Pris­on­ers clash over rules for trans­gen­der in­mates

Court bat­tle could change hous­ing pol­icy

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By LAU­REN MCGAUGHY Austin Bureau lm­c­[email protected]­las­news.com

Pris­oner #64023-061 has been called many names over the years — mem­ber of the Mid­west Bank Rob­bers, co­founder of the Aryan Repub­li­can Army, Com­man­der Pe­dro, and, sim­ply, Peter.

But for the last 20 years, this in­mate has pre­ferred a wholly dif­fer­ent moniker: Donna.

Two decades into a life sen­tence, Donna Lan­gan — ex-thief, self-de­scribed re­formed white su­prem­a­cist and trans­gen­der woman — was re­cently moved to the Fed­eral Med­i­cal Cen­ter, Car­swell, a womenonly prison in Fort Worth. She’s one of a small num­ber of pris­on­ers who’ve suc­cess­fully lob­bied to be housed not ac­cord­ing to their birth sex, but to their gen­der iden­tity.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion may change this, how­ever — and soon. After fight­ing a year­long law­suit against

a group of Car­swell in­mates, prison of­fi­cials are ne­go­ti­at­ing a set­tle­ment that could re­sult in ma­jor changes to the way Lan­gan — and the 472 other trans men and women in fed­eral lockup — are treated and housed.

The set­tle­ment terms could be re­leased in a mat­ter of weeks, end­ing a le­gal bat­tle that’s spanned two pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tions and pit­ted a black Repub­li­can woman against a re­formed white su­prem­a­cist and a hand­ful of other trans­gen­der in­mates. The out­come will map the fu­ture for hun­dreds of pris­on­ers and pro­vide a win­dow into how the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion views the rights of trans­gen­der Amer­i­cans.

‘A se­ri­ous ef­fort’

In late 2016, three in­mates at Car­swell de­manded that the U.S. Bureau of Pris­ons re­move all trans­gen­der in­mates from the fa­cil­ity. Call­ing their griev­ance a “gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion claim,” the women com­pared be­ing in­car­cer­ated with trans women — who were born male but iden­tify as fe­male — to “cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment.”

“My bod­ily rights are be­ing vi­o­lated by the De­fen­dants hous­ing men in the prison,” lead plain­tiff Rhonda Flem­ing wrote in Jan­uary 2017. “I am be­ing hu­mil­i­ated and de­graded ev­ery day so that men that iden­tify as women can be com­fort­able.

“The rights of nat­u­rally born women are ig­nored.”

There are 473 self-iden­ti­fy­ing trans­gen­der of­fend­ers out of 184,000 to­tal fed­eral in­mates, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Bureau of Pris­ons. That’s about one-quar­ter of 1 per­cent of all fed­eral pris­on­ers. It’s un­clear how many are housed with the 1,600 women at Fed­eral Med­i­cal Cen­ter, Car­swell, the only fed­eral med­i­cal cen­ter for fe­male of­fend­ers.

Dur­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ten­ure, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment fought hard for the rights of LGBT Amer­i­cans and crafted poli­cies, reg­u­la­tions and laws across sev­eral agen­cies that pro­tect trans men and women. Just two days be­fore Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump took the oath of of­fice, the Bureau of Pris­ons re­leased a new agency man­ual clar­i­fy­ing the rights of trans­gen­der of­fend­ers in hous­ing, strip searches and med­i­cal care. It said the iden­ti­ties of trans in­mates should be re­spected and that, on a case-by-case ba­sis, they could be moved to pris­ons match­ing their gen­der.

But the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s stance on LGBT rights has taken a sharp turn since Trump took of­fice. The Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion re­scinded guide­lines ac­com­mo­dat­ing trans kids in pub­lic schools, the pres­i­dent has called for a ban on trans­gen­der sol­diers from the U.S. armed forces and civil rights groups are call­ing the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s new “re­li­gious lib­erty” in­ter­pre­ta­tions a “li­cense to dis­crim­i­nate.”

The Bureau of Pris­ons could be next.

‘Pretty con­fi­dent’

The Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom — the same con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian le­gal or­ga­ni­za­tion that helped the Jus­tice Depart­ment write its new guide­lines — is rep­re­sent­ing the plain­tiffs in the ne­go­ti­a­tions with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

In in­ter­views with The Dal­las Morn­ing News, Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom lawyer Gary Mc­caleb said he was “pretty con­fi­dent” the Bureau of Pris­ons will change its poli­cies for hous­ing trans­gen­der in­mates.

“We have a mul­ti­tude of is­sues. But cer­tainly you’re go­ing to have to find a way to sep­a­rate, ei­ther in space or time, men and women in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion,” Mc­caleb said. “How­ever it’s done is less our con­cern than en­sur­ing the pri­vacy of women in pris­ons is pro­tected.”

