Anger over the tragic death of 28-year-old Lea Rayshon Daye in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County Jail came out forcefully in a virtual press conference held Sept. 4. Daye’s was the second jail death here in less than two months and the 11th in two years. Found unresponsive in her cell Aug. 30, the Black trans woman died in a city deemed “an epicenter for America’s trans murder crisis” by an Aug. 17 op-ed piece in the Cleveland Scene.
Like Michael Wormick, who died in the same jail on July 8, Daye was houseless at the time of her arrest. Her death spotlighted the intersectionality of racism, transphobia, poverty and mass incarceration.
The news conference featured speakers on all these issues, including representatives of the Coalition to Stop the Inhumanity at the Cuyahoga County Jail, Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), Equality Ohio, Trans Ohio and the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland.
Rev. Reegie Bunch of the Jail Coalition condemned “the final indignity of misgendering” by jail authorities and then the news media. Ellie Turan, the Community Center’s Director of Development and author of the above mentioned op-ed, called Daye’s death “an extension of lynching.” Gwen Stembridge of Equality Ohio pointed out that half of all Black trans women spend time in prison, and Chris Knestrick of NEOCH added that 30% of transgender people experience homelessness and declared that “housing is a human right.”
Devinity Jones, founder and coordinator of the Community Center’s Trans Wellness Program, spoke movingly about her own experiences with the so-called “justice system.” When she appeared in court to pay a fine, a transphobic judge wrongfully sentenced her to 60 days in jail after making blatantly bigoted comments. In jail, she was subjected to a range of abuses.
Jones was celled with a cisgender male prisoner. Like numerous other prisoners she slept on a mat on the floor, was fed horrible food, had inadequate medical care, was denied basic hygiene and was abused by the vicious guards known as “the men in black.” A guard sexually assaulted her while she was taking a shower. Several years ago her friend Mahogany, also a Black trans woman, died in jail when authorities denied her anti-seizure medication.
The Jail Coalition was formed in December 2018 in response to eight deaths that had occurred over the previous six months, along with conditions that a U.S. federal marshals’ report called “the worst in the country.” The county jail drew national media attention earlier this year, when it released hundreds of prisoners to address overcrowding and reduce COVID spread. But recently the trend has been reversed, with numbers of prisoners climbing from a low of under a thousand to around 1,500, approaching capacity.
Activists here will continue to build unity around the main demand raised at the press conference: “No more deaths in the Cuyahoga County Jail.”