Samantha Hill prayed to God that it would finally end — even if it ended with her death.

It had been almost 10 days since Hill, a transgender woman, was placed in an isolated federal prison cell with the man who would rape her — a member of the Latin Kings gang. In those 10 days, he had physically attacked her and sexually assaulted her multiple times. In a secluded special housing unit — typically used for solitary confinement — no one acted on her screams for help.

But in what she calls a miracle, Hill’s prayer was answered the next day: She would be freed from the cell, eventually taken away from her rapist.

Still, she would not be free from such attacks for long — soon after, the federal prison system put her in another cell in another facility with another male inmate who once again sexually assaulted her. And this wasn’t the first time Hill went through this cycle — before the Latin Kings member became her cellmate, she was sexually assaulted at least four times.

Altogether, it took at least eight sexual assaults across five federal prisons throughout the country and the threat of a lawsuit for the federal prison system to finally move Hill to a safe facility.

During the course of her time in prison since 1998, Hill was sexually assaulted once in 2001, once in 2003, at least four times in 2010, once in 2011, and once in 2013, according to Hill and her lawsuit. There was also an attempted sexual assault in a shower in 2014. And throughout all of this, Hill was repeatedly physically assaulted.

The core problem is how the prison system classifies and treats Hill and others like her. Hill is a transgender woman — someone who identifies and presents as a woman but was designated as male at birth. But the prison system treats her as a man, so she has been locked up in men’s prisons, typically high-security facilities with very violent inmates. The results have been tragically predictable.

Despite all of this, Hill believes she’s finally reached the “light behind the darkness of the tunnel.” In addition to keeping Hill safe, the lawsuit settlement requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide treatments for Hill’s gender dysphoria, PTSD, and rape trauma syndrome, as well as pay her $ 70,000.

Hill, for now, has her own cell and can only be assigned a cellmate with her “serious consideration.” She has access to makeup and women’s clothing and hygiene products. And prison staff now refer to her as a woman, calling her by her chosen name.

Hill doesn’t name a specific event that put her on the path that eventually doomed her to prison. She does admit her mistakes. But she also references her early life, explaining how she lived in an abusive family that pushed her to homelessness, leading her to resort to drugs for an escape and crimes — sex work, theft, and eventually attempted bank robberies — to make ends meet.

It is tragic enough as one person’s story. But Hill is no anomaly. She is just one trans person whose experiences reflect the horrible circumstances many trans people — and, to a lesser extent, LGBTQ people more broadly — go through. From family rejection to higher rates of victimization in prison, one factor that makes Hill’s story so terrifying is how common her experience may be.

Here is Hill’s story, told largely from her perspective, based on her conversations with me and verified by legal and prison documents and her attorneys, Lisi Owen and Sarah Hartley.

An abusive family to nearly two decades in prison

Samantha Hill leaves her home behind. Amanda Northrop/Vox

Hill was born in 1971 in Massachusetts. From the start, she faced serious problems in her family: “My mom and stepdad were both alcoholics. There was some abuse there.”

Hill says her uncle sexually abused her — abuse she didn’t even identify as such until she was older. In her understanding as a child, her mother wouldn’t drop her off at a dangerous man’s place. And her uncle always told her he loved her after it was over. So Hill assumed there was nothing wrong with what was happening to her.

But Hill says she always knew something was different about her. At first she thought she was gay, since she was attracted to boys. But she also knew she identified more with girls than boys — and as she got older, this would lead her to embrace her identity as a trans woman.

At 16 or 17, Hill came out to her parents, and she was caught sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy. (Hill says she didn’t know it was wrong at the time. She thought, based on her experience with her uncle, that’s just how love is expressed.) Shortly thereafter, her parents kicked her out of the house.

Hill said, “I went through middle school, all the way up high school. Then I dropped out, because I was kicked out of the house by my mom and dad when they found out I was gay. So I went to the streets, became homeless, and lived on the streets.

“I continued to stay on the streets for years. I would get arrested for petty crimes. I went to jail. As I got older, I just got tired of the life down there on the street, and I got into drugs really heavy.” She turned to theft and sex work to buy food and drugs, but that eventually wasn’t enough. “So I went and robbed a bank, and then got sent to federal prison and did eight years.”

The line from family rejection to homelessness and prison that Hill described is far from atypical. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), 57 percent of trans and gender nonconforming people report family rejection.

