Eight Months in Solitary

Published: May 7, 2012

A FEW DAYS AFTER CHRISTMAS LAST YEAR, Ruby Corado, a longtime transgender activist in Washington, D.C., received a telephone call while watching late-night TV. The number on her iPhone was from Rappahannock Regional Jail, about an hour’s drive south of the nation’s capital in Stafford, Va. Rappahannock is one of more than 200 facilities nationwide that contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house those awaiting a judge’s decision on whether they can remain in the United States or will be deported back to their home country. On any given day, about 32,000 people are held in detention, many for violating immigration law — a civil, not criminal, offense.
 
Weak and distraught, the transgender woman calling Corado at 11 p.m from Rappahannock was one of them. Her name was Kripcia, and she had been held for eight months in what ICE calls "administrative segregation" — solitary confinement, in nonbureaucratic terms. A native of El Salvador, she was arrested in early 2011 for failure to pay a cab fare.
 
Kripcia had spent a minimum 22 hours per day in a tiny cell with little access to recreation or other people. This was not because she had defied any jail rules: It was for her own good, for her safety, she was told by officers. Kripcia’s cell was located in a special unit of the jail usually reserved for male sex offenders. She was told that it would be easier for guards to watch over her in this smaller area.
 
Corado had taken these calls before from the jail. A relentless activist with a reassuring voice, she’s the sort of person you’d speed-dial in the heat of any emergency. With Kripcia deteriorating in isolation, Corado had hired an immigration lawyer to take on the case, a luxury in a system where 84% of detainees have no legal representation. As a result, Kripcia was supposed to be out of detention by Christmas. But the holiday came and went, and she was still at Rappahannock.
 
Ruby, I just want to die. I’m going crazy, Kripcia told Corado on the phone that evening. But if I have to die, I want to go back to my country. I can’t die in here.
 
Promise me you’re not going to think those thoughts, Corado replied. Come on, work with me on this. Promise me. Just give it one more day.
 
"It’s hard, you know? What do I really tell these people in detention?" Corado said through tears during a recent conversation at Casa Ruby, her soon-to-open Latino LGBT community center near Howard University. "Segregation is inhuman. And how they’re treated, how they’re abused? It’s inexcusable. Even if they’ve done something wrong, you want the best for these people. But I’ve never seen a case of a transgender detainee who was actually treated like a human being."

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