Seattle woman goes to jail for protesting and never gets a hearing
SEATTLE, WA — Last Sunday, May 31, Joan Fochs got the call to shut down early at the Interbay grocery store where she works, as the city braced for another night of protests against police violence. She closed up shop, packed up water bottles and baking soda to protect against tear gas, and headed downtown to join the crowds.
“As a transgender person I identify with all persecuted minorities,” explained Fochs, 23. George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police confirmed her belief that American police too often act with impunity, she said.
She met up with a group of protesters around 9:30 p.m. They hadn’t gone far when a group of Seattle police officers on bicycles swerved in front of the group, telling them to disperse.
As one officer rode straight toward Fochs, she crossed her arms in front of her chest, bracing for impact. To her relief, the officer stopped just short of her, she said. Then he made a surprising pronouncement.
“He said, ‘You’re under arrest. You assaulted me,'” Fochs recalled. In a statement, she said, the officer accused Fochs of trying to dismount him from his bicycle while being out past the city’s 5 p.m. curfew. She was booked on suspicion of assault, denied bail, and brought to the King County Correctional Facility around 2 a.m. Monday.
With that began a traumatic, two-day ordeal for Fochs, in which she says she was improperly housed with male inmates, repeatedly sexually harassed and largely ignored by jail staff when she voiced concerns for her safety and mental health. She has not been charged with a crime.
“They would just keep moving along” Arriving at the jail, Fochs was told that she would be placed in a male isolation unit — standard procedure for transgender inmates at the jail.
Being housed in a standard female unit was impossible, Fochs was told since she had not changed her legal gender designation — a process Fochs believes would be time-consuming and expensive since she was born overseas.
“I work at a minimum wage job in an expensive city,” she explained. “I don’t have enough money to do that.”
She protested, telling jail staff that she had been taking hormones for more than two years. It was no use: to be moved to a female unit, she would need to present her case to a “transgender review committee” at an undetermined date, she was told. (Under King County policy, the review committee must meet within 72 hours of a transgender person being booked, not including weekends or holidays.)
Immediately, Fochs feared for her safety as the lone woman in a unit full of men.
“I very clearly pass as a woman,” she said. “[But] that doesn’t really matter. It should be based upon what I say.”
Her fears proved to be prescient. She was brought to an individual cell, its walls stained with dried blood, with a small window at the top of the door, a slot where food was delivered, and another small gap at the bottom of the door, allowing Fochs to hear the handful of men housed nearby.
When she awoke Monday morning, she made eye contact through the window with a man in the cell directly across from her. When she looked again 15 minutes later, the man had exposed his genitals through the door slot meant for food, and continued to expose himself and sexually harass Fochs for at least six hours, she said.
Things escalated when the man, who seemed severely mentally ill, was let out of his cell for a daily break and began pounding on Fochs’ cell door for 15 to 20 minutes.
“A loud metal door in a concrete room,” she recalled. “You can imagine how loud that would be and the reverberation that would happen.”
Compounding the crisis, since Fochs entered the jail, she had been unable to take the prescribed hormones and anti-anxiety medications on which she depends — apparently because correctional staff could not verify her prescriptions with her pharmacy, she was told.
“I basically had a complete and total mental breakdown without my medication in my system,” she said. As the harassment continued, Fochs recalled, “I had a panic attack. I was hunched in the corner sobbing and hyperventilating.”
Repeatedly, Fochs pressed the call button in her cell, intended to summon correctional officers in case of an emergency. The calls went largely unanswered, she said.
As officers passed her cell for hourly security checks, Fochs said she was met with silence when she asked for help.
“I’d say, ‘Officers, I’d like to file a harassment complaint,'” she recalled. “They would just keep moving along.”
Finally, when staff visited Fochs Monday night to check her vitals, she broke down sobbing in front of nurses and a correctional officer. The man who had harassed her was moved that night.
Even then, she said, the other men housed near her constantly commented on her appearance — some flirted while others questioned whether she was “a real woman.” The harassment continued until she was released, Fochs said.
Reached for comment, Noah Haglund, a spokesman for the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, said that shift commanders are reviewing Fochs’s allegations “to determine whether there is evidence to support her complaint against another person in custody.”
“I never even got my hearing” Monday morning, Fochs’ public defender told her that her court hearing on the assault allegation pushed back due to administrative delays, would finally take place within an hour. The hour came and went.
Finally, around 9 p.m. Monday, Fochs was abruptly released after nearly 44 hours in custody. (In Washington, people cannot be held for more than 72 hours without charges.)
“They just released me, without telling me if they were going to pursue charges or [if] they were going to continue to investigate me,” she said. “I never even got my hearing before a judge or anything.”
Days after her release, Fochs was still reeling from the manic episodes she experienced while off her medication. She fears that the harassment she experienced in jail has left her traumatized, and said she began contemplating self-harm for the first time in months.
Having attended the protest wary of police and the criminal justice system, Fochs now feels radicalized, and counts herself among those now calling for a wholesale disbanding of police departments.
“It was terrifying and disgusting,” she said. “It showed me that the police need to be dissolved and there needs to be something different to take their place.”