Mc­caleb doesn’t ex­pect the Bureau of Pris­ons to re­quire all trans­gen­der women to be housed in men’s pris­ons. Trans in­mates in­ter­act­ing with oth­ers in the yard or mess hall also is less of a con­cern, he said. It’s the hous­ing is­sue — whether trans­gen­der women are al­lowed to room with non-trans pris­on­ers — that he thinks will change. “We ex­pect a se­ri­ous ef­fort on the part of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to cor­rect this,” he said. “We need to see progress. If there’s no progress, we’ll be back in court.”

Such a move would rep­re­sent a ma­jor pol­icy shift from cur­rent fed­eral reg­u­la­tions, which pro­hibit seg­re­gat­ing trans in­mates un­less the de­ci­sion is made “in con­nec­tion with a con­sent de­cree, le­gal set­tle­ment, or le­gal judg­ment for the pur­pose of pro­tect­ing such in­mates.”

Re­quir­ing trans women to be housed in men’s pris­ons — or sep­a­rat­ing them in women’s in­sti­tu­tions — just be­cause other in­mates have called for their ex­pul­sion could run afoul of these reg­u­la­tions, civil rights at­tor­neys said.

“Spe­cial­ized hous­ing is flatly in­con­sis­tent” with the reg­u­la­tion, said Margo Sch­langer, a civil rights and crim­i­nal de­ten­tion ex­pert at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan Law School. “If it’s con­fin­ing [trans­gen­der in­mates] not to pro­tect them, but to pro­tect oth­ers from them, that does not com­ply.”

‘Watch closely’

Chang­ing fed­eral reg­u­la­tions to re­move pro­tec­tions for trans in­mates would in­volve a time-con­sum­ing and com­plex process re­quir­ing ex­ten­sive stake­holder in­put and pub­lic com­ment pe­ri­ods. And chang­ing the cor­re­spond­ing fed­eral law — the Prison Rape Elim­i­na­tion Act — would re­quire Congress to un­ravel leg­is­la­tion that took years to write, pass and im­ple­ment.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion must en­force pro­tec­tions for trans­gen­der pris­on­ers as long as this law is in ef­fect, said Mara Keis­ling, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Cen­ter for Trans­gen­der Equal­ity. Forc­ing trans women back into men’s pris­ons would not only be legally sus­pect, she said, but would put this vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion at an out­size risk of phys­i­cal vi­o­lence and rape.

“This law­suit has never had any merit, and any changes to BOP [Bureau of Prison] poli­cies must com­ply with fed­eral law and the best prac­tices fol­lowed by agen­cies across the coun­try,” Keis­ling said. “Any ef­fort to aban­don that stan­dard, to force vul­ner­a­ble women into seg­re­ga­tion or back into men’s pris­ons, would raise se­ri­ous le­gal con­cerns.

“We will watch closely what the BOP does.”

Sch­langer also ques­tioned the va­lid­ity of the law­suit be­cause there are no trans­gen­der in­mates in­volved in the ne­go­ti­a­tions. She said it’s “weird” the two par­ties seek­ing a set­tle­ment aren’t at odds with each other.

“You have trans­pho­bic plain­tiffs’ coun­sel against a trans­pho­bic ad­min­is­tra­tion,” she said, re­fer­ring to the Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom and the Trump White House. “It’s un­sur­pris­ing that they’d agree with each other.”

‘I don’t hate’

An ar­dent Trump sup­porter, the lead plain­tiff is a black Repub­li­can who says she has been per­se­cuted for her po­lit­i­cal be­liefs in prison.

Con­victed in April 2009 of run­ning a mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar Med­i­caid fraud scheme, Rhonda Flem­ing has been rep­ri­manded for de­vot­ing “a good part of her time [in prison] to fil­ing friv­o­lous law­suits.” She claims prison of­fi­cials have con­spired to si­lence her — forc­ing her to quit a hunger strike she’d un­der­taken to force out the trans in­mates — for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons.

First, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion put the rights of trans in­mates over hers, she says. Now, Flem­ing be­lieves, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to sweep her law­suit un­der the rug dur­ing midterm elec­tion sea­son by set­tling in­stead of go­ing to court. She be­lieves that the feds should em­u­late Texas’ ex­am­ple, where politi­cians have pushed to se­gre­gate bath­rooms based on sex and where trans­gen­der women are still in­car­cer­ated with men in state pris­ons.

“Let me be clear,” Flem­ing wrote in a Nov. 24 email to

“I don’t hate these peo­ple, but I have a pref­er­ence for the safety of women in prison.”

This month, two ad­di­tional women asked to be named as plain­tiffs in the case.

They said they feel threat­ened by Linda Thomp­son, a trans woman who in­ten­tion­ally robbed a Wy­oming bank so she could be sent back to prison. Thomp­son self-cas­trated the last time she was in­car­cer­ated, and the two women said she’s made in­ap­pro­pri­ate com­ments to them while in con­fine­ment.

Thomp­son de­nies any wrong­do­ing. She wrote in a Jan­uary 2017 let­ter that these com­plaints aren’t wide­spread, but come from “a small con­tin­gent of women here that don’t want any trans women here.”

