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Justice Department: Ashley Diamond's gender condition should be treated by prison system

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Friday extended a helping hand to transgender inmate Ashley Diamond, a Rome woman serving time in a men’s prison.

Underscoring a significant legal turnaround, federal officials say a restrictive Georgia policy for providing health care to inmates with a condition called gender dysphoria violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The federal move assists Diamond, who’s sued the Georgia Department of Corrections over its refusal to provide feminizing hormones while incarcerated. Other transgender inmates in similar circumstances also could be affected if the Justice Department prevails.

“Prison officials have the obligation to assess and treat gender dysphoria just as they would any other medical or mental health condition,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement.

Diamond previously filed civil rights complaints against Floyd County Sheriff Tim Burkhalter and the Georgia DOC. The Southern Poverty Law Center is representing Diamond in her most recent suit.

Georgia officials have until April 10 to file a legal response to the Justice Department.

On Friday, Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan Megahee said “the department cannot comment on active lawsuits.”

Change of policy

Until 2011, the federal Bureau of Prisons maintained the same gender dysphoria policy as the one it’s now challenging in Georgia. The federal policy changed under pressure from a lawsuit filed by a transgender inmate currently held at Federal Medical Center, Butner, in North Carolina.

The North Carolina inmate, born Nicholas Adams but now known as Vanessa, was, like Diamond, originally denied hormone treatments in prison under what’s called a “freeze frame” policy. This locks in place the level of medical treatments provided inmates with gender identity problems.

The problems can be severe, and violently manifested. Adams ultimately castrated herself with a razor; Diamond attempted to do the same.

Because Adams was not receiving hormone treatments at the start of incarceration, Bureau of Prisons officials initially said the “freeze frame” policy meant no hormone treatments could start. After resisting Adams’ lawsuit for two years, the Justice Department settled by ending the policy.

“We hope that other state and county prison systems will follow BoP’s lead,” Jody Marksamer, a staff attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said at the time.

The Bureau of Prisons’ change, though, did not prompt significant reconsideration among states with similar policies. The Justice Department’s 19-page “statement of interest” filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Macon marks the first time the department has directly challenged a state’s “freeze frame” policy.

“Because (Georgia’s) policy amounts to a blanket prohibition of certain treatments for certain inmates, without regard to an individual’s medical needs or their progression over time, it does not pass constitutional muster, and must be struck down,” Justice Department attorneys wrote.

Southern Poverty Law Center staff attorney Chin­yere Ezie, representing Diamond, added Friday that transgender inmates “have a right to proper medical care (and) they have a right to protection from violence and abuse and these rights are secured by the U.S. Constitution.”

‘Identified as female’

Diamond, who is now 36, has a criminal record dating to a conviction for theft in 2009. After violating probation years later, Diamond was sentenced to 12 years in prison. After being shuttled among Baldwin State Prison, Jack T. Rutledge State Prison and Valdosta State Prison, Diamond is now at Georgia State Prison, and is scheduled for release in November 2023.

The 5-foot-10-inch, 150-pound Diamond has also “strongly identified as female” since childhood, attorneys wrote in Diamond’s original complaint.

At the age of 17, Diamond began undergoing hormone treatments and, attorneys wrote, “developed full breasts, a feminine shape, soft skin, and other female secondary sex characteristics, and experienced a reduction in male attributes, allowing her to feel more like herself.”

Nonetheless, Georgia prison officials stopped Diamond’s hormone treatments and, under the state’s “freeze frame” policy, declined to renew them. Diamond suffered through hormone withdrawal and has subsequently been the target of repeated sexual assaults by other inmates and has attempted suicide, according to the complaint.

“Since my arrival at Georgia State Prison, I have hardly slept,” Diamond stated in an affidavit filed March 31. “I lie awake at night in constant fear, knowing that another assault is imminent.”

In its legal filing Friday, the Justice Department asks for the Georgia policy to be declared “facially unconstitutional.” If that happens, the ruling would go beyond Diamond and potentially reach every transgender inmate in the state.

Rome News-Tribune Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy contributed to this report.