The Dallas Morning News

Prisoners clash over rules for transgende­r inmates

Court battle could change housing policy

- By LAUREN MCGAUGHY Austin Bureau lmcgaughy@dallasnews.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...
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. .
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,...
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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