Fort Worth

Transgender bathroom battle smolders in Fort Worth federal prison

A lawsuit has been filed against Federal Medical Center Carswell, over the federal guidelines for transgender inmates. The Bureau of Prisons medical facility and camp is located at Naval Air Station Fort Worth.
A lawsuit has been filed against Federal Medical Center Carswell, over the federal guidelines for transgender inmates. The Bureau of Prisons medical facility and camp is located at Naval Air Station Fort Worth. pmoseley@star-telegram.com

Count federal prisons as the latest battleground for the transgender bathroom debate.

Three female inmates at Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth have filed a flurry of complaints, upset over the Bureau of Prisons policy that allows transgender inmates who are still biologically male to be placed in female prisons.

The women claim that they are living in a degrading and dangerous environment by being forced to share showers and bathrooms with the transgender inmates, according to complaints and motions filed in the U.S. District Court’s Northern District.

The most recent complaint was filed Feb. 15 by inmates Rhonda Fleming, Jeanette Driever and Charlsa Little.

“The Plaintiffs have been forced to share intimate facilities with men, who allege they are women,” the Feb. 15 complaint states. “These men openly express their sexual desire for the women inmates, at times, in the showers, and bathrooms, while women are naked or partially clothed.

“The men expose themselves, intentionally, for their own sexual gratification, causing the Plaintiffs to suffer disgust, embarrassment, humiliation, stress, degradation, fear and loss of dignity.”

In December, the inmates filed a motion to intervene in an attempt to get FMC Carswell included in a temporary injunction that blocked the Obama administration from enforcing its directive, which allows public school students — based on their gender identity — to choose the bathroom they can use. Those guidelines may soon become a moot point as President Donald Trump is expected to issue new guidelines that rescind Obama’s directive.

The temporary injunction was issued by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth, who also is handling the complaints filed by the three inmates. Tuesday, O’Connor issued a notice of deficiency, ordering the inmates to pay court filing fees by March 14 or withdraw from the case.

O’Connor also told the plaintiffs “that the filing of a civil rights action by inmates requires exhaustion of prison administrative remedies prior to filing suit unless such remedies are unavailable.”

The transgender debate has never been hotter, at the national and state level.

In Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has championed Senate Bill 6 — called the “bathroom bill” — which supporters say would protect the rights of schoolchildren, while opponents say it would discriminate against transgender Texans.

The Fort Worth school district was front and center in the bathroom debate last spring after it announced changes in its transgender policy, offering protection for transgender and other students, assuring that they can use a restroom where they “must feel comfortable and safe.”

Patrick assailed the Fort Worth school district’s guidelines and said Superintendent Kent Scribner should resign, saying, “Campus safety should be of paramount concern for anyone in his position. Every parent, especially those of young girls, should be outraged.”

The guidelines were later revised following town hall meetings.

‘This is not peace’

The women are representing themselves and the most recent complaint names Obama, the Democratic National Committee and several former Obama Cabinet members and claims that a person’s gender “is an individual’s biological sex, determined at the time of birth … .”

Fleming, who has a lengthy history of filing lawsuits from prison, is serving a 30-year sentence for Medicare fraud and Driever was sentenced to 60 months in prison in 2015 for federal methamphetamine trafficking charges. Little also is doing time on drug charges.

Another female inmate, Brenda Rhames, who is not part of the lawsuit, said she is upset that female inmates aren’t given the same option to shower separately.

“I think that I have a right to some sort of peace while I’m here, and this is not peace,” Rhames said

Rhames is serving a 51-month sentence for stealing more than $174,000 from an Alabama restaurant where she worked as bookkeeper.

Rhames said she supports the Prison, Rape Elimination Act, which was passed by Congress in 2003 to reduce rape in prison, but does not think it is applied universally.

Federal guidelines established in 2012, and updated in 2016, require local, state and federal prisons and jail staff to consider inmates’ gender identity when deciding where to place transgender inmates.

“I understood the PREA was passed in 2003 to protect everyone, not just transgender inmates,” Rhames said. “So I believe that if the BOP or DOJ is changing the way they’ve always done things to accommodate the transgender inmates, they are, in effect, taking not just my rights but other womens’ rights and lessening them to accommodate the transgenders.

