In 2016, Ashley Diamond won a historic lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections over its anti-trans policies. During her 2012-2015 incarceration, GDC had denied her access to the hormone therapy she’d been receiving for years, and housed her in a men’s prison where she was repeatedly physically and sexually assaulted.
Her courage in taking on the GDC forced the department to change some of its health care policies, and prompted the Department of Justice to first place GDC under investigation in 2016; since then, the ongoing investigations have expanded significantly. In 2019, she was reincarcerated after traveling out of state to access medically necessary care. Again, she was placed in a men’s facility, and left to endure a cycle of assaults with no protection. She is currently suing GDC a second time. As of August 3, she is finally free.
In 2015, I successfully represented myself in my own lawsuit against GDC. As a trans woman of color inside a men’s prison, I’ve had to fight same battles for survival and for my humanity as Ashley. I, too, am currently suing GDC once again. I am not yet free.
Despite our legal victories, trans women incarcerated by GDC still face extraordinary threats to our health and safety. Our rights are violated on a daily basis. We still receive barely the minimum of what constitutes the standard of medical care. We are no more protected from beatings and rapes than we were before.
I met Ashley when I was 19, wide-eyed and hopeful, not yet knowing what I’d be facing over the next 12 years. I’ve danced onstage with her and felt the joy of her poetry. I’ve struggled with her behind bars while we spoke truth to power. I’ve grown through her friendship and her guidance. We’re now on opposite sides of the prison walls, yet connected by our activism, our abiding love for God and our shared struggle toward trans liberation.
A Filter editor facilitated this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Christina Lynch: The world has followed your story through the #FreeAshleyNow campaign. How wonderful is it to finally have your liberty restored?
Ashley Diamond: Well, to be honest with you, it’s not quite the celebratory experience that I was hoping for. I wouldn’t say that liberty is what I have. I’m gonna say that I’m coming out into the new world. Just in the past few years, there’s been a lot of things going on that have reversed a lot of stuff in our community. And it’s very dangerous out here now.
I’m happy to be free, don’t get me wrong. But the real challenges are beginning now, because I’ve really seen how the life is. I thought that we had come somewhat further than where we are. But I can see that even in these few years that there’s been some recourses. And it’s sad.
How do the cultural and political attitudes you’re seeing on the outside compare to those inside the GDC?
I would absolutely say they’re akin to it. I think that there’s a moral problem. What happened to me in GDC, they thought that was okay. They still think that that’s okay. The people that need to care about that don’t care, unfortunately. I mean, I know the world is full of caring people, there are people that care, but unfortunately the people that need to care don’t care. And that is very distressing.
Hopefully DOJ won’t just tap Georgia on the wrist and walk away.
How have you seen GDC understaffing impact prisoners, especially trans prisoners? What should the DOJ prioritize in its investigation?
Yes. Yes. Understaffing is a big problem. Because not only is security a big issue, but if they can’t control the [rest of] the prisoners, there’s definitely no way they’re going to be able to extend certain securities to trans prisoners.
I think the DOJ does need to prioritize the LGBT community, because they’re the most vulnerable in there. And they should be a priority because of that vulnerability. I’m not the first person that has filed cases due to the safety of transgender people. I think that, number one, we need to get to a place where we can be safe.
Hopefully the DOJ will get in there and really talk to people this time. And it just won’t be you know, something that they just come and tap Georgia on the wrist and then go away. I really hope that people will speak up about what is going on, and I really hope that the DOJ does a very intricate, intricate investigation.
A friend of mine always said something like, “Prison is a collection of accidents, and hopes that have yet materialized.” Being a trans woman of color in prison, do you think that trans-oriented nonprofits and activists are doing enough for us?
I’m gonna be honest, because in the spectrum of “the great transgenderism,” is what I call it, a lot of people pretend. I think that a lot of people want to be down for the cause—and they say that they are—but when it really comes down to advocating and putting your money where your mouth is, a lot of people don’t do that enough.
I’ll flat-out say that they know that most of us come from broken homes, so we don’t have financial support. There’s not enough financial support for trans girls. You got battered women who get support, you got organizations that support everything, but trans women need support. They need financial support. That’ll keep us from prostitution and shoplifting and things like that.
The government or these [organizations] should have been set up to actually help these women. Not just be a place that says, ‘I’m for trans people,’ but you do nothing.
Communicate with social justice groups on the outside. Let them know you’re trans so someone’s watching you.
What advice to you have for trans women entering prison for the first time? What realities should they prepare for?
My advice to the trans women going in there is: We can’t change it. If you’ve been convicted, you gotta go. But while you’re in there, do everything and anything you can to better yourself. Whatever it is, if it’s taking a class, do something to come out in better shape than you were before you went in there.
I know that’s hard. That’s easier said than done. But there are ways to do it. We got to remember what got us there in the first place. I don’t think that I was just a bad person. I just think I made some poor choices in the weakness of the moment, and I think a lot of us do that.
Make sure that if you have a mental health diagnosis that you address that from the beginning. Because it’s gonna be such a ride anyway, you’re definitely gonna need someone to talk to.
Be aware that you’re entering a predatory environment. Most of us trans girls come from the street. Some of us don’t, but the majority of us come from broken homes and broken families and we come from poverty. So we’ve seen the uglier side of things. Well, unfortunately, it gets a little bit uglier when you cross the GDC line.
Do your best to communicate with resources on the outside; social justice groups like Transgender Training Institute and people like that. Let people know that you’re trans so someone is watching you. If you don’t have a family member, it should be a friend. If you don’t have a friend, pick a lawyer. Try to find someone who knows where you’re at, so you have someone to voice your concerns with. For the longest time I didn’t have that, and that was a big problem for me.
Christina Lynch is a big fighter. I support you, I support the girls who have to remain quiet. Every one of us is an activist.
All of us trans women still in prison, and all prisoners in general, have benefited from your hardline approach to corruption and oppression. With this second legal action, what is your ultimate aim?
My ultimate aim is to just make sure that what we started is seen through. I think that trans people should be in facilities in accordance to their gender, to what they live and feel. That is just very important to the safety of the individual. And I would like to see better care for them, better safety measures being put in place. And the opportunity for them to be housed safely.
Christina Lynch is a big fighter. I support you, I support a lot of girls [even if] I don’t really know a lot of their names. Some people have to remain quiet, anonymous. But I support everyone. Every one of us is an activist, just in our daily life, just going through it and living out our truth. Every one.
Images courtesy of Emulsify/Free Ashley Diamond