THEY’D LAUGH AT YOU
My first arrest was for possession of marijuana. I was driving with a
friend through Farmers Branch, which is a suburb of Dallas that’s known
for racial profiling. It’s real racist there. I’m Hispanic and my friend is
African American, and we got pulled over. When I asked the cops why
they pulled me over, they didn’t give me a reason. But they asked to
search the car.
We were coming home from picking up some Chinese food and we
had two little dime bags of marijuana we’d just picked up. The bags were
closed, we hadn’t even smoked. My friend put them under some lo mein
noodles in the food. But the cops searched so deep they even dug in the
food boxes and found the weed, and I was arrested.
I had no idea what to expect. I’d never been to jail. Even though I’d
just started transitioning, I was most scared about what might happen to
me because I’m trans. When I got to Lew Sterrett jail, the officers at the
jail asked me if I was gay. They had a “homosexual tank,” and that’s where
they put me. I was in jail for about ten or fifteen days. I was lucky to be in
the homosexual tank with a girl who’d transitioned. She’d been arrested
for prostitution, and she kind of took me under her wing and showed me
how to be in there, what to do and what not to do. So my first time in jail
wasn’t so bad, but it was still kind of scary just not knowing what to expect.
In my late teens, early twenties, I continued to transition. Other
than hormones, I started getting body modifications at twenty, twenty-one.
When I was out at clubs I was meeting older transsexual people,
and that’s where I met my godmother, Nikki Calico. She looked at me
and was like, “There’s something about you that I like, and I’ve always
wanted a daughter.” We were compatible—I could tell she was someone
like me who just didn’t have many friends growing up. And she helped
me with body modifications, how to feminize my face with fillers, that
sort of thing. I took her name, Calico, in remembrance of her and in
appreciation for everything she taught me and did for me. You know gay
people, we consider our friends to be our family. I took her name just to
One thing about transitioning is that back in the day, if you were
a transsexual and went to apply for a regular job and they knew who
you were, they’d laugh at you. So there was a lot of pressure to turn to
escorting. It was just something that was in the lifestyle. So I turned to
that, and I was making a living at it. I’d kept in contact with the girl I’d
met in jail, and she showed me how it worked.
Around that time, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit. Then in 2006 the
apartment complex where I was staying was used as a home for a lot of
people who were pushed out by Katrina. I met a man who was a victim
of the hurricane. I started dating him, actually. And he was like, “You
know, we could make some money because I know all the answers to the
questions they ask you when you call to apply for FEMA benefits.”
He showed me how to do it, and I started getting benefits, like
$2,500. I linked up with one of my friends and I told him about it. At
first it was just supposed to be like, “We gonna get a certain amount of
money,” but my friend got greedy and he kept going and going and he
got caught. When he got caught he snitched on me. I was the one who
showed him how to get those benefits, and I ended up going to jail for it.
The police actually arrested me at my parents’ house, when I was
with my mom. It was right after Thanksgiving. The officer was a woman
in plainclothes who had an old photo of me and didn’t know I’d transitioned
by then. She told my mom that I’d given her my contact info at a bar! She said,
“I’ve been trying to call him, but no answer,” and my
mom’s like, Uh, that doesn’t make any sense. But she called me to the door,
and that’s when all these other officers came in and arrested me.
So I got arrested and I ended up bonding out and then getting five
years’ probation. But I kept smoking marijuana, and my tests were coming
back dirty. My probation officer warned me that the next dirty test,
I’d go back to jail. So I decided to run. I stayed in Dallas and just stopped
reporting to my parole officer, which meant I had a warrant for my arrest.
I figured they’d catch me eventually, but I ran for three years, and I
really turned to escorting again then to support myself.
“I’LL BEAT THE FUCK OUT OF YOU”
I ended up finally getting picked up in Oklahoma City in a sting around
the end of 2011. I was arrested for prostitution. The jail in Oklahoma
City was different than county jail in Dallas. They didn’t know where
to put me—they didn’t have anything like the homosexual tank. It took
them six hours to figure out whether to put me on the male side or female
side. I was brought in at 2 a.m. and they had to wait for the sergeant
to come in at 8, 9 a.m. He asked, “Did you have the full surgery yet?”
And to make a long story short, they eventually decided to put me in
single cell, in segregation. On the men’s side.
The way the segregation cells are set up in Oklahoma City, the pods
have two floors of cells and then at the ground floor is a kind of central
area with tables and chairs for the eating area. I was on the top floor,
behind a solid door with a little window. I could look out the window
and see the other cells and the eating area, but I’d only get one hour a day
that I could be out. I’d use that time to shower. Some people would go
watch other people’s cells through their windows and just talk to them
and stuff like that. I had a lot of guys who would come to my window
just because they were so curious. They would come and say, “Show me
your titties.” Just all that stuff. There were a lot of guys who would come to
my window and be like, “You fucking faggot bitch. If you get out the
same time when I’m out, I’ll beat the fuck out of you.”
