It didn’t take long after Passion Star was sent to prison for her to be sexually assaulted for the first time. And it wasn’t long before she filed her first complaint against her first attacker. And she realized “almost immediately,” she says, that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was not going to help her.
In a letter to Jezebel and in a lengthy story published Tuesday in the New York Times, Passion Star, a transgender woman who’s been incarcerated in Texas for the past 12 years, detailed what she says has been more than a decade of rape and beatings by gang members at seven different prison units in Texas, as well as almost complete indifference by the correctional officers tasked with watching over her.
“Texas says it has good policies” when it comes to trans inmates, Star told Jezebel in her recent letter. “But those policies aren’t followed or respected by people in positions of power.”
In a series of complaints filed with the TDCJ and in court documents, Star laid out 12 years of sexual assault allegations, as well as the responses from correctional officers and administrative officials at the prisons where she was incarcerated. One CO called her a “faggot” and suggested she liked the “attention” she was getting, Star alleges. A CO at a different unit was far less gallant: “You can’t rape someone who’s gay,” he told her, according to Star. One lieutenant, she says, told her to stop filing complaints that triggered Offender Protection Investigations (OPIs). Instead, he suggested, “Suck dick, fight or quit doing gay shit and you’ll be okay, but quit running me with OPIs.”
In October, the national LGBT rights organization Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit on Star’s behalf, alleging that TDCJ officials had repeatedly failed to protect her from sexual abuse. After over a decade of begging to put on safekeeping—a version of protective custody that doesn’t put an inmate in isolation—Star’s request was finally granted at the end of March. That was soon after New York Times reporter Deborah Sontag first started asking to interview her, and Lambda filed an emergency motion stating that her life was in “imminent danger” if she wasn’t moved.
Star has been transferred seven times during her incarceration so far. Her seventh home was the Clements Unit near Amarillo. She arrived there in November 2014, and by February she was getting so many threats that she feared that she would be killed at any time. By that time, Star had filed an endless series of complaints—all of them largely ignored, she says—and nearly lost her eye in a brutal 2013 razor attack.
Jael Humphrey, Star’s attorney at Lambda Legal, says Star had been labeled a “snitch” for speaking up about the threats being made against her. By February, Humphrey says, “she really felt she couldn’t stand it anymore.” They spoke on the phone around Feb. 20, and Humphrey says she was alarmed by what Star told her.
“When she spoke to me—she’s not one to overstate her assessment of situation,” Humphrey says. “She’s not alarmist at all. But when I asked her to measure the danger, she said she felt it was a certainty that she was not going to be able to make it through the weekend without being forced to do something sexually that she didn’t want to do, or hurt or killed if she resisted.”
Texas says it has a zero tolerance policy against not just prison rape, but inmate sexual conduct of any kind. However, like a few other Republican-run states, state officials also believe they don’t have to comply with all the requirements of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed in 2003 and just beginning to be enforced this year.
Last year, in a letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder, former Gov. Rick Perry called PREA “counterproductive” and “unnecessarily cumbersome,” and suggested its standards would endanger correctional officers, saying it would require them to remove cameras from units and suggested “obstruct[ing] lines of sight” to be in compliance. He also said that since roughly 40 percent of the TDCJ officers are women, and PREA is concerned with limiting “cross-gender” supervision of inmates in places like the bathroom and shower areas, the standards would require the department to “deny female officers job assignments and promotion opportunities.”
It’s unclear how current Gov. Greg Abbott will choose to approach PREA; his office hasn’t said much about it (and didn’t respond to an interview request from Jezebel). But last month, TDCJ’s press officer, Robert Hurst, told Jezebel that it plans to be “as compliant as possible with PREA standards without jeopardizing the safety and security of our institutions,” pointing out that 24 penal facilities in the state have been already been examined by federal PREA auditors, and 21 have passed, while the other three are “pending completion” of the audit process. At the same time, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is expected to re-introduce an amendment to PREA soon, one that would mean states like his never have to comply with the law and would face zero consequences for doing so.
Passion Star’s story is a unique example of just how drastically and repeatedly Texas’s home-grown standards have failed.
