SURVIVOR TESTIMONY

National Prison Rape Elimination Commission
Testimony of Mayra Soto

Los Angeles, December 13, 2006

Good morning. I’d like to take this time to thank you for inviting me to speak. It is an honor and a privilege to appear before you. I sincerely hope that my story will help other men and women behind bars who are confronted with sexual abuse.

I came to the United States at the end of 2002 because my sexual orientation and gender identity had made me a target of persecution in my home country. While in Mexico, I was raped by a fellow inmate while incarcerated in a jail in the state of Guerrero. Tired of fighting intolerance and fearing for my life, I left the country. I never expected that I would suffer a similar fate in the United States, a country that projects an image of humanity and tolerance and which has traditionally been respected as a model of freedom.

On December 12, 2003, I was arrested by Santa Ana police and taken to the San Pedro Service Processing Center three days later. Because of my gender identity, I was placed in an administrative segregation cell with 10 to 12 other transgender women. The cell was overcrowded and we were denied the basic rights that other (non-transgender) detainees exercised. We were locked up for 23 hours a day and spent much of that time shackled and humiliated. As I sat in the cell I couldn’t help but feel that we were being punished simply for being transgender. Despite all of this, I was relieved to be locked in a cell with other people like me. Having been raped previously, I had tremendous fear that I would be beaten and sexually violated if I were placed in a cell with men.

On December 19, 2003, a few days after being transferred to the San Pedro detention center, I was taken to see my lawyer. Because she was with another client at the time, I was placed in a locked holding cell. While I waited in the cell – which was directly adjacent to the interview room – an immigration officer came in with his pants unzipped and told me that “I was going to suck him off.” He checked the hall to make sure nobody was around, then re-entered the cell and forced me to perform oral sex. I did it once, then he left, only to return ten minutes later telling me that I “suck really good,” and that I was “going to do it again.” He spoke in such a threatening tone that I complied with his commands because I feared he would hurt me. Once he was done, he put his finger to his mouth and ordered me not to tell anyone. He even put his hands together, as if to pray, begging me not to say anything.

He had ejaculated in my mouth, on my red detention uniform, and on the floor. I got a paper towel and spit the semen into it, realizing that it could be used as evidence of the crime. I was also able to collect the semen from my uniform and the floor.

Once I was finally taken into the interview room with my lawyer, I immediately told her what had happened. She was obviously shocked and did not want to leave me alone, so she sent her interpreter to flag down a supervising officer. As I was telling her about the assault I was becoming more fearful because I noticed that the officer who had assaulted me was looking at me through the cell-door window. Eventually, two supervising officers came into the interview room to meet with me about the incident. They asked me to take off my prison clothes, and that I hand over all evidence.

To this day, the thought of what that immigration officer did to me makes me nauseous and fills me with fear, disgust and anger. It is difficult to comprehend how a federal employee who was supposed to maintain a secure environment for me while I was detained could abuse his authority in such a flagrant and appalling manner. I also feel that while the immigration facility took appropriate steps to ensure that transgender women would not be sexually abused by housing us together, they did nothing to make sure we’d be safe in other places in the facility. In the holding room by myself, I had not felt unsafe because I knew my lawyer was in the next room and there was an officer patrolling in the hallway. Little did I know that the person I needed to fear was an officer who was supposed to keep me safe, and that he would feel so confident that he could get away with raping me that he would do it with my legal counsel so close by.

I was, however, grateful that when the supervising officials became aware of the assault they immediately began to investigate. The process was slow, and I wish that they had taken a more sympathetic approach, but they at least took down my statement, brought me to the facility’s clinic, and eventually to an outside hospital for a rape kit.

I desperately wanted to get rid of the taste of the officer’s semen, but the investigators would not allow me to wash my mouth until the rape kit had been performed. The assault happened around 2pm and I was not taken to the hospital for the exam until early the next morning. The memory of that taste in my mouth is extremely upsetting and I have flashbacks of it all the time. I recommend therefore, that evidence be gathered as quickly as possible so that the victim can clean up and wash away such immediate and traumatizing reminders of the assault. Of course, speedy collection of evidence also lessens the chance of contamination.

I had never seen the officer who assaulted me before, and I never saw him again. It was rumored that when he found out about my report, he left and never returned to work. At this point, the only thing I wanted was to begin my healing process and begin to get over what he did to me.

Soon after I made my initial report, the Federal Bureau of Investigation became involved. When they came to interview me I gave a description of the offending officer, including an explicit description of his penis. They were the ones who advised me that I could press charges against this officer. Although I wanted to move on with my life, the urge for justice was strong and I decided to move ahead with the criminal case. Had I known that this decision would later cause me tremendous distress, however, I might have reconsidered.

After the assault, I was returned to the cell with the other transgender women. I immediately began to notice an air of hostility from the immigrations officers in the unit. They treated me as if I was a liar and blamed me for the dismissal of their coworker. And because it would not have been appropriate to discuss the case with the other detainees, I felt very lonely. I repeatedly asked to see a counselor because I needed to vent what I was feeling. I literally felt like I was going to explode. The officers continuously ignored or humiliated me, and looked upon me with what I felt was pure hatred. Meanwhile, the memory of the assault was killing me inside. I lost my appetite and could hardly stomach any food. I quit sleeping altogether and I slipped further and further into depression. Finally when I threatened to commit suicide, one of the other transgender detainees in the cell pleaded with an officer and convinced him that I desperately needed help.