But at least in Oklahoma City, you could see other people through
your cell window, so you weren’t completely alone. You could talk to
people, and they weren’t all scary. I even had a cool guard. He used to
come to my window. He was a younger guard. I guess he was a new
employee. He used to come to my window and actually talk to me. He
didn’t care that I was a transsexual. Maybe he had transsexual relatives
or maybe he was attracted to transsexuals. I don’t know. He never came
at me like that, but he was always real cool. He would make sure that
every time he was on shift, he would come talk to me for thirty, fortyfive
I would read books. That’s my main thing. But I would read, and it
wouldn’t stick in my head. I would just read whatever I could get and I
would read just to be doing something. I would read the newspaper beginning
to end, do the crosswords, and even read all the inserts. The inserts
were how I would take myself out into the world. That’s how I would keep
my mind sane because I was really going crazy in there. The Bible was offered
to me in there too. I didn’t have nothing but time to sit there and get
into the Bible. When I would go into the Bible and read though, I was like,
No, this is not me. I believe in God, but I don’t believe in the Bible.
I was by myself in single cell for six weeks before the court date. I
was actually able to get out of that prostitution charge because the arresting
officer did things he shouldn’t have—played with my breasts, put my
hand on his private parts. I told the judge I could describe his privates.
He was supposed to show up in court, but with everything going on, he
didn’t show, so the charges were dropped.
ALL YOU CAN HAVE ON IS YOUR BOXERS AND YOUR SOCKS
After my charges in Oklahoma were dropped, I still had a warrant out
in Dallas. Authorities from Texas came up and put me in chains to take me back to
Dallas to serve time for my fraud arrest. I was sent to Lew
Sterrett to serve my time.
I was in the “homosexual tank” for the first three months. Then they
had a shakedown. That’s where they come in and order everyone to take
their uniforms off, to strip down to their boxers. All you can have on is
your boxers and your socks.
But me having breasts and all that, I asked one of the sergeants, “Sir,
can I keep my shirt on?” Because after they make you take everything off,
they make you walk out of your tank and walk into the hall where the
men in all the other tanks are. I’m not going to be coming out, walking
out with my breasts out and all that. The sergeant told me, “Yeah, you
can keep your shirt on.”
When we were walking out in line out of the tank, the main sergeant
was a female, an African American lady. She was waiting, inspecting
everybody as we came out of the tank. When I came out, she was
like, “Why do you have a shirt on?” I said, “Ma’am, I already talked to the
other sergeant. I have breasts.” She was like, “Step out of line and stand
right here by the wall.” She waited until everybody got out. She said,
“Come here.” She put me in a room with just her. She said, “Take your
shirt off.” I was like, “Okay, but I want to still be able to keep my shirt
on after you make sure that I don’t have nothing on me, right?” She said,
“Let me tell you something, bitch.” She put her finger on my forehead. “If
you don’t take your motherfucking shirt off . . . you’re still a man. You’re
going to forever be a man. Everyone else has to pass through without a
shirt, it ain’t any different for you.” I told her I just wanted to put my shirt
back on before passing the other tanks, and she said, “Take it off before
I mace you.” I took off my shirt. I wasn’t trying to get maced. Then she
said, “Okay. Put your shirt back on. You need to go in there, grab your
shit, and get the fuck out there.”
I asked, “Ma’am, where am I going?” She said, “Don’t worry about
that.” I said, “Ma’am, if you don’t tell me where I’m going, then I’m not going
to do nothing because I have a right to know what the hell is going on.” She
grabbed me and threw me against the wall. She said, “Bitch, I told your
faggot ass, you’re going to follow my rules.” Then she slammed me against
the wall, and I blanked out. My first reaction was to push her back. I pushed
her back, and she fell back and slid across the floor. That’s when the guards
came and grabbed me and threw me on the floor. Then they picked me up,
made me go get my stuff, and then they put me in solitary confinement.
RED KEPT ME SANE
They put me in solitary confinement because I pushed her, but she made it
seem like it was protective custody. She felt that since I looked like a girl
and I had breasts that I didn’t belong in the tank. Mind you, the tank is a
homosexual tank. The floor sergeant said, “It’s for your protection,” but
she was just saying that to give a reason for putting me in lockup. When I
tried to appeal it, it was denied because she said the reason was “protective
custody.” What about my protection the three months I’ve already
been in there? I didn’t have no issues for three months, so why should I
have an issue now? That’s the whole point of the homosexual tank.
