Texas suit targeting transgender inmates continues after Trump reverses protections
A Christian organization is suing to expel all trans women from female prisons
By Lauren McGaughy
The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN, Texas — The Trump administration didn't go far enough when it reversed Obama-era protections for transgender inmates, according to a Christian organization that's suing to expel all trans women from female prisons.
Since 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has required federal inmates' gender identity to "be given serious consideration" in housing decisions. But earlier this month, the administration announced transgender women will now be housed in female prisons only "in rare cases."
The policy reversal is a major departure from the Obama administration, but it didn't go far enough for one inmate suing to remove all transgender women from female prisons. A lawyer for Brenda Rhames, an Alabama woman convicted of embezzling $174,000 from the seafood restaurant where she worked, said his client wants to continue her lawsuit against the federal government until the Trump administration does more.
"The policy they moved out a couple weeks ago is obviously a step forward," Gary McCaleb, an attorney with the Christian nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom told The Dallas Morning News on Thursday. "But it is not enough to properly assert the privacy of women in prisons."
The lawsuit was filed 18 months ago in Texas federal court.
Rhames, who's currently incarcerated in West Virginia, joined the lawsuit when she was held at a women's prison in Fort Worth.
McCaleb did not elaborate on what the administration would need to do for the suit to be dropped, adding simply, "We're looking for change."
This fight dates back to 2016, when a group of female inmates at the Fort Worth prison sued to remove all transgender women from female prisons and move them back to males-only institutions. Calling their grievance a "gender discrimination claim," these women compared being housed with trans women — who were born male but identify as female — to "cruel and unusual punishment."
After Trump took office, the administration entered into settlement negotiations with the women. The talks dragged on, however, and the deadline to make a decision was delayed until this week. McCaleb told The News that despite Trump's policy changes, the parties have not yet reached an agreement and they would continue settlement negotiations until his client is satisfied.
Meanwhile, the women inmates who originally filed this case — which does not include Rhames — have left the lawsuit and opened their own grievance against the government and McCaleb's firm. They claim the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF, is conspiring with the Trump administration to delay an outcome until after this year's midterm elections.
The ADF helped the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Jeff Sessions formulate its new religious liberty guidance. The federal prisons agency is under the Justice Department.
"Counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom misled the plaintiffs during the litigation of the case," Jeanette Driever wrote in a pleading on May 21. "This was done intentionally and is evidence of counsel's unethical conduct and loyalty to the Department of Justice."
Driever and the other original plaintiffs, Charlsa Little and Rhonda Ann Fleming, have asked for the court to make an immediate decision on their original demand — the removal of all transgender inmates from female prisons.
McCaleb insisted Driever's claims are baseless. On behalf of his remaining client, Rhames, McCaleb said he will ask the judge to set a "status conference" to discuss next steps by the end of June or early July.
The Carswell lawsuit deals only with federal prisons. In state prisons here, transgender inmates are barred from being housed in facilities that match their gender identity. Trans women are incarcerated in men's jails and prisons, but can receive hormone treatment while incarcerated.
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