By Hannah Finnie
May 18, 2016

Note: Karyna Jaramillo attended Generation Progress’ criminal justice roundtable in Phoenix, Arizona this past fall. To read the recommendations stemming from that roundtable, click here. This piece is part of a series of profiles on young leaders moving the needle on criminal justice reform.

“That’s not your real name.”

Karyna Jaramillo was in an ICE migratory detention center and considering suicide. When she arrived, ICE employees asked her for her real name, and she responded: Karyna. But they wouldn’t listen.

Jaramillo, a transgender woman, insisted that Karyna was her real name. But that didn’t stop ICE employees from consistently and intentionally mis-gendering her. “I felt awful when they would call me by my other name,” she says. “They would tease me.”

In detention for two weeks and solitary confinement for two days, Jaramillo’s depression returned.

“I was very isolated in the detention center,” she says. “They told me it was for my own security, but it wasn’t because I was very lonely and I fell into depression.”

Courtesy of Karyna Jaramillo.

Courtesy of Karyna Jaramillo.

The criminal justice system, including ICE’s migratory detention centers, often place transgender people in solitary confinement, citing no other way to ensure the safety of transgender inmates. But solitary confinement is often anything but safe: it has long-lasting mental and physical health effects, adversely affecting people long after they leave solitary. In July, 2015, ICE issued new guidelines for accommodating transgender immigrants in detention, but advocates say these rules do not go far enough.

Nonetheless, Jaramillo was placed in solitary confinement, and, in the throes of depression, considered suicide. “Depression is a difficult thing, because it can always come back,” she says. “I’ve thought about killing myself and those thoughts come back when you are lonely.”

Jaramillo wound up in the detention center after an arrest for driving while under the influence of alcohol. Though Jaramillo was actively seeking help, participating in an alcohol rehabilitation program, her history of substance abuse was storied.

Jaramillo grew up in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she worked at a bar and, later, in prostitution, to make ends meet.

“They had complete control of my body and ‘no’ was never an option,” she says. “I would speak up and refuse, but then they would drug me.”

Brought to prostitution by institutional failures of the Mexican government and economy, whenever Jaramillo asserted her individual autonomy, she was drugged and raped. To the prostitution industry, Jaramillo was less than an individual—she was a commodity.

Because Jaramillo said no, and because whenever she said no she was drugged, she became an addict. Eventually, she escaped. Fearing retribution to her family for leaving the industry, she disappeared one day from Cuernavaca in a way that would ensure the safety of her brothers.

Now living in Phoenix, Arizona, Jaramillo lives at the intersection of queer and immigrant experiences, and so does her work. As a coordinator for the Arizona Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project, Jaramillo’s work centers on acceptance and economic security for undocumented LGBTQ people.

“We deserve to be able to live a normal life, and not have someone think we are prostitutes every time we walk down the street…We just want to be seen as average people,” she says.

But having a normal life, Jaramillo says, depends on having access to the formal economy. So she’s fighting for undocumented LGBTQ people in Arizona to be able to get work permits, which, she says, is necessary “to work a real job and not sell their body to make a living.”

Even as Jaramillo talks about her present work, she uses examples that refer to her past. For Jaramillo, the work is personal. And it’s less work than it is a mission—a mission to let people know that help is available, that there’s hope.

“So many people commit suicide. There’s women who have committed suicide—transgender women—and no one does anything about it,” Jaramillo says.

And yet, there are some people—people like Jaramillo—who are doing something about it.

“There is hope, I really do have a lot of hope,” she says. “We have to keep fighting.”

Join Karyna in the fight for safer and fairer communities — join the #Fight4AFuture Network.

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