A religious inmate at Green Bay Correctional Institution in Wisconsin is waging a legal war after he was told he had to allow a biologically female prison guard to strip search him.
Rufus West, who has been incarcerated since 1994 on armed robbery charges, converted to Islam in 1995 and has been devout since. But in July of 2016 he was subject to a strip search by Corrections Officer Isaac Buhle, a biological female, and his requests for religious accommodation were denied – prompting him to file a lawsuit against the institution.
In the 2018 lawsuit, West explained that after a visit with a friend, he went to a designated area to be searched under a policy that requires all prisoners to submit to a strip-search after a contact visit. Several officers were conducting strip searches, and when it was West's turn to be searched, Buhle approached him and told him to strip. After objecting, West states that Buhle told him "I'm a dude."
West then "started to panic because he knew that Officer Buhle was a female based on her female features" and that exposing his nakedness to a female he was not married to would be in violation of his Islamic beliefs. The lawsuit noted that inmates who refused to comply with the self-led strip-search were often conducted to a humiliating forced strip search in which they would be held down and their clothes would be cut off.
West complied after a male officer stepped in to conduct the search, but Buhle stayed and watched, which made him uncomfortable.
The lawsuit went on to state that "it was later brought to [West's] attention that Officer Buhle is a female claiming to be a male and therefore is afforded all of the duties that the male officers perform without discrimination."
Quickly after, West wrote to the prison's Security Director and Warden and explained his discomfort with Buhle, asking to not be strip-searched by females due to his religious values.
His request was denied, and he was told that Buhle was considered male by the prison, and he would be required to submit to strip-searches by Buhle as he would to any other biological male guard.
West's 2018 lawsuit was ultimately rejected in 2020 on the grounds that his knowledge that Buhle was female and religious convictions surrounding male-female interaction did not outweigh Buhle's right to identify as a man and be treated as such in the workplace. But West pushed back again, and this time his case has made it to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
On September 22nd, a lawyer representing West argued “This is a case of sex, not gender … Mr. West is not arguing that he doesn’t want to interact with Mr. Buhle at all ... Yes, Officer Buhle would be treated slightly different than other male prison guards [but] Mr Buhle’s rights are not superior to Mr West’s.”
In response, Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Brian Keenan has countered that having Buhle or other officers be treated differently based on “transgender status” could be seen as a violation of their civil rights.
The case is currently awaiting the ruling of a three-judge panel, and has been noted by legal experts as possibly having substantial influence on prisoner rights and constitutional law going forward.
Recently, a number of women's rights organizations have raised alarm bells regarding trans-identified males being given the ability to be sent to women's institutions across the UK, Europe, Canada, and the United States. West's challenge may have an impact on the interpretation of how prisons balance rights and protect inmates going forward.
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