“I think that is patently unfair and I am sure that the public does not know about it.”

She arrived at FMC Carswell in August and said she has seen four or five male inmates who identify as female and four females who identify as male. The lack of privacy while showering is uncomfortable, she said.

“The showers are stalls here at FMC Carswell, but there are 1- to 2-inch openings around the frame of the stall, the bottom of the stall is completely open, and the top is open,” Rhames said. “Anyone, male or female for that matter, can peek in the showers at you when you’re in there, as well as the toilet facilities, but the toilet facilities have a smaller space between the stall door and frame so it’s not as open as the showers are.”

‘Concerns are frankly not warranted’

The new rules came after a Department of Justice survey showed that a much higher percentage of transgender inmates were being raped in prisons. A California study in 2004 noted that almost 60 percent of transgender women confined to men’s prisons reported being raped, compared to 4 percent of nontransgender inmates.

Amy Whelan, a senior staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the Bureau of Prison guidelines are there to protect transgender inmates who suffered rape and abuse in male prisons. She said the complaints by female inmates ignore the fact the Bureau of Prisons are following the law.

“Those concerns are frankly not warranted and they come from prejudices and biases from people who view transgender as not being fully human,” Whelan said. “The risks to transgender women in male prisons in particular are so critical.”

Jill C. Tyson, chief public information officer for the Bureau of Prisons, declined to comment, citing they “pertain to an ongoing legal proceeding.”

FMC Carswell spokeswoman Patricia Comstock said transgender inmates have the right to shower separately from female inmates and that the shower stalls are private.

In the Feb. 15 complaint, the three female inmates allege that women have been intimidated and harassed by transgender men who have exposed themselves in the bathroom and showers.

“One male transgender was in the SHU (Special Housing Unit) and did not want a certain female inmate in his cell, so he told officers if the woman was put in his cell, he would rape her,” the lawsuit said. “This man was 6’5” and weighed over 200 pounds. No female inmate would be able to protect herself against such a large man.”

The complaint also states that “At any time, the Plantiffs are subject to government-sanctioned rape when placed in the Special Housing Unit. ... Women have been locked in these cells for months with these men, exposed to their genitals and forced to shower in a locked cell with bi-sexual men.”

An email from FMC Carswell Warden Judy R. Upton was included in the court filings, in which she stated that transgender inmates are considered female.

‘Opportunity to shower separate’

Comstock and Tyson referred all other questions to the Federal Bureau of Prisons Transgender Offender Manual, which states it is “meant to provide guidance to staff in dealing with the unique issues that arise when working with transgender inmates.”

The manual said staff should be aware “of the increased risk of suicide, mental health issues and victimization” for transgender inmates.

“In making housing unit and programming assignments, a transgender or intersex inmates’ own views with respect to his/her safety must be given serious consideration,” the manual states. “Transgender inmates shall be given the opportunity to shower separate from other inmates.”

But transgender inmates should not be separated from the rest of the population “unless such placement is in a dedicated facility, unit or wing” is done so for the purpose of protecting inmates.

Tyson wouldn’t provide any information about the number of transgender inmates at FMC Carswell or in the entire Bureau of Prison system.

According to the FMC Carswell website, the facility can house 1,517 female inmates with 1,165 housed in the Federal Medical Center and another 352 inmates at a minimum security camp.

In Texas, the prison system uses the inmate’s biological gender to assign inmates.

There are 384 offenders who identified as transgender out of total inmate population of about 147,000, said Jason Clark, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman. That’s up from 67 in 2014, statistics show.

In the Tarrant County Jail, transgender inmates are housed by their biological sex. Transgender inmates can be housed individually if they feel they are in danger of being harmed, said David McLelland, a sheriff’s department spokesman.

But McLelland said all jail policies are currently being evaluated by the new jail administrator to ensure they comply with federal guidelines. McLelland said there was one transgender inmate in the jail this week but that individual may have bonded out by Wednesday.

This article contains information from Star-Telegram archives.

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna

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