Skip navigation

Transgender Prisoner’s Lawsuit Sparks BOP Policy Change

A lawsuit filed by a tranmasssgender federal prisoner in Massachusetts has resulted in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) making appropriate medical care available “to [prisoners] who believe they are the wrong gender,” according to a May 31, 2011 memo issued to all BOP wardens. Previous BOP policy limited treatment of transgender prisoners to medical care that maintained them “at the level of [gender] change which existed when they were incarcerated.”

The prisoner who filed suit, Vanessa Adams, whose legal name is Nicholas Adams, had been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder (GID) in 2005 by medical professionals at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (USMCFP) in Springfield, Missouri.
Adams sought declaratory and injunctive relief under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202.

Her lawsuit noted that GID is a “recognized diagnosable and treatable medical condition listed in the American Psy-chiatric Association’s Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR).” Medically appropriate GID treatment options include providing patients with 1) hormones of the desired gender; 2) the “real life experience,” i.e. living full-time as the new gender; and 3) surgery to change the patient’s sex characteristics – often collectively referred to as “triadic therapy.”

According to her complaint, Adams “believed she was assigned the wrong gender,” which caused her “much emotional turmoil.” Those feelings intensified during her incarceration; she amputated her penis and attempted to castrate herself.

Adams’ lawsuit alleged that the BOP’s medical protocol for transgender prisoners violated the Eighth Amendment because it inflicted cruel and unusual punishment by failing to provide necessary care for a serious medical condition.

The new BOP guidelines mean that treatment plans for transgender prisoners “may include elements or services that were, or were not, provided prior to incarceration, including, but not limited to: those elements of real life experience consistent with the prison environment, hormone therapy and counseling.” Additionally, transgender prisoners will be informed of the policy change and BOP doctors will receive training to recognize and treat GID.

BOP spokesman Ed Ross said 48 federal prisoners had been diagnosed with GID. Jennifer Levi, director of the Transgender Rights Project at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), noted that prison officials have typically been hostile to transgender prisoners and additional legal action may be needed to ensure the BOP’s new policy is put into practice. “This should have a very significant effect on the lives of transgender [prisoners],” she said. “It means people will be receiving appropriate medical care.”

While the BOP guidelines do not mention sex reassignment surgery as a treatment option, it may still be available. “There is no reason why an incarcerated person should be excluded from receiving surgery if it turned out to be medically necessary for that individual,” Levi stated.

In addition to the policy changes, the BOP agreed to provide specific medical treatment for Adams and pay her attorney fees and costs. The amount of fees and costs was not disclosed, and PLN has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking that information. Adams was represented by Florida Institutional Legal Services, GLAD, the law firms of Bingham McCutche LLP and Kurker Law Group LLC, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. See: Adams v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S.D.C. (D. Mass.), Case No. 1:09-cv-10272-JLT.

Additional source: Associated Press

Related legal case

Adams v. Federal Bureau of Prisons