“What’s going on in Texas is a crisis,” says Jesse Lerner-Kinglake. He’s the communications director at Just Detention International, a human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in prisons and jails. He told the Texas Observer at the time that Perry’s objection letter regarding PREA contained “so many basic errors,” adding, “It’s really kind of simple stuff that anyone who took a minute to look at the standards would know.” He said Perry’s objections on limiting cross-gender supervision issue, for example, are misleading in that the areas where women couldn’t be stationed are “so limited in scope, and he’s making it out to be a deal-breaker. It’s just a matter of basic dignity.”
“It is a very urgent crisis and we’re not going to stand by and let it continue to happen,” Kinglake says, of Texas’ prison rape epidemic. “We have the tool in PREA, and they’re not using it.”
Passion Star entered prison in December 2002 as Joshua Zollicoffer. Then 18, she identified at the time as a gay man; she and her boyfriend were convicted by a Coryell County jury of abducting a used-car dealer named William McCune in August 2002, taking off with him in the car during a test drive of a maroon Impala.
Star told the Times that the kidnapping had come as a surprise to her: a little while into the test drive, McCune told her boyfriend it was time to turn the car around. The boyfriend, she says, refused. Star says she was confused, but went along with it:
‘Wow. What do you mean?’” she said. “And he’s like, ‘Be quiet.’ It was one of those things where keeping it real goes wrong. Where I could have been like, ‘Well, you need to stop,’ or gotten out, and I didn’t. We make bad decisions when we’re young.”
Star accepted a plea bargain, copping to aggravated kidnapping in exchange for a 20-year sentence. She is scheduled for release in 2022. (According to the Times, her ex-boyfriend was released on parole in 2013. Star became eligible for parole in 2012.)
Star also told the Times she soon came to realize she was a transgender woman, comparing herself elegantly to a penguin that waddles on land but takes flight in water: “I didn’t feel like I was in my element until, at all types of personal risk to myself, I became Passion.”
According to an affidavit Star wrote in the Lambda lawsuit, other inmates also realized she was a woman, placing her in immediate danger. Star writes that she was sexually assaulted at the Telford Unit, the first unit where she was incarcerated, when a gang member identified as M.M. noticed that she was “feminine” and forced her into what she calls, in scare quotes, a “relationship.”
“I thought he could protect me from other inmates in Telford who were sexually harassing me, but he forced me to perform sexual acts for him, ” Star writes in the affidavit. “When I tried to end the relationship, M.M. choked me, so I stayed in the ‘relationship’ with him.”
Star says in the affidavit that her treatment was part of a long pattern of gang members victimizing LGBT or “feminine”-seeming inmates:
There is a custom in TDCJ pursuant to which gay men and transgender women are targeted by other inmates, frequently inmates with power and influence in the unit, often gang members, and forced to perform sexual acts as a means of survival because otherwise we will be assaulted. Sometimes we are made to perform sexual acts for many members of the same gang. This is called “riding.” Because gay men and transgender women are not protected by TDCJ staff, we are often coerced unwillingly into unwanted sexual encounters to escape physical assault if we try to resist.
Star tells Jezebel she made her first complaints in 2003 at the Telford unit. “Nothing was done,” she says.
By then, she’d also learned about “safekeeping,” which is meant to protect vulnerable inmates without taking them out of general population. The other alternative is protective custody, which amounts to solitary confinement.
Star knew several people who had been placed on safekeeping, and she wanted to be there too, badly: She’d be safe from attacks without having to miss out on school and work. Instead, each time she asked for help, she says, she was either ignored and left to fend for herself, or else placed briefly in protective custody. Coming back from protective custody, she writes, put her into even greater danger: Inmates are widely believed to be put there after they “snitch.”
As a result of begging TCDJ staff to help me, I have found myself in more danger. Each time that I ask for help and am returned to general population, other incarcerated people suspect that I am a “snitch.” I have learned from my time in prison that the prison culture is one of retribution and violence against people who snitch. As a result of asking for help from TDCJ staff who have refused to take reasonable steps to protect me, I have been placed at greater risk of serious harm.
In 2006, Star writes, she was transferred to the Allred Unit near Iowa Park, Texas, where her cellmate raped her at knifepoint. When she told a guard about the rape, her cellmate threw a fan at her head, cutting it.
