Transgender Inmates Continue To Face Extraordinary Obstacles
Life as a transgender person can bring many difficulties, but behind bars things get even more complicated. In sex-segregated facilities, where can transgender people be safely housed? What forms of therapy and healthcare are transgender people entitled to? How should prisons treat transgender inmates?
- Top Image: (L-R) Eric Grollman, Eugene Simopoulos, Rebecca Glenberg and Jackie Small listen to a question from audience member Jason Henry.
Assessing how police and prisons deal with these issues was the subject of a program organized by the Virginia Anti-Violence Project held Wednesday morning at the University of Richmond.
“We are all aware that transgender persons in households and communities suffer the great burden of violence,” said Edward Strickler, a founding board member of the VAVP. Correctional facilities are settings of particular violence, he noted, so its an important area to focus attention.
Simopoulos said he was drawn to this line of research when serving in the Mental Health Unit at the Washington DC jail, where he worked with the DC Department of Corrections’ Transgender Advisory Committee.
“Something clearly made this committee necessary in its evolution,” Simopoulos said.
Simopoulos highlighted the notable case of Michelle Kosilek, a transgender MtF inmate in Norfolk, Massachusetts, who had sued the Massachusetts Department of Corrections numerous times seeking treatment for her gender dysphoria.
Kosilek, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for murdering her wife in 1990, has argued that her being denied state-funded sex-reassignment surgery is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from cruel and unusual punishment .
The 1976 US Supreme Court case Estelle v. Gamble established “deliberate indifference by prison personnel to a prisoner’s serious illness or injury constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.”
This argument has been the backbone for trans-inmates seeking treatment, like hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery, behind bars.
In January, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed with Kosilek, affirming a lower court ruling which found “there is no less intrusive means to correct the prolonged violation of Kosilek’s Eighth Amendment right to adequate medical care.”
The Mass. DOC has said they will appeal the ruling.
High-profile Massachusetts politicians have opposed using taxpayer funding for sex-reassignment surgery. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Gov. Deval Patrick and Attorney General Martha Coakley, a gubernatorial candidate all voiced their concerns suggesting it’s an issue not divided by party lines.
Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia, presented a similar case with Virginian origins in the panel discussion after the presentation.
Ophelia De’lonta, born Michael Stokes, was sentenced to 73 years in prison in 1980 for bank robbery. De’lonta sued for sex-reassignment surgery in 2011 after twice attempting to castrate herself, citing her Eighth Amendment rights and her own gender dysphoria.
De’lonta was given access to an independent evaluation of her condition by a lower court last summer. At the time, her lawyer, Victor Glasberg, described De’lonta’s condition as a cancer needing to be treated.
“You have to cut it off,” said Glasberg. “Whatever it is, so as not to endanger the rest of the body.”
But before her case could go to trial, De’lonta was granted parole, affectively nullifying the need for state-funded treatment. Glasberg said there was no way to confirm a connection between her release and the DOC removing itself from the issue, but “everyone is free to draw their own correct conclusions.
Citing data from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, UR sociology professor Eric Grollman said that transgender people have more than five times the incarceration rate of the average American (16 percent vs 2.7 percent).
Various factors contribute to this, Grollman said, including employment and housing discrimination that lead transgender people to homelessness and illicit activities, as well as increased police attention, i.e. “walking while trans.“
“Trans people are repeatedly victims, harassment, violence and so forth across multiple contexts in society throughout their lives,” Grollman said. “The challenges to improve the treatment of trans people in the criminal justice system [are] not unique to the criminal justice system.”
The panel didn’t discuss solutions to the issue, and kept recent research the focus of the event.
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