GOP senator pretends to care about prisoners so she can attack Equality Act


Transgender women often experience sexual violence in prison, experts say, but Sen. Marsha Blackburn didn't want to talk about that.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) brought up issues of prisoner safety during the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on the Equality Act on Wednesday. However, she did not acknowledge that transgender women are some of the most vulnerable people within the prison system, and that, if passed, the Equality Act would do a lot to protect both transgender and cisgender women.

Introduced by Democrats, the Equality Act is a comprehensive piece of legislation that would provide clear nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people in education, housing, public accommodations, credit, and more. It passed in the House in February.

Blackburn argued during the Senate hearing that the act would put women in danger, turning her attention to cisgender women prisoners. She associated transgender women being housed in women's prisons with violence.

"Now society doesn't look upon incarcerated women with the same sympathy as it does abused women, but I would assert that when it comes to safety it shouldn't matter if those women are in shelters or in prisons. Women serving sentences for crimes they committed should not be put into situations where they cannot escape and are made victims to other crimes. Women's safety is fundamental to the fight for women's rights," Blackburn said.

This connection Blackburn made to transgender women being housed in women's facilities and her argument that it poses a danger to cisgender women's safety ignore that incarcerated transgender women are extremely vulnerable in prison, especially in men's prisons.

The 2015 U.S. Trans Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 1 in 5 transgender respondents who had been incarcerated, whether in jail, prison, or a juvenile facility, said they had been sexually assaulted by staff or other inmates. Out of 10 transgender women interviewed last year by NBC News at a men's prison in Chino, California, nine said they had experienced sexual violence while incarcerated.

But transgender women are frequently housed in these facilities, despite the fact that the Prison Rape Elimination Act says safety should be a major consideration in housing transgender people.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has also recently brought up issues of transgender women being housed in women's prisons. Last week, he questioned Gupta on her comments about the Trump administration rollback of transgender prisoners' rights.

"You criticized that decision at the time so let me ask you, 'Do you believe it should not be limited to rare cases and a case-by-case basis to assign a biological male inmate to a women’s prison facility?" he asked.

Gupta responded that she would be enforcing all federal laws if confirmed and Cotton followed up by asking her whether, if Harvey Weinstein, who was found guilty of criminal sexual assault in the first degree and rape in the third degree last year, transitioned, he should be placed in a women's prison.

Despite her remarks at the hearing about how all women deserve protection from abuse and assault, in 2013, Blackburn said she opposed the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization because it included "other different groups." Under the reauthorization, undocumented, LGBTQ, and Native American victims of violence were included.

Last year, she objected to COVID-19 relief legislation because she didn't like that it included Pell grants for prisoners. She has also had the support of private prison companies with a long record of poor conditions and sexual assault in their facilities.

CoreCivic, a company that manages private prisons, has a political action committee, which gave Marsha Blackburn for Congress $11,500. At one of these prisons in Tennessee, a guard was sexually assaulted and stabbed. There have been other stories of sexual abuse and lack of proper health treatment of prisoners at these prisons.

In 2016, Cotton said the United States had an "under-incarceration problem" and introduced an amendment to the First Step Act, a criminal justice bill, that experts at the Sentencing Project said would "risk retraumatizing victims."

Jenny Pizer, Lambda Legal's law and policy director, said it's strange to see multiple Republicans, who have not been supportive of laws protecting women and prisoners against violence suddenly bring up this issue.

"It is particularly offensive because it denies the very real problem of the vulnerability, the physical attacks, the sexual assaults, on transgender women when they're housed with men," Pizer said.

"That reality is inconsistent with these vigorous protestations of concern for women in incarcerated settings," she added.

The Equality Act expands protections for women and girls, regardless of whether they're transgender or cisgender, Pizer added. The National Women's Law Center supports the bill.

"The Equality Act adds protections against sex discrimination in public accommodations in federally funded programs that in fact, women and girls have needed for more than 50 years. And it expands the definition of what counts as public accommodation so that for those who care about harassment, exclusion, and discrimination against women and girls, this bill is will provide much-needed protection," she said. 

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.