They wouldn’t let me come out of solitary confinement. I was in
there going crazy. Solitary at Lew Sterrett was different than Oklahoma
City. In Oklahoma City, at least when you looked out your window you
could see other people, talk to them. But in Dallas, the view out the
window in my door was nothing but a white wall.
In solitary confinement in Lew Sterrett, you have your own shower.
It’s your bunk bed, your shower, your little table. They bring you a tray
of food to your door. So you’re completely isolated from other people.
The only thing that kept me sane was that every cell has a vent that the
A/C comes out through. Every vent is connected to all the other cells.
The inmate who was in the cell next to me, he basically had a crush on
me because he had seen me being put in there. He was like, “Baby, I know
what you are. I know you’re transsexual, but I’ll help your stay here be
better, and I’m sure that you talking to me will make mine better.”
All I knew was his nickname, Red. He was in solitary because he
had a lot of tattoos, some with supposed gang affiliations, and so he kept
getting into fistfights and stuff. He voluntarily went to solitary so he
wouldn’t get in fights. So he was in protective custody too.
I would move my bed, my mat by the vent, and we would talk
through the vent. We would pretend that we were out in the free world.
Red was like, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do. Just put in your mind
that we’re actually out there, and this is our cell phone.” He would be
like, “Ring ring ring.” I was like, “Hello,” like I’m actually answering my
phone because I started talking to myself being in there.
Twenty-three hours or whatever, I was in there questioning even me
living my life the way I’m living, like I really started doubting that. When
I get out, should I try to be a man? Why do I have to go through this? Why? Why
am I going through this? I didn’t do nothing to deserve this kind of treatment. I
know I did something illegal, but I’m already in jail. Why am I getting treated
even worse? It was just that one guy. If it weren’t for him, I would have
gone completely crazy.
I asked for a psychiatrist. The only thing the psychiatrists did when
they came and talked to me was put me on Celexa for depression and
another pill that I forget the name of. I didn’t want to be taking that
medication every day because I didn’t want my body to get used to it and
then when I got out, I would have to take it every day too.
I was in that solitary cell for the rest of my year at Lew Sterrett, so
nine months of solitary. I kept appealing, but they wouldn’t let me out.
I was talking to myself a lot. I didn’t hallucinate, but I’d have conversations
with myself. I’d ask myself questions and answer them. Then I’d
go back and be like, No. Red would hear me talking to myself. He’d
be like, “Sonya, who are you over there talking to?” On the other side
there’s another guy, but I’d never talk to the other guy. The other guy
actually, his mind was gone. He thought he was a person from the Bible.
Every day I would wake up, and he would say scriptures of the Bible.
Yeah. He knew that I was a transsexual, so sometimes he would take
it upon himself to be like, “You’re going to hell. You’re going to burn in
hell.” I’d be having to deal with that every day. I thought, Oh god. That’s
when Red would say, “Don’t listen. Come here. Come talk to me.”
I had a routine already. I would exercise before I would shower because
by the time I got through exercising I’d be sweating, so okay,
shower time. I’d hear the nurse coming through to bring people’s pills.
I’d take my pills. Fifteen minutes later, I’m knocked out. I wake up at
four o’clock in the morning. There’s breakfast. Get my breakfast tray.
Eat my breakfast. Go back to sleep. Wake up. I’ll be in my deep sleep
from four all the way until 11, 11:30. Then they’d bring lunch. Lunchtime
I eat my sandwich. They called it a cold tray. Every day you’d eat
bologna, bread, cheese, Jell-O, and sometimes pasta salad. That’s every
day. The only time that it changes is dinner. You get a hot meal. Everything
in there is made out of soybeans, so it’s fake stuff. You look at it,
and you’d think, Oh, this is dog food.
It was loud. People would be yelling, kicking doors all the time.
And I remember feeling scared when it was time to sleep, worried that
anyone could open my door and come at me anytime. They could open
the door and call me out for a nurse and then an inmate could be walking
by and try to hurt me or something. I felt like I basically slept with one
eye open and one eye closed.
I read the Dallas Morning News every day from front to back. Did the
crosswords. That was my only entertainment. I could also go to a gym by
myself for an hour a day. I remember being let out and walking down the
hall, and people would be spitting out their windows, smearing their own
shit on themselves. They’d see me and it might be like, “Fucking faggot.”
These people had lost their minds. I remember looking into the windows
and seeing them in there, and maybe they’d have made a swing out of their
sheets and were just wrapped up in them swinging. I was afraid I’d become
like that. That’s what I was scared of, that eventually I would turn into that.
But Red kept me sane. He’d read restaurant listings in the paper.
