by Mark Wilson
"What's happening at the Oregon Department of Corrections is unconstitutional and its inhumane treatment of people and it has to stop," said Mat dos Santos, legal director for the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "Unless they make significant changes in the way staff approach transgender prisoners, people are going to keep getting hurt and people are going to die. It's that serious."
Michelle Wright, 25, has identified publicly as a woman since 16 years old. That was not a problem until 2013, when Wright was sentenced to the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) for five years.
On October 17, 2016, the ACLU filed federal suit on behalf of Wright, alleging that ODOC officials are deliberately indifferent to her serious medical needs and safety.
In 2013, an ODOC intake officer noted that Wright had seen counselors about her gender, but had not been formally diagnosed with gender dysphoria. An ODOC psychologist made that diagnosis in November 2014, according to dos Santos.
Wright requested hormone treatment, but prison officials refused. Her requests for counseling and feminizing products, such as hair removal cream, were also denied.
One month later, Wright attempted suicide and was found unresponsive in her cell. She was taken to a hospital emergency room for treatment.
After being transferred to a different prison, Wright again attempted suicide on two occasions, according to court documents. In May 2015, she cut her wrist with a razor blade and two months later she swallowed 14 razor blades, her complaint alleges.
In October 2015, Wright tried to castrate herself. Then, in July 2016, Wright tied a rubber band around her scrotum for five days, in a second failed castration attempt.
Wright was then confined in a Disciplinary Segregation Unit, "ostensibly for suicide watch," according to court filings. While there, guards mocked her and called her a "freak" and other vulgar names, the suit alleges. Wright has spent 445 days in segregation, according to dos Santos.
After being transferred to a third prison, Wright again requested medical help, the suit alleges. When prison officials denied her request, Wright made a third castration attempt.
In September 2016, ODOC's "gender non-conforming committee" denied Wright's request for hormones and recommended that she participate in treatment to decrease self-harm behaviors and increase stress tolerance, according to court documents.
"They are putting the cart before the horse," said dos Santos. "They are saying we need you to be calm and collected and have all of your issues handled prior to providing you with a treatment. But all of her issues stem from not having treatment, not having access to life-saving medical care."
Wright's suit alleges that she has requested medical care, including hormone therapy, more than 100 times. All of those requests have been denied or ignored, according to the suit. Wright alleges that prison officials are subjecting her to cruel and unusual punishment by denying hormone therapy and other treatment for her gender dysphoria diagnosis. She also alleges that she has been segregated for weeks and months at a time because of her disorder.
"I have been aware for quite some time that I am a female inside. It came to a point when I had completely stated that I can't not live as who I am anymore. I have to," Wright explained as the reason for filing suit. "I've been threatened to not pursue it by staff."
ODOC spokeswoman Elizabeth Craig refused to comment on Wright's suit, citing an ODOC policy of not commenting on pending litigation. Nevertheless, she claimed that ODOC "has been proactive in addressing the needs of incarcerated transgender people" and "looks forward to its continued work on these issues and to responding to the specific complaints raised in the litigation in court."
Wright is one of at least one dozen transgender Oregon prisoners who have been denied access to medical care, according to dos Santos. However, at least one of those prisoners was recently approved to start hormone therapy and to purchase feminizing products.
Wright's lawsuit is part of a larger national movement. Since August 2016, transgender prisoners in Florida, Delaware, Missouri and Nebraska have filed similar suits. In 2015, the United States Department of Justice filed documents siding with a Georgia transgender prisoner who accused the state of improperly terminating hormone therapy that she had been taking for seventeen years. In that case, federal officials argued that it violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to deny individualized and appropriate medical care to prisoners who suffer from gender dysphoria.
We will report on any significant developments in the Oregon litigation.
Source: The Oregonian/OregonLive
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