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New Rights For Transgender Prison Inmates

April 6, 2010

I have written before about the unique struggles faced by transgender people in prison.  Certainly, there are a variety of reasons why prisons in the United States and abroad are not safe spaces for trans people. However, slow progress is being made to change certain conditions. Last week, a federal judge in Wisconsin overturned a law prohibiting tran inmates from receiving taxpayer-funded hormone therapy. The ability for trans people in Wisconsin to have access to hormone treatment, even while in prison, is a significant right that can directly affect the physical and mental health of the trans people in question.

From The Washington Post:

“It’s a victory for these inmates who have a condition that is misunderstood and vilified for political purposes that can be very serious,” Larry Dupuis, an ACLU lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, said Thursday. “To take away a whole class of treatment just because it’s politically disfavored is not constitutional.”

While similar prison policies in other states have been challenged successfully, the ACLU and Lambda Legal said the law was the only one of its kind in the nation that denied such medical care to transgender inmates.

While the particular law in question also banned transgender inmates from undergoing sex-reassignment surgery, only the access to hormone treatment is now legal. Still, this access is important — it demonstrates the fact that Gender Identity Disorder (or Gender Incongruence, as it will be classified in the DSM V) is a legitimate medical condition that requires medical treatment. Considering the fact that prison inmates in the U.S. have a constitutional right to adequate health care, denying hormone treatment to those who want or need it is a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

Of course, this victory does not change the fact that the Prison Industrial Complex is a particularly damaging environment for transgender people. As Sady Doyle writes:

Even for inmates who are able to keep their bodies in line with their gender identities, the way that inmates are sorted into women’s or men’s prisons — according to which medical procedures they’ve had, or what sort of genitalia they possessed at birth — can lead to transgender women being incarcerated in men’s prisons, and vice versa. Citing the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, [NCTE’s Harper Jean] Tobin says “the hard and fast rules that are used to classify transgender inmates often subject them to greater danger” — namely sexual and physical abuse. Imagine being the only girl in the men’s prison. It’s not pretty.

Gabriel Arkles, an attorney at the Silvia Rivera Law Project who works directly with transgender inmates, made the same point. “Most of the violence that trans people experience in prison is actually perpetrated by prison staff,” he said. And then, according to Arkles, there is the fact that “trans people, particularly trans people of color, are disproportionately incarcerated because of discrimination, poverty, police profiling, and bias in court proceedings.”

The challenges for trans people in prison will not be going away any time soon, and organizations are working hard to change discriminatory conditions and the Prison Industrial Complex as a whole. However, small steps, such as access to hormone treatment, indicate movement in the right direction. This is a small victory, but it suggests that larger changes may be on the way for incarcerated transgender people.

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