Jeff Sessions could roll back protections for transgender prisoners

First Jeff Sessions went after transgender students. Now inmates could be next.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Right before his departure from the White House, President Barack Obama implemented safeguards for transgender prisoners in federal facilities. But in light of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent push to scrap federal protections for transgender students, the measures to keep transgender people safe behind bars could be in danger.

On January 18, two days before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Bureau of Prisons unveiled a training manual for federal prison staff and administrators, “to ensure the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) properly identifies, tracks, and provides services to the transgender population.” The guide says officials must consider the safety and health of transgender prisoners on a “case-by-case basis” to determine where they should be held, and take the prisoners’ own safety concerns into “serious consideration.” Officials cannot house people in “dedicated facilities, units, or wings” because of their gender identification, unless a prison is court ordered to do so or subjected to a consent decree.

Transgender prisoners must have the option to shower separately from other inmates if they so desire, and receive underwear according to their gender regardless of where they are housed. The guide also details the pat down and screening processes for prisoners — who may request a search by someone from the gender of their choosing — and stipulates that people can receive hormone treatment while doing time.

Many of the policies outlined in the manual were already in place and merely codified in January, as Vice previously reported. The manual ultimately clarified prison staff responsibilities when addressing and overseeing transgender prisoners, and detailed the rights those prisoners have. The BOP told Vice that the guidelines were three years in the making.

But that progress is now in jeopardy. Sessions not only opposes LGBTQ equality, but allegedly pressured Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos into rolling back protections for transgender children in school. As the leader of the Justice Department, which houses the BOP, he could do similar damage to the prison safeguards established by the previous administration.

According to the New York Times, DeVos was hesitant about cutting Title IX protections for transgender students, which prohibit discrimination based on a student’s sex. Last year, the Obama administration released guidance that said students can participate in school activities and use restrooms based on their reported gender identity. But Sessions allegedly strong-armed DeVos into slashing those protections.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer denied allegations about the disagreement, but Sessions’ past comments speak for themselves. Notably, Sessions opposed federal hate crime protections for LGTBQ victims, arguing that they weren’t necessary. That position does not bode well for the transgender prisoners who are routinely raped and beaten because of their gender status.

According to a national survey of LGBTQ prisoners, discrimination against transgender prisoners goes far beyond physical violence. Forty-four percent of transgender, non-binary gender, and Two-Spirit respondents said they were refused hormone therapy. Four-fifths of all respondents were denied underwear that fit their gender. A disproportionate number of transgender respondents were also thrown into solitary confinement “against their will,” as opposed to some who requested separation for their safety.