This has precipitous effects: Those rejected by their families were nearly three times as likely to experience homelessness, 68 percent more likely to resort to drugs and alcohol to deal with mistreatment, and 73 percent more likely to be incarcerated. So family rejection can potentially play a tremendous role in a trans person’s future — and it appeared to in Hill’s life.

Hill continued, “Then I got out in 2006. I went to a doctor … for medications and stuff. And they were just too expensive, way too much. So I just gave up and robbed another bank and went into prison.”

Reflecting on how she’ll ultimately spend nearly 20 years of her life in prison, Hill says, “I sit there, and I say to myself, ‘Why?’ It’s a mess. I came here to prison, and they offer me now the operation, they offer me the medications and stuff like that. All of this, I had to come to prison for — by committing a crime.”

Hill is not alone in lacking access to care outside of prison walls. According to NTDS, in 2011, 19 percent of trans and gender nonconforming people lacked insurance, compared with 15 percent of the general population at the time of the survey.

And although the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association consider gender dysphoria a medical condition that requires gender-affirming care, most states do not require insurance plans to cover trans-related care, leaving it out of reach for many trans people.

Hill says the lack of access was a big reason she ended up in prison the second time: Her thought was either the robbery would successfully get her the money she needed for trans-related care or she would get the care she needed in prison. “I just gave up,” she says.

The many warning signs

Samantha Hill robs a bank. Amanda Northrop/Vox

Hill went to federal prison, US Penitentiary Lewisburg in Pennsylvania, on her first robbery charges in 1998. “Back in 1998 it was known as the red top because of a lot of murders, stabbings. Up there, [correction officers] would get stabbed, and inmates too. It was a very violent place. This was my first time in federal prison.”

Soon after, Hill was put in protective custody, because, she says, “I had inmates trying to pimp me out, trying to make me work to make money for them, [and] coming up into my cell.

“So I checked into protective custody. Then they put me in the cell with somebody who was doing life plus 30 years. I was beat and raped in the cell. I had bruises on my body.

“It was bad. I believed that [my cellmate] would kill me. He’s already doing life plus 30 years. So you’re locked in a cell with this person 24/7, and it was dreadful, it was sad, it was scary, because I knew at nighttime every night, he was going to do what he was going to do to me.”

During this time, Hill points out, “I was supposed to be in protective custody.” But the Federal Bureau of Prisons didn’t seem to take many steps to put someone like Hill — who describes herself as “feminine,” “meek” and “unintimidating” — with a cellmate who posed no threat. So in 2001, she was attacked and raped, according to her lawsuit and prison records.

This was the first rape noted in Hill’s lawsuit. But it didn’t come without warning. For one, the records show Hill clearly and repeatedly telling staff that she was worried she was vulnerable to attacks in prison.

 Samantha Hill’s lawsuit, via attorneys Lisi Owen and Sarah Hartley

What’s more, concerns about the risk of sexual assault trans people face in prison are backed by the research. A 2016 report from the Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress found trans inmates are at very high risk of sexual abuse in prison: About 1.2 percent of heterosexual inmates report sexual assault by other inmates in prison and jails, while 24.1 percent of trans inmates report at least one sexual assault.

Eventually, Hill would be moved to USP Allenwood in Pennsylvania. As she described it, “It was solitary confinement. It was not good at all.

“I had people sending me letters, saying what they would like to do with me, have me moved down to their cell, stuff like that. I turned it over to the staff [to] let them be aware of it.”

Here is one letter, in which Hill, who’s Native American, is referred to as “Cherokee”:

 Samantha Hill’s lawsuit, via attorneys Lisi Owen and Sarah Hartley

“It was an ongoing thing. I no longer wanted to go out to [recreation]. I didn’t want people to see me.

“Every 21 days, I had to move to another cell. I just dreaded it, because I did not want nobody to see me. On top of the emotional stress that was being in that cell, I started to become my own worst enemy. It was pretty harsh.”

There was some good news. “I had a really good doctor there: Dr. John Mitchell, who was the chief psychologist. He kept telling the federal prisons that I should not be in a US penitentiary [generally high-security facilities that typically house more dangerous inmates]. Because of my characteristics, being transgender, and my feminine status, he said that I should not be in a USP and that I should be in a lower-security prison.

 Samantha Hill’s lawsuit, via attorneys Lisi Owen and Sarah Hartley

“But they ignored his pleas. So they ended up putting me in a cell with a Cuban. This man was emotionally detached. He wasn’t really wrapped too tightly. And he tried to sodomize me.

