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Protections for Transgender Inmates Under PREA: a Comparison of State Correctional Policies in the United States

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The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) contains several protections for transgender inmates; specifically, that prison administration understands key definitions of “transgender,” that inmates are provided with the appropriate classification and housing, and they are kept safe from victimization by other inmates and staff. A total of ten states were found to be fully compliant by the Department of Justice deadline in 2015, but these policies are changing rapidly in the USA. This analysis aims to determine the status of each state’s protections using publicly available information about correctional policies. We find that approximately half of the states in the USA have published policies consistent with PREA, but several maintain policies regarding transgender inmates that are in direct conflict with federal law. Recommendations for compliance are provided.

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  1. While several provisions of PREA also mention and/or include intersex inmates, for the purposes of this research, only transgender-specific protections are considered.


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Correspondence to Michelle L. Malkin.

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Appendix 1

Appendix 1

Language of 13 relevant transgender provisions in PREA:

§ 115.5 General definitions

Gender nonconforming means a person whose appearance or manner does not conform to traditional societal gender expectation.

Transgender means a person whose gender identity (i.e., internal sense of feeling male or female) is different from the person’s assigned sex at birth.

§ 115.15 Limits to cross-gender viewing and searches

(e) The facility shall not search or physically examine a transgender or intersex inmate for the sole purpose of determining the inmate’s genital status. If the inmate’s genital status is unknown, it may be determined during conversations with the inmate, by reviewing medical records, or, if necessary, by learning that information as part of a broader medical examination conducted in private by a medical practitioner.

§ 115.15 Limits to cross-gender viewing and searches

(f) The agency shall train security staff in how to conduct cross-gender pat-down searches, and searches of transgender and intersex inmates, in a professional and respectful manner, and in the least intrusive manner possible, consistent with security needs.

§ 115.31 Employee training

(a) The agency shall train all employees who may have contact with inmates on:

(9) How to communicate effectively and professionally with inmates, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or gender nonconforming inmates; and

§ 115.41 Screening for risk of victimization and abusiveness

(d) The intake screening shall consider, at a minimum, the following criteria to assess inmates for risk of sexual victimization:

(7) Whether the inmate is or is perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or gender nonconforming;

§ 115.42 Use of screening information

(c) In deciding whether to assign a transgender or intersex inmate to a facility for male or female inmates, and in making other housing and programming assignments, the agency shall consider on a case-by-case basis whether a placement would ensure the inmate’s health and safety, and whether the placement would present management or security problems.

(d) Placement and programming assignments for each transgender or intersex inmate shall be reassessed at least twice each year to review any threats to safety experienced by the inmate.

(e) A transgender or intersex inmate’s own views with respect to his or her own safety shall be given serious consideration.

(f) Transgender and intersex inmates shall be given the opportunity to shower separately from other inmates.

(g) The agency shall not place lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex inmates in dedicated facilities, units, or wings solely on the basis of such identification or status, unless such placement is in a dedicated facility, unit, or wing established in connection with a consent decree, legal settlement, or legal judgment for the purpose of protecting such inmates.

§ 115.43 Protective custody

(a) Inmates at high risk for sexual victimization shall not be placed in involuntary segregated housing unless an assessment of all available alternatives has been made, and a determination has been made that there is no available alternative means of separation from likely abusers. If a facility cannot conduct such an assessment immediately, the facility may hold the inmate in involuntary segregated housing for less than 24 h while completing the assessment.

§ 115.86 Sexual abuse incident reviews

(d) The review team shall:

(2) Consider whether the incident or allegation was motivated by race; ethnicity; gender identity; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex identification, status, or perceived status; or gang affiliation; or was motivated or otherwise caused by other group dynamics at the facility.

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Malkin, M.L., DeJong, C. Protections for Transgender Inmates Under PREA: a Comparison of State Correctional Policies in the United States. Sex Res Soc Policy 16, 393–407 (2019).

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