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A Fragile Shell of Who I Used to Be

A trans woman's harrowing experience in solitary confinement.

Joel Saget / Getty Images

Barbra Perez is a thirty-six-year-old Cuban-born trans woman who works for a lighting and electrical company. She has lived in the United States since she was three years old. On the morning of February 3, 2014, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested her in her driveway as she was leaving for work.They informed her she was being taken into custody over an arrest that happened fourteen years prior, in the year 2000. After being held for two days at the Davidson County Jail in Nashville,Tennessee, Perez was transferred to LaSalle Immigrant Detention Center, a privately owned, for-profit facility operated by GEO Group, in Jena, Louisiana, where she was held for more than two weeks. Like many transgender women in custody, she was housed with men and then placed in solitary confinement, or administrative segregation, “for her own protection.”

Many ICE detention centers are run by for-profit companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).When awarded federal contracts to run immigration detention centers, companies are asked to commit to keeping all the cells (often referred to as “beds”) in their facilities occupied at all times, including in the solitary confinement units. Many human rights organizations have criticized this policy as creating an economic incentive to detain more immigrants and to mete out the harsh punishment of solitary confinement.The following piece is drawn from interviews with Sarah Shourd conducted in early 2015.

We arrived in Jena, Louisiana, in the middle of a freezing night.

We’d been driving for twelve or thirteen hours, and it felt like we’d reached the end of the earth. The other prisoners were sitting together in the back, but they had me singled out, chained hand and foot in a cage made of thick Plexiglas near the front of the bus. When the officer came in to check our names off his list, he asked how many males and how many females were on the bus. The driver pointed to me and replied, “Twenty-seven and a half males,” which was followed by raucous laughter at my expense.

The detention center was called LaSalle. I’d been brought there after three terrible days at a local jail in Tennessee where my “captor” informed me that bail would be unequivocally denied and that I would remain in custody for a minimum of three months. He said if I agreed to take the order of deportation, the judge would release me immediately. When I was taken upstairs to strip, I wasn’t allowed to keep my sports bra or panties. This was the first time I’d worn men’s undergarments since I left my parents’ house in 2002. Mortified, I asked the nurse about my hormone shots. She assured me I would get them once the board approved. Then an officer came to escort me to what he lovingly called the “Sissy Pod.” It was protective custody, but as far as I could tell none of the men there even identified as gay. I was the only woman.

In my normal life no one questions my gender or sex. I never thought of myself as a boy in the first place, but now I’ve been living outwardly as a woman since my early twenties, more than fifteen years. Nothing prepared me for the experience of being exposed and imprisoned alongside other men. They all looked at me like I was the closest thing to a “real” woman they’d ever seen behind bars.

A few days later, when I arrived at LaSalle, I was taken straight to Ad Seg [Administrative Segregation]. It was loud in there, people screaming and banging on the walls of their cells. The staff’s treatment of me ranged from indifference to open hostility and disgust. Once I asked for a spoon, and the guard slammed my cell door in my face and walked off. Most of the detainees were Mexican, immigrants like me, but I didn’t know what they were in Ad Seg for. There was a guy across from me making obscene gestures—asking me to show him my breasts. Their version of keeping me safe was putting me side by side with what that facility determined to be the worst of the worst. That night I lay down and tried to sleep on the cold metal cot with only a thin sheet to protect me.

After just a few days in there I became a fragile shell of who I used to be. I was given no recreation time. A shower only every other day. The phone was attached to a hand truck, which would be wheeled to you at the guards’ leisure. In that mental state, I started doubting who I was. There was no one to talk to, no way to process what was happening to me. The anxiety and helplessness started to break me down, which is exactly what it’s designed to do.

In my regular life, I tend to isolate myself anyway because I’ve always been different. Looking like and living as a woman for so long, then being incarcerated as a man, just kind of stripped me to the core and made all my insecurities flood to the surface. Whether it’s in immigration detention or federal prison, transgender women are viewed as freaks. Men see you as an easy target, assuming you won’t fight back, so sexual harassment is constant and assault is rampant. Prison staff say there’s no other way to “safely” confine transgender women, but they’re either simply unable to understand our experience, or they don’t want to.

I had no idea what would happen to me or what lay ahead. When I was suddenly released twenty-four days later I’d lost seventeen pounds. I was handed my hormones along with my property, so they must have had them the entire time and just not wanted to give them to me. At the time I had no idea what was happening on the outside, but I soon found out my friends, family, and the Transgender Law Center has been raising hell for me. They basically made it a royal pain in the ass for ICE to continue holding me. The fact that I’m Cuban makes me practically undeportable, I was costing them a lot of money for my expensive medication, and they knew I didn’t belong there in the first place.

I later learned that I was abducted in order to fill a “bed mandate.” LaSalle has to have a certain number of heads in a bed at all times in order to continue getting its funding, and nationwide ICE facilities need to have 34,000 detainees a day to fill their quota. GEO is a private corporation getting a government subsidy for running the detention center and I was another warm body to fill that bed. So, I was used. They put me through all that not because they gave a rat’s ass about what I did or didn’t do; I was a means to an end.

In my mind I know that they can’t ever do what they did to me again, but a year later I still feel I’ve lost some of the security I once had. I try not to, but I find myself looking out the window of my apartment every time I hear a car slowing down. I have a letter from my attorney saying that ICE determined that “it was no longer in their interest to hold me.” Even though I know the charges are dropped, I still feel uneasy.

I don’t want my detention to be a defining moment for me. I don’t want to feel like they won, basically. Last year I spoke at a Not One More rally in DC, standing on stage and outing myself as a trans woman in front of thousands of people. It was truly beautiful. I felt part of a cause that we all believe in, that immigrants are Americans, that we all deserve to be treated with dignity—the opposite of what I felt inside that place. 


Copyright © 2016 by Barbra Perez. This excerpt originally appeared in Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.