By Christopher Zoukis
Three female inmates in a federal prison in Texas have gone to court in an attempt to block a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) policy that requires them to share bathrooms and showers with inmates who identify as transgender females but are biologically male.
On Feb. 15th, inmates Rhonda Fleming, Jeanette Driever, and Charlsa Little sued to block the BOP policy from being applied at the Federal Medical Center Carswell, a medical facility and camp located at the Fort Worth naval air station.
Months earlier, the plaintiffs had attempted but failed to persuade a federal judge in Fort Worth to expand a temporary injunction to include their incarceration site. The temporary injunction blocked an Obama administration directive giving bathroom access to public school students based on their gender identity.
On March 14, the Texas Senate approved the transgender bathroom bill that would, among other things, impose escalating fines on schools or governments that allow transgender people to use bathrooms that conform with their gender identities. A vote on the bill takes place March 15.
The inmates’ lawsuit claims the current policy forces them to live in a dangerous and degrading environment and share intimate facilities “with men who allege they are women,” but who "openly express their sexual desire” for the female inmates in settings where they are only partially clothed or naked. They also allege transgender men intentionally exposure themselves to the female inmates.
Their lawsuit also claims that one male transgender inmate, who was 6’5” and weighed over 200, was assigned to the Special Housing Unit (SHU) of the facility and warned officials there not to assign him to share a cell with a certain female inmate, since if they did, “he would rape her.” Female inmates with SHU assignments, the lawsuit argued, would be “subject to government-sanctioned rape.”
The BOP's 15-page “Transgender Offender Manual,” issued in mid-January, provides staff with guidance for dealing with “unique issues that arise when working with transgender inmates,” and states the views of transgender or intersex inmates as to their own personal safety “must be given serious consideration.” It also advises that transgender inmates must be allowed to shower separately from other inmates if they so desire. But the manual also advises that housing assignments for transgender or intersex inmates must consider case-by-case the inmate’s health and safety and potential security or management problems.
The Trump administration has already revoked earlier guidance from the Department of Education on transgender students’ access to bathrooms and similar facilities, so the BOP policy could also be revised in the future. But if that doesn’t happen, the female inmates from Fort Worth could face serious difficulties prevailing in their lawsuit, which is before the same judge who granted the injunction against the DOE policy.
In the first place, the three inmates are thus far representing themselves. In addition, the judge hearing their case has already cautioned them, when denying their request to extend his DOE injunction, that challenges to conditions of incarceration first require attempts to win administrative relief from prison officials.
It’s also unlikely to help the case that lead plaintiff Fleming, who’s serving a lengthy sentence as ringleader in a Medicare-Medicaid fraud scheme, has a history of filing unsuccessful lawsuits. In fact, in 2000 a federal appeals court ordered she not be permitted to file in forma pauperis (without paying filing fees, due to indigency) in any federal court, unless able to show she was in imminent danger of serious personal injury.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.