Jimena says she wore handcuffs almost everywhere she went at Winn Correctional Center: To visit the doctor, on the way to meet her attorney and even on phone calls.
But sometimes, the cuffs came off, and she says she instead spent virtually all day locked behind a maximum security door at the Louisiana prison. Like in a movie, where a guard has to press a button to let prisoners out.
All of this occurred in the aftermath of a medical emergency, when Jimena says she was attacked by one of the facility's health care professionals while trying to comfort another detainee who had purposely cut herself.
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“For helping, they punished me,” Jimena told NBC.
Jimena is a transgender asylee from Honduras and has no criminal record there or in the United States, said her attorney, Karen Hoffmann, who asked NBC to only use her client's preferred name to protect her safety.
In mid-August, Jimena encountered another trans asylum seeker at Winn who cut herself near the wrist in an attempt at self-harm, according to sources with direct knowledge of the incident. When Jimena tried to help the bleeding woman and gave her a hug, she and her attorney say a nurse at the facility struck her twice on the back, leaving marks.
“Nothing ICE does at this point is really unbelievable, but it was shocking to me,” said Hoffmann. “Especially the fact that it’s a nurse.”
As punishment afterwards, Jimena and her advocates say she spent a week isolated and alone in her cell where all she could see was the wall around her. In the rare moments when she was allowed to visit other parts of the prison, she says she was forced to wear metal handcuffs.
The only time she got to see the sun was when she was taken to the prison yard during the afternoon. In Winnfield, Louisiana, where the temperature sometimes reached triple digits in mid-August, Jimena stood outside for an hour or longer in a cage with no shade or cover.
While Jimena was in detention, she said there were times when she didn’t want to exist anymore.
“But. .. I’m here for a reason," she said in Spanish. "And the reason is because I want to remain alive."
Today, Jimena is finally settling into life in the U.S. But she and her attorney described harrowing harassment and mistreatment she endured for more than half a year just to access her right to refuge. And with around a million pending immigration court cases, plus thousands of immigrant detainees such as Jimena holed up in ICE facilities across Louisiana, advocates suggest the horrors she faced while in ICE custody are far from isolated or anecdotal.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Bryan D. Cox told NBC that “all persons in ICE custody are under arrest by a federal law enforcement agency for violations of federal law.” But Jimena didn’t break the law by asking for asylum.
Cox required a privacy waiver to answer any questions specific to Jimena, but when one was provided, he did not respond with comment. He would not say whether Jimena was forced to wear handcuffs; ICE’s national detention standards mandate that under no circumstances should staff apply restraints as a form of punishment. Asked twice for video surveillance of the alleged assault, Cox did not make the footage available. Nor would he say whether Jimena was placed in disciplinary segregation — ICE's version of solitary confinement — when she was confined to a cell, or what she had done to deserve punishment.
Cox said that “in general, a suicide attempt or alien injury would be considered an ICE Significant Incident” and documented as such, and there were no reports of a similar occurrence at Winn on Aug. 20, when the other trans asylum seeker allegedly cut herself.
But a person with knowledge of the situation, who asked to keep their identity secret for the privacy and protection of the trans woman in question, corroborated Jimena’s account that an attempt at self-harm took place at the facility last month. The source was unable to confirm an alleged attack on Jimena because of lack of information.
Endless detention, near-constant harassment
When Jimena came to the U.S., she waited her turn at the U.S.-Mexico border so on Jan. 13 she could present herself at the San Ysidro port of entry in California and lawfully request asylum. She was then whisked thousands of miles away and incarcerated for more than seven months at three different facilities — despite an asylum officer determining that she had a credible fear of persecution in Honduras.
At all of the places where she was held in the U.S., she was harassed and demeaned: Called homophobic and misogynistic slurs "f----t" and "w---e," whistled at, catcalled, and told she was destined for hell, according to a document submitted by Hoffmann to an ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations assistant field office director in an attempt to secure Jimena's release. When other prisoners insulted her, Jimena asked for help, but she says the official she alerted did nothing.
The last facility where Jimena was detained, Winn, sits near a town with fewer than 4,500 residents, in a remote area where cell service is spotty and the closest cities are about an hour away. Now run by LaSalle Corrections, it holds just under 1600 people at capacity and was the subject of a 2016 Mother Jones exposé on poor prison conditions.
It’s one of the facilities where people “feel like trash, ... like you don’t want to live anymore,” Jimena said.
And now, it’s filled with immigrants, including asylum seekers: In early August, ICE listed its average daily population for Winn as more than 251 people in the 2019 fiscal year.
Asked repeatedly for comment by phone and email, La Salle Corrections did not respond to NBC.
Winn is not Louisiana's only contentious immigrant holding place. The state has become something of a hotbed for ICE under the Trump administration, recently hosting the agency's largest detainee population outside of Texas, according to NBC News.
During the last few years, the New Orleans ICE field office that oversees enforcement and removal operations in Louisiana stopped releasing almost all asylum seekers through an ICE policy called parole that allows migrants who have passed the first hurdle in the asylum process to fight their cases outside of government custody. In practice, the near-blanket denials meant that migrants in Louisiana were languishing indefinitely in detention as their cases wound through the courts, until a recent preliminary injunction required the New Orleans field office to restore parole for those who qualified.