After that, she was transferred again to the Smith Unit, near Lamesa, Texas, where she thought it would be obvious that she needed to be in protective custody. Instead, she writes in the affidavit, she was sexually harassed and threatened with rape again, including an incident where she was forced to watch a man masturbate. She was transferred yet again, to the Coffield Unit, in a remote area of Anderson County, where, again, she was forced into a “relationship” with a man referred to in court documents as “T.K.,” who she says punched her in the jaw when she tried to end the relationship. He broke one of her teeth and punctured her lip.
By 2011, she was at the Hughes Unit near Gatesville, where things grew even worse: She says gang members in both the Bloods and the Crips demanded that she submit to them sexually in return for “protection.” In the complaint filed by Lamda, she alleges that one correctional officer, who she identifies as a Lieutenant Aragon, called her a “snitch” and a “faggot” in front of other inmates, while other officers pretended to grab her butt, which they referred to as the “grab-ass game.” (The complaint never uses full names; Star, as an inmate, would not have known any of the CO’s first names. The Texas Tribune’s database of Texas state employees lists only one person with the last name Aragon who works for the TDCJ, Monika M. Aragon, who is indeed a lieutenant.)
In her affidavit, Star also says that she met with the Unit Classification Committee, a group of prison administrators who make decisions about whom to place on safekeeping. She says she explained her long history of being sexually assaulted and that she felt she was still at risk. Her request to be placed on safekeeping was denied.
In response, Star filed a grievance, which was denied. (Throughout many of these complaints, Star refers to herself as gay, not trans; she says in the affidavit that she believed correctional officers and TCDJ administrators would understand “gay” better.) She appealed the denial, and was again denied. She returned to general population from a short stint in protective custody, and was almost immediately moved into a pod with a man referred to in court documents as JT, a Crip she said had been threatening and sexually harassing her from the moment she arrived on the unit.
Star says she begged for help again, going to the supervisor of her building and asking to be moved away from JT as quickly as possible. The supervisor, she says, replied that it was “not [his] problem.”
That day, leaving the dining hall, Star was attacked by JT and a group of other Crips. JT called her a “snitching faggot” and slashed her face repeatedly with a razor. One cut came perilously close to her right eye. She told the Times’s Sontag that she needed 36 stitches in her face. At that point, she asked to be placed on safekeeping again, and was denied, again, with a committee telling her there was not “sufficient evidence” that she was being attacked.
Star was soon moved to yet another unit, Robertson; it was there that a correctional officer suggested she “stop doing gay shit.” She filed piles of complaints, going further and further up the chain, even appealing to administrators in the state’s Safe Prisons Program to help her. Again and again, her requests were ignored or denied.
From July 25, 2014, to Aug. 8 or so, Star says, she was placed in a “transient” cell as some stopgap method of protection. In her affidavit, she describes this—and all the other times she was placed in isolation—as “a form of torture”:
I have little human contact; I cannot sleep; I think constantly about past traumatic experiences; and I suffer from psychological distress. I have felt deterred from filing complaints about sexual abuse because I do not want to be placed in isolation again. While in transient status, I was also afraid that at any moment I could be release back into the general population and killed.
She appeared again in front of the UCC and asked again to be put on safekeeping. She says that an assistant warden in charge of the UCC told her: “It’s a man’s prison. You can’t expect to walk around acting like that and not have problems.”
Robert Hurst, the public information officer for the TDCJ, told Jezebel in an email that the department has a “zero tolerance” policy towards sexual violence and “sexual encounters” of any kind:
While I cannot comment specifically on the lawsuit, TDCJ has a zero tolerance policy against sexual encounters of any kind within the system. The agency, in conjunction with several independent entities such as the Office of Inspector General, the Special Prosecution Unit, and the PREA ombudsman, has an extensive Safe Prisons program aimed at preventing, investigating, and prosecuting sexual assault and other acts of violence. This program is in operation at all TDCJ correctional facilities.
A 2007 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study found five Texas prisons—Allred Unit, Clemens Unit, Coffield Unit, Estelle Unit, and Mountain View Unit—to be among the 10 prisons in America with the highest incidence rates of inmate-reported sexual assault. Just Detention International, additionally, reports that 59 percent of transgender women in men’s prisons are sexually abused.
The TCDJ has officially disputed Star’s transgender status. In their response to Lambda’s lawsuit, they write, “Defendants deny that plaintiff is transgender, as no such medical diagnosis has been made.”
