In 2002, Joshua Zollicoffer's boyfriend refused to return a used Chevy Impala he was test driving in Coryell County. With the salesman in the passenger seat and Zollicoffer in the back, the trio drove on for 40 miles before leaving the salesman on the side of a road. Eventually, police caught the couple.
Both were handed 20-year sentences for aggravated kidnapping.
Over the next 14 years, Zollicoffer, who now goes by Passion Star, has drawn attention to the difficulties transgender women face in the Texas prison system through a protracted legal fight.
Yet a turning point may be at hand: State officials have granted Star parole and have discussed settling her case.
Over stints in multiple prisons across the state, Star alleged in a 2014 federal lawsuit that she was regularly raped, beaten, threatened and forced into sexual relationships with inmates. She was also at one point repeatedly slashed with a razor by another inmate, an attack that required 36 stitches on her face and forehead. In her suit, she alleges numerous current and former employees with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice were indifferent to her plight, taking little or no action despite her filing many complaints and repeatedly seeking out refuge for more than a decade.
"She filed more than 30 grievances," said Demoya Gordon, a staff and Transgender Rights Project attorney at Lambda Legal, a New York-based legal and civil rights organization representing Star. "She consistently asked for protection and was consistently denied. People made fun of her, told her that she's having the time of her life, told her that she needed to 'fight or fuck' or 'stop acting gay' – basically told her gay people can't be raped."
Before identifying as a transgender woman, Star told officials she was a gay man or gay with a "female alias." Over time, she began to identify as a transgender woman and eventually adopted a new name.
TDCJ declined to comment on the case because of pending litigation. In court papers, though, employees generally deny Star's allegations and only refer to her by her legal name, saying "plaintiff has not been diagnosed with gender identity disorder." Any action they did take "were in good faith," some of the defendants also contend in filings.
In March 2015, after years of being transferred multiple times to different prisons, Star was placed in secure housing, also called safekeeping, in the state prison system's Telford Unit in New Boston, something she had been requesting for years.
In November of this year, both sides told the court they were negotiating a possible settlement to Star's federal lawsuit.
"Plaintiff Joshua D. Zollicoffer a.k.a. Passion Star (“Plaintiff”) and [the defendants] hereby jointly notify the Court that the parties are currently negotiating the terms of a potential settlement," the filing read.
And earlier this month, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Star parole, years after her boyfriend at the time was reportedly released for the same crime.
Star's release date has not been set, but before that day comes, she will have to go through a rehabilitation program, said Raymond Estrada, spokesman for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, in an email.
Star's legal team believes her requests for help have only been heard because she's made herself such a nuisance.
"It was only after all of those things happened that TDCJ finally agreed to move her into what we call safekeeping," Gordon said. "Unfortunately, it took a large, national organization like Lambda Legal to file an official lawsuit in federal court for them to actually take notice and start to take Passion's pleas for safety seriously."
Gordon said her organization is seeking financial compensation from TDCJ for Star's suffering. Also, perhaps long after Star is back in the free world, her legal team is hopeful her case will lead to systemic changes in how the state cares for LGBT inmates.
"When people like Passion get sentenced to prison to serve a term, they're not sentenced to be raped and assaulted with impunity," Gordon said. "This is a case that we're also using to raise the profile and raise awareness about the pervasiveness of this issue."
Read more coverage of the Texas criminal justice system:
- Before they can earn their freedom, about 40 female Texas prisoners are piloting a six-month program that focuses on decision-making and life skills.
- Texas county jails have seen an almost 60 percent decrease in suicides from last year.
- Dads in a maximum-security lockup in Brazoria County hold on to hope by holding on to their kids.
- Could the police-civilian divide be healed with Texas schools teaching how to act when stopped by law enforcement? Lawmakers are exploring the idea.