After unexpected parole, transgender inmate Ashley Diamond picks up the pieces of her life

The Rome, Georgia, native hopes her lawsuit against the state will lead to greater prison protections.
Ashley Diamond

Courtesy Southern Poverty Law Center

Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman who was released from prison this week, is suing the state over her mistreatment while in custody.A few minutes before nine o’clock on Monday morning, Ashley Diamond found herself in an unfamiliar place—outside the walls of the Augusta State Medical Prison. Without notice, much less an explanation, the 37-year-old black transgender woman, who was more than three years into her 11-year sentence for burglary and theft—and in the midst of a legal battle with the Georgia Department of Corrections over the denial of proper medical care and adequate protection from repeated sexual assaults—was granted early release from state custody.

“It’s a bit overwhelming,” Diamond said by phone from her mother’s home in Rome, where she has spent her first few days of freedom, though not before making a stop along the way to buy a wig that resembles Beyonce’s hair. “I’ve just been taking it day [by] day, really.”

Diamond has identified as a transgender woman since age 15, but after her sentence in 2012, she was assigned to an all-male prison, a common practice among state corrections systems. For 17 years before she was incarcerated, Diamond had received hormone therapy to treat gender dysphoria, a medical condition in which a person identifies with a gender other than what’s on their birth certificate. But in prison, the therapy stopped, despite her requests. Her breasts got smaller, her skin became coarser, and her facial hair returned; all of which stripped away key parts of her femininity. Yet the remaining parts of her womanhood made her the repeated target of rape and sexual assaults from male inmates—a total of eight times, she claims—and the subject of harassment from male corrections officers.

“As far as having to watch my body physically change before me, and having to go through the pain of that, not to mention the teasing and the assault, the harm is still there,” Diamond said. “I wouldn’t treat an animal the way I was treated.”

In February, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit against GDOC, seeking hormone therapy and safer housing for Diamond. The lawsuit received the backing of the U.S. Department of Justice, which called the denial of hormone therapy a violation of her Eight Amendment rights to avoid cruel and unusual punishment, which “can have serious consequences to the health and well-being of transgender prisoners.” In response, the department changed its policies to provide hormone therapy to inmates diagnosed with gender dysphoria. In a recent court declaration, Diamond said the changes were insufficient, alleging the dosages of Estradiol and Spironolactone she received in prison each week were only a “fraction” of what doctors gave her outside prison for nearly two decades.

“I might as well not have received it at all,” Diamond says.

SPLC attorney Chinyere Ezie, who is representing Diamond, questions the timing of her client’s release, which occurred more than two months before becoming eligible for parole for the first time. According to Ezie, the state’s decision mirrors other corrections departments throughout the country that have granted early releases to transgender inmates who filed lawsuits over their alleged treatment. Though pleased that Diamond is out of prison, Ezie criticizes that kind of decision because it undermines the legal challenges of transgender inmates, making it more difficult to win cases, and ultimately cause corrections departments to reform their policies throughout their respective prison systems. The continued failure of prison officials to revamp their policies has meant a high-risk segment of the population—the National Center for Transgender Equality says about one out of every six transgender people and one out of every two black transgender people have spent time behind bars—remain unnecessarily exposed to harm.

“Corrections departments are struggling to house transgender inmates in a manner that approaches common standards of decency,” Ezie tells us. “It’s a problem that’s not unique to Georgia. But what we’ve seen in Georgia is particularly disturbing.”

Steve Hayes, public affairs director for the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, says the board’s decision to release Diamond means she’ll remain on probation until November 2023. “The board has the constitutional authority to release on parole an offender whose release is compatible with the welfare of society and public safety, as was the case with this offender,” he writes to us, without delving into specifics. When asked about her early release, Hayes says a precedent exists for letting prisoners leave state custody months before they become eligible to do so.

“The release had nothing to do with any lawsuit,” Hayes said.

Diamond is working on both her physical recovery from the lack of hormone treatment, and her emotional recovery from the assaults. But she also needs to find a job. For now, Diamond remains in Georgia, awaiting the outcome of her lawsuit. She eventually wants to leave the state behind for Montgomery, Alabama, or Los Angeles—where she could someday pursue dreams of being an entertainer.

“I represent the everyday transgender person,” Diamond said. “I want people to recognize that I’m human.”