, you get put in the hole."
Saunders-Velez was neglected and abused by her parents and sexually assaulted as a child, Greisen told us earlier this month. In the years that followed her gender-identity announcement, made when she was elementary-school age, 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 reaction to being restrained during a therapy session — "a normal reaction for children who've been abused," Greisen points out. Her parole was subsequently violated after Saunders-Velez engaged in what Greisen characterizes as "self-harming behavior," and she was sent to a men's prison.
Last December, 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 prevent the move through a variety of legal tactics could bear fruit, Saunders-Velez was raped again. At that point, Saunders-Velez 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 says, "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."
That's when the threat arrived and Saunders-Velez wound up in solitary.
Once again, Greisen went into action, but she found resistance aplenty from CDOC personnel. In one email to the department, she wrote that placing Saunders-Velez in solitary "is exactly why inmates do not report problems. The solution is to move out the individuals making the threats rather than punishing my client." The department's response: "Under CDOC policies, it was determined necessary to temporarily remove Saunders from population. As I mentioned before, this is not punishment, but necessary safety precautions to protect Saunders."
To Greisen, the assertion that putting Saunders-Velez into solitary wasn't a way of penalizing her for speaking out is absurd on its face. For one thing, "she was placed in the hole without privileges. I insisted she be given privileges or else it was punitive, but they didn't give her privileges. So, in a desperate attempt to get out of solitary, she recanted her story about any threats being made to her — and once she recanted, she was put back into the same cell house with the same individuals who threatened her."
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Among the many things that frustrates Greisen about this situation "is that there were many other options available to CDOC. They have been put on notice that we're dealing with an individual who has severe issues — who's been raped, who is a very young transgender woman and a first-timer in the prison system. They could have removed the individuals who threatened her or moved Lindsay to a place where she has said she feels more secure."
Making matters worse, in Greisen's view, is the Territorial staff's disinterest in "treating Lindsay with dignity and respect. She gets strip-searched by male guards and they won't refer to her as she. She put a sign on her door asking people to use female pronouns, and CDOC made her take it down, because staff is not allowed to call Lindsay 'she;' it's CDOC policy that they won't address people by their gender identity, but only by their biological identity. Supposedly the guards refer to her as 'Saunders' or her number, but when I visited her, the staff was using male pronouns."
As for what she plans to do next, Greisen says, "There's a lot of thinking and discussing going on about this issue — and it's not unique to Lindsay. Unfortunately, this is a recurring problem through this country. These are individuals who are actively deterred from reporting discrimination and harassment and rape because of exactly what happened to Lindsay — she was punished instead of the people threatening her. So I'm hoping Colorado will step up to the plate and take the lead in how to resolve this ongoing tragedy."
One positive sign: Numerous representatives from Colorado's House of Representatives have signed on to a resolution calling on changes to be made in the way CDOC treats transgender prisoners. Click to read "Concerning the Colorado Department of Corrections' Need to Review and Revise Policies to Improve Safety for Transgender Inmates," which specifically mentions Saunders-Velez.