Jael Humphrey says Texas’s response is absurd.
“It’s ludicrous that the defendants would claim this as a defense in their lawsuit,” she tells Jezebel. “Ms. Star is a transgender woman, but her status as such is irrelevant to TDCJ’s obligation to protect her from the threat of sexual violence. TDCJ officials were clearly on notice of Ms. Star’s vulnerability to sexual abuse, and displayed deliberate indifference to this risk. In addition, Defendants were on notice that Ms. Star is a transgender woman in a man’s prison and consequently has increased vulnerability to sexual assault.”
Humphrey points out, too that, Texas has its own, very nice-sounding Safe Prisons Plan outlining how it will comply with some PREA standards. That document doesn’t require a “medical diagnosis” for someone to be deemed transgender, which the SPP defines simply as “a person whose gender identity, such as internal sense of feeling male or female, is different from the person’s assigned sex at birth.”
The few interactions that Star says she had with medical professionals about being trans were not ideal: in the complaint filed by Lambda, she alleges that one counselor insisted she was male:
In November 2014, Ms. Star met with psychologist Ledbetter at Clements, who asked her about her transgender identity. Ms. Ledbetter insisted that Ms. Star was a man and not a woman and tried to force Ms. Star to admit that she could not be a woman. Ms. Star was upset by her interaction with Ms. Ledbetter.
However, Humphrey says that this particular TDCJ line of defense didn’t seem to hold much water with the judge: “When Judge Gray Miller issued an opinion on Monday denying the defendants’ motion to transfer venue, we were relieved not just to win on this motion, but that the judge addressed Ms. Star respectfully using female pronouns throughout the opinion.”
Sexual abuse is a “massive problem” in Texas prisons, says Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, the communications director for Just Detention International. “JDI gets between 2,000 and 2,500 letters every year from survivors of sexual abuse in detention. I think close to 20 percent come from people who are locked up in Texas.”
The letters, some of which are featured on JDI’s website, are horrifying. This is from a man named Sidney:
I was sent to a Texas prison. The cell block where I was placed, was still new and not even finished. Our cell doors didn’t work, they just hung there. I was the youngest, prettiest one there, and the only sissy. Inmates were trying to get me out of my clothes, but I kept refusing. Well, three of them got mad and threw me into an empty cell. They beat me until I complied. I was held down and raped by all three. This went on for four days and nights. At that time, there was nobody to report it to. You rarely saw a guard and inmates ran the place.
Ten years later, it happened again. I was forced into a relationship to keep from being beaten. I was forced to have sex about three times a week. One day I refused, but he only got mad. Eventually, I got moved to another cell block across the hall. He was furious. One day, I went to shower late in the evening since I was at the doctor’s office when everybody else went to shower earlier that day. Then, he showed up and beat me up so bad that I was taken in an ambulance to the hospital, for stitches and x-rays.
When I got back, I was locked up and moved the next day. A couple of weeks later, the people like me got transferred to another prison a hundred miles away.
And this is from a man named Roderick, who, like Star, says he was targeted for being gay:
I was an openly gay, first-time offender convicted of non-violent drug charges – in other words, a target. After arriving at the facility, I was immediately pressured by gang members to sleep with someone in exchange for protection. At first I resisted these approaches, but it wasn’t long until I was raped. The perpetrator promised to keep me from being owned by the gangs if I would only have sex with him. Instead, he and his gang forced me to have sex with other gang members and also sold my services to other inmates.
I was being assaulted in the showers, stairwells, my cell, and other cells. After I made complaints to prison officials, they told me, “Go down there and fight like a man, or get a man.” Prison officials also threatened me for exposing their misconduct, by seeking help through the courts.
It’s not just anecdotal evidence, though, Lerner-Kinglake points out: “As part of the PREA, the was a massive research undertaking by the federal government into the problem of sexual abuse in detention. There have been three nationwide anonymous state surveys. They’ve shown consistently that Texas is among the worst. Again and again, it performs terribly.”
Many new standards and regulations are supposed to be implemented as a result of PREA. Overall, like Texas’s own program, it pledges “zero tolerance” for sexual assault. But it also drills down into specifics: limits on “cross-gender supervision”—including, for example, new rules that say male guards can’t perform body-cavity searches on female inmates; new protocols on how youthful offenders can be kept safe (not being placed on a unit where they have “sight, sound or physical contact” with adults); new protections for inmates who are disabled, who aren’t English proficient, or have a variety of other perceived vulnerabilities.
