Metro Weekly

Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons sued over rollback of protections for transgender inmates

Policy change was prompted by a lawsuit claiming female inmates are "threatened" by the mere presence of transgender women

Photo: pecchio.nero, via Wikimedia.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Lambda Legal have sued the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons over a rollback of protections for transgender prisoners.

The organizations want the department to produce all documents and communications related to the Trump administration’s decision earlier this year to alter its guidelines for housing transgender prisoners.

In May, the Trump administration released changes to the Transgender Offender Manual, arguing that transgender prisoners should be placed according to their “biological sex” and should be placed according to their gender identity “only in rare cases.”

The policy change was prompted by a lawsuit, brought by four Christian cisgender female inmates in Texas, who took issues with an Obama administration policy aimed at protecting transgender prisoners from violence under the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The women argued that the policy, which they claimed housed them with “men,” violated their right to privacy and threatened their physical and mental health.

The administration’s change was quickly met with backlash from LGBTQ advocates, who noted that housing transgender prisoners based on their assigned sex at birth — particularly in cases where transgender women are placed in men’s facilities — puts those prisoners at a greater risk of sexual assault.

One California study found that trans women are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than male prisoners in the same facilities.

Led by Congressmen Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), 67 members of Congress signed onto a letter blasting the revisions to the Transgender Offender Manual.

“We write to express our deep concern that the Bureau of Prisons’ recent changes to its Transgender Offender Manual may be in violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), as well as the U.S. Constitution,” the letter reads. “…[W]e are deeply concerned that the BOP is seeking to violate the intent and letter of PREA by prohibiting housing based on gender identity entirely, absent any legitimate rationale.”

LGBTQ activists also began circulating a Care2 petition, signed by nearly 47,000 individuals, urging the Trump administration reverse course.

“Trans prisoners are 10 times more likely to face sexual abuse while incarcerated than the general prison population,” the petition reads. “Prison is a dangerous place for transgender and gender-nonconforming inmates, and Trump just recklessly rolled back the few protections the Obama Administration established for them.”

The Trump administration’s actions also sparked response from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Lambda Legal, who jointly filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records related to the policy change, as well as records of any conversations Trump administration officials had with outside interest groups, particularly anti-LGBTQ or conservative organizations with a history of animus towards the LGBTQ community.

The Trump administration subsequently ignored the FOIA request and refused to provide any of the documentation sought by the two civil rights organizations.

Left with no other options, they filed suit to compel the government to release those records.

“It is not surprising that the Trump-Pence administration ignored our original request, as there is no rational justification for the changes BOP made to the Transgender Offender Manual,” Richard Saenz, a senior attorney and criminal justice and police misconduct strategist with Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “Federal correctional facilities across the country have successfully housed transgender people consistent with their gender identity, as recommended by the manual before the administration’s rewrite.  That is why we need transparency to see just who the administration consulted, and what misinformation and discriminatory intent possibly informed these changes.”

“There is no penological reason that could justify the BOP’s decision to roll back protections for transgender people in the federal prison system,” added David Dinielli, the deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Instead, it appears that the BOP may have acted at the behest of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an SPLC-designated anti-LGBT hate group that has defended state-sanctioned sterilization of transgender people abroad and has recommended use of the terms ‘cross-dressing’ and ‘sexually confused’in p lace of the term transgender.

“Through this lawsuit, we hope to uncover what the BOP considered when amending its housing policy, including whether the changes reflect merely its own biases and/or those of an outside, anti-LGBT group.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at

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