Because there are no mental health providers at the San Pedro facility I was taken to the El Centro Detention Facility near San Diego, CA. Unfortunately, I was still not given counseling, or any lasting relief. The psychologist simply gave me three tranquilizers and sent me back to San Pedro. Eventually, the nurse at San Pedro did manage to prescribe me anti-depressants, and I was given sleeping aids.

Due to the negative attitudes that officials at the facility had taken toward me, my biggest fear at this point was that my application for asylum would be denied and I’d be deported back to Mexico. I felt a constant pressure to retract my complaint against the officer, but I really did not want to give in. I wanted to remain strong and show that I was not going to let myself be taken advantage of. Unfortunately, an INS officer came to my cell one day and misled me into signing a deportation form that was in English. He showed me the form, told me it was an agreement stating that I felt comfortable with my housing situation, then instructed me to sign it. Because I cannot read English and speak it only very little, I took the officer’s word that the form had to do with housing. I later found out, through my lawyer, that I had signed a voluntary deportation agreement. My lawyer was able to file a petition stating that I did not know what I was signing, and the form was disregarded.

I remained at San Pedro and my situation became increasingly hopeless. The hostility I felt from many of the officers grew, and in February 2004 I decided to withdraw my application for asylum altogether. I felt it would be better to be sent back to Mexico than to stay in the destructive environment in that facility. After I withdrew the application, I remained at the facility for one more month. In April 2004 the FBI had me released so that I could testify against the officer who assaulted me. However, I was never given a chance to testify, and in October 2004, an FBI agent came to my home and informed me that the officer had pled guilty and was given six months jail time plus 3 years of probation. I was extremely angered by the news because six months jail time is a completely inadequate penalty for the crime of rape, especially under these circumstances. It seems that instead of being held accountable as a public employee responsible for people in state custody, this officer was given a slap on the wrist and allowed to simply carry on with his life. All sexual assaults should be treated equally, and I think we can all agree that no exception should be made if the victim happens to be detained in an immigration facility.

Since the FBI no longer needed me for their case, I was deported the same day that I received the news about the officer’s sentence. I spent a couple of months in Mexico, but the situation there for transgender people had not improved, so in January 2005, a friend collected enough money to bring me back to the United States. In May of that year I was again detained at the San Pedro Facility and the trauma of my first visit began all over again.

On the day that I arrived, an officer approached me and said, “What are you doing here? I thought they had killed you.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I later learned – from another officer – that one of the other transgender women who had been incarcerated at the same time as I had been murdered shortly after her release from the facility. Both she and I had blond hair at the time, and it was implied that the murderers had meant to kill me in retaliation for “snitching” on the officer who assaulted me. I was told that she had been murdered by a gang that the officer was affiliated with, and that it was a case of mistaken identity. This news put me in a state of extreme fear and panic.

Making matters worse, this time I was not placed in a cell with other transgender women. Instead, I was classified as a level-four offender and placed in a unit with the most violent convicts. I was definitely not violent and had not been arrested for a violent offense, so I took this as another form of retaliation. I still do not understand how the facility could justify placing someone as feminine as me in the same unit as murderers and rapists. There was no reason to classify me this way and even if the facility had reason to consider me a level 4 risk, I should never have been housed with violent and potentially predatory men. I was not given the option to be placed in a cell by myself or in protective custody. I would have preferred to be transferred to a different facility where there were safer housing options for me than to be placed with men who sized me up and began to target me sexually as soon as I was housed with them. My boyfriend and I repeatedly requested a transfer, but each request was denied. The men in the unit were constantly sexually harassing me and eventually a riot broke out when two men began fighting over who would “own” me and be “my man.” In the middle of all the fighting I was seriously injured and only then did the facility take any action. By then, I was devastated and humiliated.

I was placed in protective custody, which at this facility, basically meant solitary confinement.  I spent my days in a small cell with no water, magazines, or programming. I was rarely taken to the yard for recreation, and my pleas for water and something to read or occupy my time with usually went ignored. The officer who guarded the unit would pretend not to hear me.  This is cruel treatment that I don’t think anyone should have to experience, especially not someone who has already been victimized repeatedly. Protective custody should not be the same as solitary confinement and prisoners who need protection should not be treated the same as those who need to be punished.

The immigration officials continued to be inattentive and unsympathetic. The INS official who had previously deceived me into signing my deportation papers returned, and this time tried to put pressure on me by saying, “you might as well sign the deportation forms, otherwise you’ll be here for eight to ten months appealing your case.” His threat made me consider signing the forms again, but I was so angry about what he had previously done to me that I told him I declined.  I was eventually able to see a judge in my case and she granted me “withholding of removal.” Today I live in Santa Ana, CA and am still struggling to let go of the horrible experiences I had at the San Pedro Service Processing Center.

Everyday I work on healing the wounds of my past, and I want to again express my gratitude to you. Speaking out against sexual assault in detention, and sharing a bit of my experience with you will surely help my progress. I wish you luck in your work, and I hope that other detainees don’t have to deal with the things that I went through.

Thank you.

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