But PREA’s full implementation has been stalled for years, while states like Texas—and Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nebraska, and Utah—raise objections, usually by saying it’s “federal overreach” and their own systems work just fine. The feds’ response to this has been to threaten to cut those states’ federal funding for corrections; this chart shows how much each stands to lose.
TDCJ press officer Robert Hurst told Jezebel via email that the agency began the PREA auditing process in 2014, and that “24 units have been audited thus far, 21 of those have met all the standards, and 3 are pending completion of the audit process. We anticipate those units will also be in compliance.” There are 109 facilities total, which Hurst says will go through the PREA auditing process over a three-year period.
But then again, maybe they won’t. In September, Texas Senator John Cornyn proposed a PREA amendment—attached it to an unrelated bill, actually—that would eliminate those financial penalties, which are the only stick the feds have to make them comply. This coming Friday is the deadline for states to prove they’re finally complying with PREA, and Cornyn is widely expected to re-introduce the amendment to make it painless for the states—like Texas—who aren’t.
Texas doesn’t have to be like this. Indeed, not every penal facility in Texas is like this. In 2013, one of the largest jails in the state, Harris County, adopted a broad LGBT inmate protection policy under the guidance of Sheriff Adrian Garcia (now running for mayor of Houston).
“We don’t qualify inmates by gender solely based on what their genitals are,” says Alan Bernstein, a spokesperson for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Instead, he says, the sheriff’s office has adopted “a matrix that takes into account several things, including, excuse the expression, their equipment, but also whether they’re undergoing a sex change and what their self-proclaimed identity is.”
When an inmate is booked in, Bernstein says, a correctional officer asks them, basically: “Do you have a condition, medical or otherwise, a vulnerability, or any piece of information you’d like to volunteer that would require us to house in a special unit?”
Jail personnel have also been trained on transgender and LGBT issues, Bernstein says, and several people have been trained as “specialists.” They wear a special badge so that inmates can quickly identify them and know they’re a safe person to whom they can report abuse.
The jail also made special provisions to deal with homophobia among correctional officers, he adds, including having homophobic COs undergo professional counseling with their peers. That counseling is then noted in their personnel file.
Bernstein notes that there are massive differences between jails and prisons (jails are for inmates who are doing short stints, usually pre-trial and pre-conviction, while prison inmates are locked up for much longer). But, he says, there may be things Texas prisons could learn from Harris County.
“They can come and watch how we implement our policies and see how they might apply the state prisons,” he says, before adding, quickly, “I’m not criticizing state prisons system’s performance on these issues.”
In the end, it took the pressure of the Lambda lawsuit and a New York Times reporter knocking on the door for TDCJ to move Passion Star onto safekeeping. On March 30, Lambda announced she was being moved onto safekeeping immediately. In a statement, Humphrey called it “a tremendous relief” for her client.
Star says that when she learned she was finally being placed on safekeeping after more than a decade of begging, she was “ecstatic,” she tells Jezebel in her letter. “Really, I felt relief and felt that just maybe I’d now be allowed the opportunity to survive long enough to make it home to my family.”
Safekeeping status does still mean that Star interacts with general population inmates. She’s cognizant of the potential dangers, and says it still beats solitary: “We don’t live in general population with all the gangs and gang violence. Also, it is better than solitary confinement because solitary is a form of torture and, at the end of the day, not an appropriate means to keep someone safe from harm. I feel safer on safekeeping. I am still able to go to school, which I have signed up for. And I am more secure. If an assailant were determined enough, he could still get to me. But for the most part, I am in a better living environment than I have been in the past.”
There was also, though, a bitter, biting irony: Only a select few TCDJ units have safekeeping programs. Star was sent back to the Telford unit, the first place she’d been locked up, the first place she started begging Texas for help.
“In another way, it felt crazy coming back to Telford Unit, where I made my first requests for protection,” she writes. “I can’t help but think about the violence I could’ve possibly avoided had my complaints been heeded then.”
Star’s full letter to Jezebel is embedded below:
Image via Shutterstock.