The odds were already against Zahara Green when she entered prison on May 10, 2012. Prisons have long been plagued by a culture of sexual harassment and assault, but Green was a transgender woman in an all-male facility — making her about 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than a non-transgender inmate, according to a 2009 study.
Green told BuzzFeed News she distinctly remembers her first day in general population at Rogers State Prison, a facility about an hour and a half outside of Savannah, Georgia. It was two months into her sentence, and she said she can still envision the officer dropping her off at her dorm and walking away.
"I kind of just felt that he was letting me out with the wolves. You're on your own. It clicked in my mind," she said. "I found my bed, I placed my stuff on my bed, and then I sat there for about an hour and people were just coming in and out as if this was some kind of showcase."
Under federal law, states must seriously consider transgender inmates' safety concerns — and the Georgia Department of Corrections has said it has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. Yet the state of Georgia placed Green in a men's prison, where she faced a greater risk of being assaulted. Around the country, decisions on transgender inmates' placement and their level of protection are ultimately made on a case-by-case basis. But according to her lawsuit, these often ambiguous decisions and lack of safety oversight may have played a role in Zahara Green's alleged rape by another inmate — not while they mingled in general population, but while she was being secured in "protective custody."
Green was approached by Darryl Ricard — a high-ranking gang member within the prison, she said — right after moving to the dorm at Rogers. He was in his seventh year of a life sentence for aggravated child molestation, rape, and kidnapping.
"He basically made me his property," she said.
Over the next few weeks, as Ricard repeatedly coerced her to perform oral sex on him, Green would write to prison administrative staff about the unsafe environment for transgender and homosexual inmates, Green said. Rogers State Prison housed one other transgender woman at the time, to Green's knowledge, although Green was the only one receiving hormone treatment. In one letter, she says she mentioned being sexually targeted by Ricard.
Shortly afterward, she requested to be put into protective custody, which is typically a solitary cell for prisoners who believe their safety is at risk, carefully monitored by prison officials. What allegedly happened next makes up the bulk of a lawsuit Green and her Atlanta-based lawyer Mario Williams filed in May against the prison's warden, deputy warden, and two correctional officers. Last week, they filed another complaint against an additional 13 additional correctional officers.
On Sept. 21, 2012, Green and Ricard were separately admitted into protective custody. According to Green, Ricard was the chief reason she had requested the special security measures. But for still unclear reasons, when Green entered her protective custody cell around 4:30 a.m., "Ricard was waiting" there, the complaint says. "Ricard raped Green, and the Defendants to this action all knew Ricard was going to rape (or at the very least, sexually assault) Green yet permitted Ricard to sexually assault Green." The correction officers allegedly "condoned" the rape.
According to Williams, Green's attorney, Green and Ricard had been assigned to different protective custody cells, and Ricard should have never been allowed in Green's cell. Nearly 24 hours passed, though security checks were supposed to be made at least every 30 minutes. Williams said he believes the Georgia Department of Corrections knew about the situation and did nothing to prevent Green's assault. The department declined to comment on the case to BuzzFeed News, citing pending litigation.
"Everyone has to wonder how Green's assailant got put in protective custody on the same day and same time as Green. Then permitted to be in Green's cell for nearly 24 hours," Williams said. "This case is about more than Ricard. There has been official misconduct."
In a court document responding to Green's complaint, a lawyer for the defendants — repeatedly referring to Green as "he" — denied that the deputy warden had read any letter about Ricard's "oral sodomy" of Green. The response noted that Green's mother had contacted the prison about her daughter's safety concerns, but alleged that when asked directly, Green said she "was not afraid." The response also said that Green was "at some point ... placed in the same cell as inmate Darryl Ricard."
While the case moves forward, some local and national groups have begun rallying around Green. One of the first people to reach out to her was Kenneth Glasgow of the Ordinary People Society. He describes Green as "humble and quiet," but also "tormented and traumatized," unable to talk at length about the incident; while Green spoke to BuzzFeed News on Wednesday, she once paused to keep from crying.
After the alleged assault — when Green eventually got a guard's attention — a sergeant came to the cell, she said. He apparently saw Ricard with a razor blade in his hand and stuck pepper spray through an opening in the cell door. Ricard quickly surrendered, Green said, and they were both separately removed from the cell. Later, Green was taken to a sexual assault examination nurse, who performed a rape kit.
Green was kept in protective custody for the next week and a half. Then she was transferred to Georgia State Prison, a facility down the street, where she immediately requested protective custody. Eventually she was placed in a unit made up a several single cells housing all transgender inmates. "I was the sixth or seventh on transgender hormone therapy," Green said. She felt safe there.
But it wasn't until her final transfer — to Atlanta Transitional Facility — that Green said she felt her life begin to change for the better.
Green was 17 when she began transitioning. It wasn't long after that she began shoplifting from various Walmarts — landing her with a prison sentence and a life ban from the retailer. She says she doesn't think this anymore, but at the time, theft felt like her only option.
"I did not think it was possible to find a job as a transgender person in Georgia. All the trans people I knew were either shoplifting, forging checks, or prostituting," she said. "I didn't know a single transgender person who had a job."
At the transitional center, "they opened my eyes to another way," she said. She's been on parole since her release in March. In August, she began school, working to become a paralegal. She has a job at Walgreens. She's helped her other transgender friends find jobs. She's 25 now and said, "There's a better life for me."
She hopes one outcome of the lawsuit is that transgender people are not tested out in general population before officials decide it's not a safe fit. While the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act forces states to take transgender inmates' safety concerns into consideration, Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality said it's not clear that they always do. (In Georgia, another transgender inmate is currently fighting for her access to hormone therapy in a high-profile case.)
"If institutions are able to make the culture shift ... toward not making those auto assumptions but really focusing on what is keeping each person safe," Tobin said, "they will start making those placements in women's facilities more often."
Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Jessica Testa at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.