Lambda Legal and the Southern Poverty Law Center are going to bat with the Trump administration over the rollback of transgender prison guidelines.
On Tuesday, the groups hit the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) with a lawsuit demanding that the agencies provide documentation of the decision-making that led to changes to the Transgender Offender Manual six months ago.
According to the suit, neither agency has responded to Freedom of Information of Act (FOIA) requests that would explain why the federal government chose to weaken protections for transgender inmates.
The groups are especially interested in communications between the federal government and anti-gay hate groups that may have influenced the policy change.
The Obama-era protections for trans prisoners took effect only days before Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017. The protections align with standards set by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which bars prisons from sorting transgender people based on anatomy or sex assigned at birth alone. Under PREA, placement must be made on a case-by-case basis, with the safety of the trans prisoner as a first consideration.
But the regulations have been under scrutiny due to a 2016 court case involving four cisgender inmates in Texas who sued, claiming it was “cruel and unusual” to house them with trans women. In that case, the women were represented by anti-gay hate group the Alliance Defending Freedom.
In May, the BOP updated the manual, stating that federal agencies “will use biological sex” as the primary consideration for placing trans prisoners. In a letter to Acting Director of Prisons Hugh Hurwitz, 67 members of Congress condemned the move.
Since then, LGBTQ groups have roundly criticized the Trump administration, claiming that the new policy violates PREA and encourages state departments of corrections to do the same.
“There is no penological reason that could justify the BOP’s decision to roll back protections for transgender people in the federal prison system,” said David Dinielli, deputy legal director for the SPLC, in a statement. “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 place of the term ‘transgender.’”
According to the lawsuit, the DOJ confirmed receipt of the June records request. Legally, federal agencies have 20 days to respond to FOIA requests except in unusual circumstances. The suit alleges that the DOJ noted that the request was unusual and said that the records would take longer, but after months, the agency concluded that no such records could be produced.
The suit asks the court to compel DOJ “to conduct a reasonable search for all records” related to the policy change.
“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,” claimed Richard Saenz, Lambda Legal senior attorney and criminal justice and police misconduct strategist. “That is why we need transparency to see just who the administration consulted and what misinformation and discriminatory intent possibly informed these changes.”
The BOP declined to comment on the pending litigation. The DOJ did not respond to a request to comment.
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