Southern Poverty Law Center & Lambda Legal Sue DOJ and BOP for Records on Rollback of Protections for Incarcerated Trans People

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November 20, 2018
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Today, Lambda Legal and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sued the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to compel the federal agencies to produce all documents and communications connected to the Trump administration’s decision six months ago to alter its Transgender Offender Manual, including communications with outside advocacy groups.

Today’s lawsuit comes after DOJ and BOP refused to honor a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the relevant records Lambda Legal and SPLC filed in June of this year.

“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,” said Richard Saenz, Lambda Legal Senior Attorney and Criminal Justice and Police Misconduct Strategist.

“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.”

The changes, announced by the administration in May, weaken protections for incarcerated transgender people– who are already 10 times more likely than the general prison population to be targeted for violence – and undercut compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and constitutional protections. 

The records were requested in June 2018 when the two civil rights organizations filed a FOIA request with DOJ and BOP concerning the safe housing of transgender people incarcerated in the federal system.

“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.

“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. 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.”

Background on the Transgender Offender Manual
The Transgender Offender Manual was issued in January 2017 after the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2014 that more than one in three transgender people in prison reported experiencing sexual abuse by either staff or other inmates in the previous year.

The manual specifically sought to facilitate implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed by Congress in 2003, to address startling statistics showing crisis levels of sexual abuse and assault of people in prison, particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender nonconforming people.

However, in May 2018, the Trump Administration released changes to the manual, specifically instructing that incarcerated transgender people be housed according to their “biological sex” and should be placed according to their gender identity “only in rare cases.”