Then he’d call me through the vent. He was like, “Baby, where are we going to
go? We’re going to go check the place out. What you want to
eat? Get dressed. I’m going to come pick you up at seven o’clock.” Then
at seven, I’d call him—“Hey. It’s seven o’clock. Are you coming?” He’d
be like, “Yeah, I’m on my way.”
Meanwhile, the guy in the cell on the other side of him could hear us
and would make fun of Red. “You’re a faggot ass nigger. You’re talking to
that bitch.” Red would be like, “I don’t care what y’all say. I don’t care.”
And he’d tell me, “Don’t listen to them. Just blank them out.” Then the
guy who would do the whole Bible thing, he would be like, “Oh God this
and God that.” We had to blank them out and just keep on with it.
IT WAS DISCRIMINATION
My mother came to get me out when I was released in 2012, and I went
to live with her for a while. I was overwhelmed when I first got out. It
took a month for me to be able to break off the thinking that people were
staring at me or that they were going to attack me. Then I’d start feeling
nauseated like I want to throw up. One day my godmother Nikki took
me to a place called Traders Village, which is like a flea market, where
they have vendors outside in the open. On Sundays it gets really super
packed to a point where you can’t turn around or move.
I got there, and as soon as I got there I felt like something broke inside
me. Nikki asked, “What’s wrong?” I was feeling really dizzy. I was like,
“Mama, I don’t feel good,” and I started throwing up. She said, “What’s
wrong?” I said, “Mama, you know I can’t be around a lot of people like
this.” I said, “Give me your keys.” I had to go to the car and lay back in the
front seat and just sit because I couldn’t be around people. It took me a
long time to break off that.
When I was living with my mother, I’d spend all my time in my
room, just watching TV. My mom would have come up there and be like,
“You need to come downstairs to eat.” I’d say, “Okay, I’ll be there.” Even
then I would wait until everybody left the table. Then I would go eat by myself
and hurry up and go back upstairs. I was like that for a while. And
ever since I left jail I never read the newspaper now because it reminds
me too much of being in there.
I met Miss Nell through my best friend, Pocahontas. Pocahontas,
she’s a transsexual advocate in Dallas. She had me come to a chat they
held once a month, and Miss Nell was the guest speaker. Pocahontas had
me come to the chat because I didn’t want to be around people. After
I got out of prison we had been hanging out with some friends at her
apartment and I couldn’t be around them. I had bad anxiety. I started
throwing up because I wasn’t used to being around people yet because I
had just got out.
Miss Nell runs the Trans Pride Initiative. After the meeting Miss
Nell was there and Pocahontas said, “Miss Nell, this is my friend,
Sonya, who I told you went through the whole solitary confinement.
She just coming out her little shell.” Miss Nell said, “Baby, I’ve been
wanting to meet you.” She said, “I got this thing going on.” Miss Nell
told me she works a lot with incarcerated transgender people and their
rights. That she fights for people who are in there, people who have
been discriminated against in prison. They write her letters, and she
fights for them. Miss Nell said, “I have this meeting coming up with
the head of the jailhouse. Do you want to talk in front of them?” I said,
“Yeah,” When the meeting happened though, I actually didn’t make it
there, but she told them my whole story.
In jail, it seemed like they had a rule that every time someone who’s
transgender goes in, if they have body work, they automatically go
straight to solitary. It was discrimination. People don’t understand that
solitary confinement really messes people’s heads up. It really does. I was
just lucky enough to snap out of it when I got out, but some people don’t
snap out of it. They stay stuck in la la land.
Apparently the heads of the Dallas prisons didn’t know really what was going on.
But Miss Nell took my story to them and it played a part
in getting things changed. Miss Nell is someone who gets things done.
They were able to come up with a solution. Now as a transgender woman
in a men’s prison you have an option: you can go to the homosexual tank
or go to solitary confinement. It’s your choice now. You don’t have to be
treated like an animal.
These days I don’t have no worries. I’m very happy with myself. I finished
my probation, and I’m completely stress free. I don’t go to sleep
at night worried about going back to jail. I’m traveling a lot. It’s a blessing.
No matter what obstacles I went through as a transgender person I
still pushed through. I’m no longer feeling doubts about my lifestyle. Because
of the legal issues I was going through I felt like I failed my family.
But now that the legal troubles are behind me I feel like they look at me
as a different person. I’m very happy with my family, and I’m even closer
with them, especially my mom. I really love Mercedes. ●
Illustrations by Sally Deng for BuzzFeed News. Illustration of Sonya Calico by Christine Shields.
Excerpted from Six by Ten: Stories From Solitary edited by Mateo Hoke and Taylor Pendergrass. All rights reserved. Learn more about Six By Ten here.
Sonya Calico was sent to solitary in a men’s jail in Texas, supposedly for her own protection. Her story helped inspire change for other trans people facing incarceration in Dallas.