Trans male prison guard banned from strip-searching Muslim inmate, court rules

Key in Jail Cell Door

A federal appeals court has ruled a trans male prison guard must not strip-search a Muslim inmate after the prisoner said it violated his faith.

In a ruling published this month, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found Green Bay Correctional Institution should have paid attention to the inmate’s religious objections. 

The incident sparking the lawsuit occurred in 2016 when inmate Rufus West, serving 29 years for conviction on charges of armed robbery and gun crimes, was subject to a strip-search observed by trans guard Isaac Buhle.

West argued the prison, in Allouez, Wisconsin, violated Sharia law and state regulations on strip searches by permitting Buhle to view him naked.

Sharia law forbids West from exposing his naked body to anyone but his wife.

Under the prison’s policy two guards participate in each inmates strip search – one performing the search and the other observing it.

Searches are usually conducted when an inmate leaves or enters the prison, during lockdowns, before and after visits from outsiders, and certain other movements within the facility. 

Trans prison guard ‘qualified’ to complete these duties

Chief judge Diane Sykes said the prison must exempt West from such searches in the future under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIP).

At the time of the search, West asked if “biological males” could instead perform the search, which was agreed to, while Buhle stepped down to become the observer of the procedure.

West’s request from Buhle to be removed from observation duties was denied at the time by the warden in writing, stating: “The officer in question is a male and is qualified to complete these duties. If in the future you are directed to submit to a strip search by this individual or any other male staff member, it is my expectation that you will comply.”

According to the court document the security director of the prison responded separately and wrote: “This person is a male, and any further issues on this will result in discipline for you”.

West continued to claim that having Buhle observe the search was a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. 

In reversing a lower court ruling, chief judge Sykes also found that West can pursue this claim. 

She said: “There’s no dispute that his objection to cross-sex strip searches is both religious in nature and sincere.”

“The prison has substantially burdened his religious exercise by requiring him to either submit to cross-sex strip searches in violation of his faith or face discipline.”

In March 2020, US district judge Pamela Pepper dismissed West’s case because his religious conviction did not outweigh Mr Buhle’s right to identify as a man and be treated as such in the workplace, The Washington Times reported. 

West, who is due to be released in 2024, has filed multiple lawsuits throughout his incarceration alleging mistreatment by the prison system.