Ten Senators Demand Answers on Trans Prisoners

A group of ten Senators have demanded the Trump administration explain its baseless attempt to undermine the rights and safety of transgender people in prison.

By Gillian Branstetter

There are few people more vulnerable in society today than incarcerated transgender people. They are ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted by others held in prison and five times more likely to be sexually assaulted by staff, according to our US Transgender Survey. These figures are in line with the Department of Justice’s own numbers, which show transgender people face sexual violence at nine times the rate of the general prison population.

GRAPH: According to the US Transgender Survey, roughly one in three transgender people held in a prison experienced sexual or physical violence

They are denied adequate medical care and held for prolonged periods in solitary confinement. They face routine physical and verbal abuse, and their demands for safety are too frequently silenced by a system that refuses to follow the law.

These risks are exacerbated by the failure of prison and law enforcement officials to follow basic protections for prisoners, and now a group of Senators is demanding to know why the Trump administration is pushing rules and standards that will only make things worse.

DOCUMENT: A letter signed by Senators Schatz, Murray, Durbin, Booker, Gillibrand, Hirono, Markey, Warren, Merkley, and Baldwin

In a letter addressed to the Bureau of Prisons within the Department of Justice, ten Senators called on BOP to reverse changes it made in May encouraging federal prison officials to ignore the risks faced by transgender people and instead institute a broad policy that will only expose them to more violence and trauma.

The changes in May were to the Transgender Offender Manual, a BOP policy governing how prison officials interact with, and decide placement for, transgender people.

While the Prison Rape Elimination Act mandates individual considerations of whether a transgender person is safest in a male or female facility, the changes made by the Trump administration discourage officials from considering a person’s gender identity for placement. Instead, says the administration, they should primarily consider placing people by their “biological sex.”

“This change is not in line with BOP’s own stated commitment of a ‘zero tolerance policy against sexual abuse,’” reads the letter from these Senators, “nor its obligations under federal law and U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment.”

The Bureau of Prison’s response is wholly underwhelming, largely dodging the questions asked by the Senators about how the Bureau reconciles these new guidelines with federal law or its own data.

The Bureau resorts to victim-blaming, falsely claiming that “placing transgender inmates with non-transgender peers disrupt the orderly operation of the facility” and even “ create a risk of harm to transgender persons.” The BOP cites no evidence to support these claims, and they even deny having any data on transgender people in BOP custody. It’s unclear whether, by claiming it’s dangerous to place transgender people “with non-transgender peers,” they are seeking to evade PREA’s individualized assessment requirement or also seeking to justify placing trans people in solitary confinement, which many still face.

This stance not only abandons transgender people’s safety — it violates the law and opens the federal government to lawsuits, along with any state that follows suit. Just this month, a court in Illinois ordered that state’s prison system to train its entire staff after a transgender woman was denied a move to a women’s facility.

A transgender woman in Texas, also recently filed a lawsuit after prison officials forced her to strip in order to check her genitalia and again to shower in front of men held in the facility. Another woman in Colorado filed a lawsuit to challenge treatment by officials in that state after they ignored her pleas and she was raped as a result. And BOP itself is now being sued for refusing to making public documents regarding its anti-trans policy change.

These are the tragic consequences of prisons which ignore the rights and safety of the people they take into custody. Too frequently, sexual violence experienced by those in prison goes unnoticed by officials and the public, with some even blaming the survivors of such violence or citing it as a natural consequence for their crimes. But doing so encourages the laissez-faire attitude that BOP is endorsing, putting thousands of people at risk every day for assault and untold trauma and belittling their suffering.

It’s incumbent upon the leaders of our government to take responsibility for the safety of the people we hold in custody. The failure of prison officials and the administration to do so is a tragedy visited upon countless transgender people every day in the form of repeated trauma and abuse. Holding them accountable for this negligence is an important first step towards a justice system that not only honors what is legal but what is right.