“I went to staff. I told them that when I was laying in bed, he was trying to touch me. I let [staff] be aware of it. They had me moved out of the cell right away.

“Dr. Mitchell again said that I needed to be removed from that institution and put into a lower-security facility, because this was too much.”

Within a few years, Hill was briefly released from prison, and she tried to find a way to pay for trans-related care. Realizing that she couldn’t afford it, she tried once again to rob a bank, realizing that she would either get the money from the robbery or get her treatment while in prison. She was locked up again.

Ten days of violence

Samantha Hill in prison, surrounded by violent inmates. Amanda Northrop/Vox

Eventually, Hill was transferred to USP Victorville in California in 2010. There, she would experience what she described as the worst series of assaults during her time in prison.

“When I got there, they had no cell for me,” she said. “They had no open protective custody cells whatsoever. So I stayed inside the rec cage, inside SHU [special housing units, which are cramped cells sometimes used for solitary confinement], waiting to find me a cellmate. Finally they did. They came back and told me that they had had a celly for me.”

Her new cellmate in the special housing unit was a Latin Kings gang member.

At first things were fine, Hill says. But one day a letter was sent back that she originally sent to the Federal Bureau of Prisons director. The letter was a desperate plea for help, detailing the violence — both physical and sexual — that Hill had faced while in prison, her criminal history, and her identity as a trans woman.

But Hill couldn’t get to the letter before her cellmate, she says.

“He goes, ‘You got a letter here. What’s up with that? How come you’re writing to the director of the Bureau of Prisons?’ I was like, ‘I’m just asking for programming.’ He goes, ‘Listen, I’m a Latin King. There are rules. If you’re going to be writing or talking to staff, I have to know about it. I can’t be living with no rat. I can’t be living with no one who’s going to be going to the police, because I’m affiliated. That’s just not going to happen in here.’

“So I got down off the bed to try to get the letter, and he pushed me away. He opened up the envelope, and he read the letter. After reading the letter, he looked over at me and said, ‘Now I got something on you, punk. Now I got you.’ And I didn’t know what he meant or what he was going to do at all.

“That night he goes, ‘So you’re a fag, huh? You’re a little bitch.’ I said, ‘Listen, if you don’t want me in this cell, I can just move out. There’s no harm. I didn’t want to disrespect you. It’s not something I go around telling people. You never asked me at the door. You asked me what I was in prison for.’

“He goes, ‘No, no. You’re going to stay. You’re going to take care of my needs. You’ve got to wash my drawers. You’re going to clean this house. You’re going to make my coffee. You’re going to make my bed. I’m going to fuck you. You’re going to stay in here.’

“And I’m trying to explain to him what I’ve been through, and that I didn’t want this to happen, and that I would prefer if he just let this go and let me leave. He said, ‘Naw. How do you think I would look letting a fucking homosexual move in to my cell, and writing to the staff and letting them know things? I would then look like a punk. So, naw, you’re going to be taxed, and that’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Over 10 days, her cellmate repeatedly beat and raped her.

“One night, I was praying to God, and I said, ‘Please, just get me out of this. I’m not going to do this no more with this person. I don’t care what happens. If he takes my life, he takes my life. I’m praying to you just to get me out of here.’

“He wanted to have sex again. I told him, ‘No.’ He said, ‘What? I said, ‘I said, no, I’m not doing this anymore.’ I don’t know where I got the strength verbally. But I did. I told him, ‘I’m done. This is over with. You can do what you want to do with me, but I’m tired of this. I’m tired of you just taking advantage of me, hurting me, beating on me. I’m tired of this.’

“And that’s when he messed me up. He hit me. He punched me. He threw me around the room. He got me onto the floor. He straddled me and held my hair, and continued to punch me in the face, telling me that he was an alpha male, that he wasn’t going to take no shit from no bitch, just kept punching me and punching me. He got me up, threw me onto the metal toilet, threw me into the door, had me down onto the corner of the door. I was crying, I was screaming, I was asking for help.

“But in that range, or in any USP, there’s a rule that people go by — that you just mind your own business.”

The next day, there was an opening: Prison officials moved in to transfer Hill and her cellmate to a new cell. Seizing the opportunity, she explained everything she had gone through — and the prison began to transfer her. (A later investigation by federal officials into the rape allegations would turn out inconclusive, even though there was physical evidence that Hill had been beaten up.)

But this wouldn’t be the end of it. As the Federal Bureau of Prisons prepared to transfer Hill to a prison in Colorado, they first had to make a stop at a transfer center. But it turned out that her cellmate, the Latin Kings gang member who had raped her, was being transferred at the same time — on the same bus and plane.