Long, drawn-out detentions pose hardships and due process concerns for all asylum seekers, but they present unique challenges for trans women, attorneys suggested. If trans asylum seekers are not at ICE’s only known permanent, transgender-specific detention unit in New Mexico, they're likely held alongside men or in segregation. When they're detained with men — as Jimena was for part of the time she was in ICE custody — they face a high risk of sexual and physical assault, said Allegra Love, an attorney and the director of Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which she said has represented hundreds of trans women in recent years.
Love and her colleagues field near-constant complaints from clients about discrimination, misgendering, abuse by guards and fear of danger at detention facilities. And if a trans woman reports feeling unsafe surrounded by men, ICE’s reaction is to isolate her, Love said — a tactic a United Nations expert on torture has said may cause "severe mental pain or suffering."
ICE does not collect comprehensive data on how many detainees are being segregated, though NBC News has tracked thousands of such occasions. Under the current administration, solitary confinement is on the rise for immigrant detainees: The Project on Government Oversight documented a 15.2% increase in solitary placements during the first 15 months of Trump's presidency, compared to the last 15 months of Barack Obama’s.
Cox did cite two studies ICE conducted that found only about 1.1% of its detained population was segregated at any given time — research done in May 2012 and March 2013, more than half a decade ago and under a previous administration.
Lynly Egyes, the Transgender Law Center's legal director, has practiced immigration law and represented trans people for more than 12 years. She said ICE uses solitary confinement as a way to control trans women, and sometimes the person doesn’t even know why they’ve been placed there.
There’s no reason to detain any asylum seeker, said Love, but it's especially bad for trans women because they're so unsafe.
“It’s an optional hell,” Love said. “They can just let them all go.”
Where can they go?
Like countless others who are held by ICE but have family and friends who are willing to take them in, Jimena has a place to call home in the U.S. Her sponsors, David Andres Martinez and Alex Pedro Rosalez, waited for months to meet her in-person.
After connecting with Jimena through a friend who volunteered at the border, Martinez and Rosalez spent 15 minutes nearly every day on the phone with her. As members of the LGBTQ+ community themselves, they identified with her story.
“The only difference between Jimena and us is where we were born,” Martinez said.
As sponsors for Jimena, Martinez and Rosalez compiled a long list of documents to prove they would support her. Their U.S. passports and driver’s licenses. A utility bill. Tax returns, earnings statements, a bank statement. The person in charge of this country had to submit less than they did just to look after one of his detainees, Martinez said.
And yet, even after all that, Jimena remained in ICE custody, allegedly because the agency was not convinced she was not a flight risk. The days and weeks trickled past, but Jimena still gave her sponsors scant details about what she was going through: “She always says, ‘oh, I don’t want to worry you,’” Martinez said.
Then, when she was allegedly struck by a nurse and isolated — after being detained for more than seven months — she told them more.
She said she was in handcuffs. She said she was not a criminal. She asked why she was being treated like this.
“Jimena presented herself, did not come into this country in the dead of night. She followed all the rules,” said Martinez. “And it just seems like a broken system that awful people are just trying to make it harder for the people who want to do things right.”
Death and asylum
Statistically, it has become more difficult to eventually be granted asylum here. Based on data from fiscal year 2018, the Executive Office for Immigration Review reported that asylum denials increased 193% in recent years. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, they jumped to 65% last fiscal year.
But for trans women, asylum claims are easier to articulate: It’s widely understood that members of the LGBTQ+ community are often persecuted. Love said the vast majority of trans women are granted asylum, partly because “they have incredibly strong asylum cases.”
Despite the likelihood that transgender asylum seekers will be given the opportunity to stay in the U.S., and despite the unique hardships they face when they’re detained, trans women such as Jimena are sometimes being held throughout the asylum process — with life-threatening consequences. Already, two trans women have died in just over a year: Johana Medina Leon died last summer, days after being released by ICE and taken to a hospital, and Roxsana Hernandez died in ICE custody in 2018.
Others who are detained face potentially lethal mental health setbacks.
“A large percentage of our clients express suicidal ideation, and some of them have attempted it," Love said. "It’s really scary.”
In the end, Jimena got out. Judge Brock E. Taylor — a newly appointed immigration judge — presided over her asylum case in late-August. She won.
Taylor delivered his decision orally, but according to notes provided by Hoffmann — Jimena’s attorney — he found Jimena to be “fully credible.” He detailed violence she faced in Honduras and told her she was lucky to be alive after an attack she had survived.
Because Jimena waited to enter the U.S. at a legal port of entry, she proved she was committed to the rule of law, Taylor said, according to the notes. She deserves this opportunity, he added, and will make a positive contribution to society.
Jimena was granted asylum based on her gender identity and political opinion. On Aug. 30, she was finally released from Winn and joined Martinez and Rosalez in California.
But before that, another woman in Virginia caught wind of Jimena’s struggles. Amanda, who asked to use only her first name because of an unrelated safety matter, did not know the asylum seeker from Honduras. But a tweet about Jimena’s case caught her attention.
Amanda wanted to create a reality where Jimena ended up in a place that let her protect herself and those she loved. She wanted to represent the asylum seeker with something that was fierce and female, that no one would dare strike. Not even a nurse at Winn Correctional Center.
On watercolor paper, a tigress stares upward. It’s hard to tell where she’s looking, and whether she’s hopeful, or afraid, or something in-between. But there’s both majesty and determination in her amber eyes. Like maybe — just maybe — she’s finally going to be free.