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California Pays for Transgender Prisoner’s Sex Reassignment Surgery

by Joe Watson

The rights of transgender prisoners are in the throes of a major transition.

In August 2015, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) made the unprecedented decision to pay for sex reassignment surgery (SRS) for Shiloh Quine, 57, a transgender woman incarcerated since 1980. Seventeen months later, in January 2017, Quine became the first U.S. prisoner to receive state-funded SRS.

The decision to pay for the surgery resolved a lawsuit filed on Quine’s behalf by the Transgender Law Center, which argued that denying the procedure would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

A settlement in Quine’s lawsuit also resulted in California prison officials agreeing to provide toiletries and clothing specific to the preferences of transgender prisoners or those diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” – a recognized medical condition. See: Quine v. Beard, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:14-cv-02726-JST.

The CDCR’s original position, that SRS was not medically necessary in Quine’s case, was undermined by the department’s own expert.

“[SRS] is medically necessary to prevent Ms. Quine from suffering significant illness or disability, and to alleviate severe pain caused by her gender dysphoria,” wrote Richard Carroll, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Quine is serving life without parole for first-degree murder, kidnapping and robbery, and thus does not have the option of having SRS after her release.

Like nearly 400 other transgender prisoners in California, she received hormone therapy to aid her transition. Still, she repeatedly attempted suicide after CDCR officials denied her requests for surgery, which costs between $15,000 and $25,000.

Quine’s attorneys believe the settlement in her lawsuit sets a precedent for future cases. “This is clearly where the law is going and where the entire health industry is going,” said Ilona Turner, the Transgender Law Center’s legal director.

There are others, of course, who disagree.

“A settlement is not a precedent,” argued Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “But I suppose it gives a little ammunition to the next guy to say, ‘you did this for him, why not me?’”

“The idea that the Eighth Amendment requires something for prisoners not available to the law abiding public is something a lot of people find offensive,” he added.

One of those people was Farida Baig, who had attempted to block Quine’s state-funded SRS through litigation. Baig is the daughter of Shahid Ali Baig, who was robbed and murdered by Quine and an accomplice.

While Quine’s case was the first time any state had agreed to pay for a transgender prisoner’s SRS, others have won, at least temporarily, the right to surgery.

In April 2015 another CDCR transgender prisoner, Michelle Norsworthy, was scheduled to receive SRS due to a federal court decision. But she was subsequently paroled, letting prison officials off the hook for her surgery.

And in early 2014, a panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Massachusetts transgender prisoner Michele Kosilek, who had repeatedly attempted suicide and self-castration, had a constitutional right to SRS. [See: PLN, Dec. 2014, p.18]. But the appellate court recalled its initial ruling, and in December 2014 the en banc court reversed and denied Kosilek’s surgery on the grounds that it would endanger prison security.

Until the completion of her SRS, Shiloh Quine was housed at the CDCR’s Mule Creek State Prison, a protective custody facility for male prisoners that also houses transgender women. After being transferred to the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, Quine said the prison was “a torture unit,” as she was isolated from other prisoners and denied basic hygiene items such as shaving razors. As a result, she began growing facial hair. According to a March 22, 2017 news report, Quine stated in a court filing that prison officials had “no legitimate penological objective but harassment” in refusing to let her shave.

California’s is not the only prison system in a state of flux where transgender issues are concerned. In August 2016, it was announced that federal Bureau of Prisons prisoner Marius Mason, serving a 22-year sentence for arson, had been approved to begin hormone treatment to transition from female to male.