“They had put us on the same bus and put me on the same plane with the individual. And while we were on the plane together, he was letting people know that I was a rat, that I had gone to the feds, that I had tried to press charges on him for rape. He told them that I had a sex offense when I was a juvenile. He told them all that wherever I was going to make sure the Latin Kings were aware ‘of this little bitch over here’ and that she needed to ‘get taken care of because they tried to take down one of ours.'”

“I notified the US marshals right away. I’m like, ‘Do you people realize who’s on the plane with me? They’re like, ‘Who?’ I told them, ‘My assailant, the rapist, who just raped me, from USP Victorville, the place that you’re just grabbing me from to transfer me. Now he’s on the same plane, and he’s making threats. He’s been going to the bathroom, to and fro from the bathroom, and he told me that it’s not over, that when he gets his hands on me he’s going to kill me. And there are other inmates on the plane.'”

Once again, the federal prison system had put Hill in serious danger. And it wouldn’t be the last time; she would be later sexually assaulted in 2011 and 2013. The 2013 assault would be at least the eighth time Hill was sexually assaulted by an inmate, based on her lawsuit and prison documents.

But one thing changed: After writing more than 100 letters to attorneys, Hill gained legal representation. In 2014, Hill and her attorneys filed a lawsuit alleging, in part, that her treatment in prison had violated Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

She eventually settled with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and was transferred to lower-security prison in Butner, North Carolina. But after a stint in solitary confinement (as punishment for a dispute with another inmate) in 2015, she was moved to the minimum-security Federal Medical Center in Kentucky.

Safe at last

Samantha Hill in prison. Amanda Northrop/Vox

The new facility, Hill says, is a much better experience. With two years left in her prison sentence, she sounds much more optimistic. “It was a struggle,” she says of finding legal representation and filing her lawsuit, “but in the long run it paid off.”

In the Kentucky facility, the staff treats Hill with respect, calling her by her designated name and gender. And she’s getting the care she needs for her gender dysphoria, PTSD, and rape trauma syndrome.

Hill doesn’t hesitate when asked why the conditions are better. “It’s because of the lawsuit. They’re following the lawsuit to the T, and whether the staff want to or not, they’re going based on what the law says on this lawsuit.”

But preventing incessant rape and abuse shouldn’t require a lawsuit. Hill and other inmates aren’t supposed to go through these kind of hellish circumstances. Yet the prison system has consistently failed trans people, putting them in similarly grim scenarios. Beyond the horrific statistic showing that about a quarter of trans inmates experience sexual abuse while incarcerated, there are other stories eerily similar to Hill’s — like those of Passion Star in Texas and Ashley Diamond in Georgia.

The US Department of Justice, for its part, seems to be well aware of the US prison system’s failure. In a memorandum filed in March, the Justice Department reiterated existing standards set by the Prison Rape Elimination Act passed in 2012, telling prison officials, “A transgender or intersex inmate’s own views with respect to his or her own safety shall be given serious consideration.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on Hill’s story, stating that it doesn’t comment on individual cases, and failing to respond to follow-up questions.

Again, this is an existing law that provides a way to avoid stories like Hill’s by taking simple, obvious precautionary steps. The steps can take the shape of single-person housing (but not necessary solitary, which leaves someone isolated from the outside world for 21-plus hours a day), as Hill now has. There are also other options, including housing LGBTQ inmates together (as the Los Angeles County men’s jail has done), placing trans women in women’s jails and prisons, and supplying protective custody.

Whatever the result, advocates emphasize that prisons and jails need to take trans inmates’ concerns seriously — because their worries are legitimate, as the data shows — and keep them away from dangerous prisoners, particularly those with histories of sexual assault.

But the law is often ignored by prison officials, enabling the ongoing epidemic of rapes and other assaults against LGBTQ inmates.

Still, Hill’s story shows what happens when such standards are respected, even if it’s under the threat of a lawsuit: She is not putting anyone in danger, and she’s clearly much happier now that the sexual assaults appear to be in her past.

“I’m getting medication now. I’m getting my real life experience. I’m getting all kinds of female items from the female camp next door. They’re allowing me to buy hair coloring, makeup. I live in a single cell. I have my own shower. They put a metal grate on my window so no one can look inside. I have privacy piano slides that go over my window. I live in a commonwealth unit. It’s good over here. It’s real good.”


Watch: Life as a transgender woman

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