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Transgender People’s Right to Access Medical Treatment in Prison Upheld by Federal Court

8 Aug

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit today upheld the right of transgender people to receive medical care while they are incarcerated. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and Lambda Legal had challenged a Wisconsin law that prohibited prison doctors from prescribing hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery to transgender inmates.

“This was a discriminatory law that cruelly singled out transgender people by denying them – and only them – the medical care they need,” said John Knight, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project. “Too often the medical needs of transgender persons are not treated as the serious health issues that they are. We are glad that the appeals court has found that medical professionals, not the Wisconsin legislature, should make medical decisions for inmates.”

The appeals court wrote: “Surely, had the Wisconsin legislature passed a law that DOC inmates with cancer must be treated only with therapy and pain killers, this court would have no trouble concluding that the law was unconstitutional. Refusing to provide effective treatment for a serious medical condition serves no valid enological purpose and amounts to torture.”

In 2005, the state of Wisconsin passed a law that barred prison doctors from providing transgender inmates medically necessary hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery while in state custody. The ACLU, the ACLU of Wisconsin and Lambda Legal sued the state on behalf of transgender inmates, some of whom had been receiving hormone treatment in Wisconsin prisons for years. An injunction was granted to continue hormone treatment until a ruling was made. In April 2010, after a full trial, a federal district court struck down the so-called “Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act.”

“The court correctly ruled that denying prisoners medical treatment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment,” said Dru Levasseur, Lambda Legal’s transgender rights attorney. “The medical needs of transgender people don’t disappear once they enter prison. We’re glad that the court has ruled that the legislature cannot outlaw the only effective treatment for some people with Gender Identity Disorder.”

“This decision should make it abundantly clear that it is unconstitutional to deny transgender inmates hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery absent a medical basis for doing so,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin.

Read more about this case including the text of the court’s decision on the American Civil Liberties Union Fields v. Smith case profile page or on Lambda Legal’s case page.

Media coverage of the court victory included stories in the Wisconsin State Journal (AP wire stories ran in Chicago, the Twin Cities and other areas in the country), Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Advocate, the Wall Street Journal law blog and LGBT-related blogs around the country.

Victory! Federal Court Says Transgender People Allowed Medical Treatment in Prison

2 Apr

On Wednesday, March 31, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin struck down a law that barred transgender people from receiving medical care while they are incarcerated. The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal challenged the law in January 2006 on behalf of transgender prisoners, some of whom had been receiving hormones in Wisconsin prisons for years prior to the passage of the law.

“This decision recognizes that many transgender prisoners require individualized medical treatment. While the court’s ruling does not require any particular treatment, it does mean that doctors are the ones who make these medical decisions,” said John Knight, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT Project. “The court’s decision is just common sense.”

Overriding concerns raised by of the Department of Corrections medical personnel, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law, effective in January 2006, that prohibited prison doctors from deciding the best course of treatment for transgender people by barring them from prescribing any type of hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery for transgender people in state custody.

“The court understood that medical treatment is critical for transgender people and that medical decisions should be made by doctors not legislators,” said Dru Levasseur, Lambda Legal’s Transgender Rights attorney. “The state cannot decide to withhold treatment from people because they disapprove of their gender identity or medical needs: it’s unconstitutional.”

The lawsuit charged that it is a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection as well as the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment to bar transgender inmates from access to individualized medical care. The legal groups based their challenge on federal case law that establishes that health care providers must determine proper treatment for all prison inmates.

The court ruled that the statute’s ban on medical care constitutes deliberate indifference to the plaintiff’s serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment inasmuch as enforcement of the statute results in the denial of hormone therapy without regard for the individual medical needs of inmates and the medical judgment of their health care providers.

According to the ACLU and Lambda Legal, Wisconsin is the only state in the country to have enacted a law denying transgender people access to medical care while in state custody. The legal team includes John Knight, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project; Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin; Cole Thaler and Levasseur, former and current Transgender Rights Project attorneys at Lambda Legal and cooperating attorney Erik Guenther of Hurley, Burish & Stanton, S.C.

Find out more about the Sundstrom v. Frank case on-line, on the Lambda Legal website or read the judge’s order.

The news did get some media attention in Wisconsin. There was an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article and on WISN-ABC 12. The news will likely fuel lots of transphobic sentiments like what you’d find in the Dakota Voice blog (noteworthy: bloggers are pointing out how judges are either elected or appointed by elected officials and that elections matter).

But despite such backlash, things are changing for the trans community. For example, this year, the Obama Administration has added transgender/gender identity to the list of classes of people against whom discrimination in federal employment is prohibited. Check out this page on the ACLU website that answers lots of questions about the rights of transgender people and the law. It covers discrimination law, family law, criminal hate crimes and more.