That small con­tin­gent is now ask­ing a judge to halt the set­tle­ment pro­ceed­ings and re­move all trans­gen­der in­mates from women’s pris­ons im­me­di­ately. Flem­ing agrees with their de­mands, but she has con­cerns about their mo­tives be­cause they’re be­ing rep­re­sented by Lisa Biron, an in­car­cer­ated lawyer who was con­victed of sex­u­ally ex­ploit­ing her 14-year-old daugh­ter.

Flem­ing’s other two coplain­tiffs have agreed to drop their mon­e­tary de­mands, Mc­Caleb said, but not Flem­ing. She wants the Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom off her case, ar­gu­ing that the group’s cozy re­la­tion­ship with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion raises con­flictof-in­ter­est con­cerns.

“If you guys had just been up­front this case would have been over,” Flem­ing wrote to Mc­caleb this month. “Due to your at­tempt to de­ceive me, she is lit­i­gat­ing for those in­mates.

“Now you have a child mo­lester in the case. Hope you guys are happy.”

‘The end of me’

The story of Donna Lan­gan, one of the trans in­mates at the cen­ter of the law­suit, is the stuff of a Hol­ly­wood ac­tion flick. While she’s not the only trans­gen­der in­mate men­tioned in the law­suit, Flem­ing points to Lan­gan’s re­cent trans­fer as the prece­dent for mov­ing other trans women to Car­swell.

In the mid-1990s, Lan­gan and the three other mem­bers of the Aryan Repub­li­can Army knocked over 22 banks in two years. Tak­ing cues from the 1991 movie they donned Richard Nixon and Ron­ald Rea­gan masks on their raids. Dur­ing one Christ­mas­time rob­bery, Lan­gan dressed as Santa and yelled at fright­ened bank pa­trons, “Ho-ho-ho, get on the floor!”

But it wasn’t just the group’s rapid pace or blus­tery an­tics that put it on the feds’ radar. The Aryan Repub­li­can Army was also spread­ing racist mes­sages through videos like “Rated: Ex­treme Hate,” where a ski-mask clad Lan­gan ad­vo­cated for eth­nic cleans­ing. Caught, then re­leased, by the U.S. Se­cret Ser­vice, Lan­gan was even­tu­ally rat­ted out by his Aryan Repub­li­can Army co-founder.

In the court­room, lawyers were sur­prised to see Lan­gan — the wild red­head called “Com­man­der Pe­dro,” a war­rior-sort who’d grown up trav­el­ing the world with his diplo­mat par­ents — sport­ing tidily man­i­cured nails that were painted pink.

It’d later be re­vealed that Lan­gan was liv­ing a dou­ble life — as Peter, the hard­core white su­prem­a­cist, by day, and Donna, the fem­i­nine red­head, by night.

Two decades later, Lan­gan says she’s long re­nounced her racist views. a white su­prem­a­cist tract that was re­quired read­ing for the Aryan Repub­li­can Army, has been re­placed by biogra­phies of trans­gen­der celebri­ties, she says, like Janet Mock and Cait­lyn Jen­ner. Liv­ing at Car­swell has changed her life. Lan­gan has said that after two decades be­hind bars, she fi­nally feels safe to be her­self.

Lan­gan has re­peat­edly asked to be added as a party to the Car­swell law­suit but hasn’t re­ceived a re­sponse. Flem­ing claims she is dan­ger­ous; Lan­gan has re­sponded by sub­mit­ting af­fi­davits from friends at­test­ing to her good be­hav­ior and fem­i­nine de­meanor.

The back­lash against her pres­ence there, Lan­gan says, is noth­ing more than a “dog and pony show” per­pe­trated by “shys­ters and pet­ti­fog­gers.”

“I have tried over the years to be a bet­ter per­son, mostly by let­ting go of my old at­ti­tude and ideas about race and re­li­gion,” Lan­gan said. “Some­one does not choose to be trans­gen­der. It is not a life­style. My not be­ing able to deal with it my­self led me down a path of self-de­struc­tion. My only pos­si­ble redemption is to com­plete my tran­si­tion.

“To send me away to a male prison will surely be the end of me.”

Ash­ley Lan­dis/staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

A let­ter from Donna Lan­gan, an in­mate at Fed­eral Med­i­cal Cen­ter, Car­swell, to News re­porter Lau­ren Mcgaughy. Born male and two decades into her life sen­tence, Lan­gan is among a small num­ber of trans­gen­der pris­on­ers who’ve suc­cess­fully lob­bied to be...

PETER LAN­GAN’S 1990s jail book­ing photo. .

File Photo/the As­so­ci­ated Press

FBI agent Ted Jack­son (left) showed re­porters weapons and pipe bombs con­fis­cated after a 1996 shootout with a bank rob­bery sus­pect in Colum­bus, Ohio. Peter Lan­gan and an ac­com­plice were ar­rested in the heist, one of a string across the Mid­west. Lan­gan,...

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