She once won a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that as a blind person she was denied equal access to the prison law library. In another discrimination case, Farmer brought a class-action suit against then U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons for (among other things) failing to offer African-American hair- and skincare products "while similar products designed for use by other races are available."

Farmer lost that one; the court determined that she had failed to show Reno or the director was aware of the allegedly unconstitutional conditions. And she lost an equal-protection lawsuit that she filed after being forbidden to work in food service owing to her HIV-positive status.

In fact, she also wound up losing the suit that led to her landmark Supreme Court case.

When ACLU attorney Elizabeth Alexander referred to Farmer as “she” in 1994, the semantic choice was more strategic than sensitive.
Courtesy Elizabeth Alexander
When ACLU attorney Elizabeth Alexander referred to Farmer as “she” in 1994, the semantic choice was more strategic than sensitive.

The ruling in Farmer v. Brennan only remanded the case for retrial.

That's where Gonring came in.

"I felt sorry for her being in the position she was, being female in an environment where she didn't want to be," he says now. "I was still reserved," the attorney adds, "because she made a living fooling people."

Gonring was surprised to find his client warm and engaging. As they prepared to make their case to the jury, he and a colleague did their best to accommodate Farmer, asking the Dane County, Wisconsin, Sheriff's Office to allow her to have makeup brought to her in jail.

The response, as Gonring remembers it: "The only foundation in this building is in the walls."

The jury found for the defendants.

"The bottom line was the jury never believed she was raped," Gonring says.

After the trial, Gonring and Farmer parted ways, returning to their respective caseloads. Months later, though, his office began receiving bills for copying services involving his former client's other cases.

He didn't pay them.

"I was amused by it more than anything else," Gonring says.

A year later, Farmer sent him a Valentine's Day card. When he opened it, thousands of tiny metallic hearts tumbled forth, dousing his desk in red sparkles.

Gonring says he still finds a shiny remnant from time to time and smiles.

A few years back, Elizabeth Alexander heard Dee Farmer had died.

She admits she hadn't kept up with her over the years. In fact, she has never met Farmer.

"I really didn't focus on her as a person," Alexander explains. "I was really focused on trying to figure out a way to pull this out for all prisoners."

It turned out the news about Farmer's passing was a red herring floated by Farmer herself.

Not that she wasn't seriously ill. She has a history of psychosis, bipolar disorder, hearing voices (including the Devil's, according to her lawyer in a federal court transcript). She has suffered from hepatitis, anxiety, and depression (the latter two of which worsened, she once argued in a civil-rights complaint, when officials transferred her to a so-called supermax facility; prosecutors noted Farmer was transferred because officials suspected she had participated in an identity-theft scheme to obtain credit in the names of the wardens).

AIDS had taken such a toll on her body that in 2005 a judge freed her from prison, sending her home to, as he put it, "meet his maker."

"She was having extreme difficulty seeing and looked to be very frail and in ill health," says Nicholas Szokoly, who represented Farmer during her release.

Farmer went home and participated in a clinical trial for AIDS patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

She had gained back some weight by the time authorities in an unmarked car pulled up to her elderly mother's row house in northeast Baltimore in 2006. They hauled her away in handcuffs, her face angled down at the pavement. She pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and misuse of a death certificate.

Less than two weeks into her 18-month sentence, Farmer wrote a letter to a federal court in Maryland complaining that correctional medical services had failed to give her AIDS medication. She later stated in a response to the court that the "medication that the [Johns Hopkins] doctor prescribed I receive some of it some of the time and none of it the rest of the time. It is difficult to tell."

Seven years later, a member of Farmer's current legal team says her face shows signs of stubble and dreariness. She's tall, topping six feet, and wears her hair in tight braids. Her voice is high-pitched but not decidedly womanly. She considers herself asexual.

Farmer, who has taken up Bible study and listens to gospel music, likens her situation to that of the Old Testament's beleaguered Job.

She says she is on a reprieve from death.

"He gave me the time to right some wrongs and to, by His Grace, impact the lives of others," Farmer writes in an email — one that, like all of her correspondence with the Voice, originates from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Brooklyn. (Corrections officials denied the Voice's request to visit Farmer at the facility.)

Some things, however, haven't changed.

Earlier this month she was sentenced for a crime she committed while behind bars.

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