Judge Orders State of California to Pay for Inmate’s Sex-Change

DSC00258_1Mule Creek State Prison just outside of Sacramento in Ione, California houses over 3,000 men and is the only California penal institution designated a “sensitive needs yards” facility.

What that means is that prisoners who are at risk for gang retaliation, are former police officers or correctional officers, or are susceptible to victimization, such as sex offenders or gay prisoners, are housed here. Famous Mule Creek inmates include Charles Manson and Tex Watson of Helter-Skelter notoriety, Lyle Melendez, serving life without parole, who with his brother Eric murdered their parents, and Geronimo Pratt, former Black Panther.

Recently, however, Mule Creek Prison has captured media attention because of inmate Michelle-Lael Norsworthy’s successful application to have the State of California pay for her sex-change operation. United States District Judge Jon Tigar ruled that denying medical treatment to Michelle was unconstitutional.

In the court hearing Norsworthy deposed that she is “a woman trapped in a man’s body” and that “[her spirit] is imprisoned in a way that causes excruciating pain and frustration to a point that therapy and other remedies are the only way to relieve that agony” The “psychological and emotional pain” and “frustration and agony” she experiences mean that she is “unable to complete [her] existence or complete who [she is].”

She deposed that at times, the anxiety caused by her gender dysphoria causes symptoms such as sleeplessness, cold sweats, hypervigilance, panic attacks, and mood swings.

Michelle entered Mule Creek Prison in 1987 as Jeffrey Bryan Norsworthy, serving a life sentence for second degree murder. By 1990 he was living as Michelle with support from the California Department of Corrections in the form of counselling, mental health treatment, and hormone therapy to feminize her male features.

Diagnosed with gender dysphoria, Judge Tigar noted that Michelle is the
first California inmate to obtain an order to have the state pay for her sex-change. Recently a Massachuset’s inmate was granted the same order, but on appeal the order was overturned. An appeal to the United States Supreme Court is pending.

State officials are contemplating appealing the order made by Judge Tigar and have identified practical problems that will arise if the surgery proceeds. They say that returning Michelle to a male prison population could put her at risk for assault or rape. On the other hand, she may also be in danger in a female facility, or pose a danger to female inmates because of her history of domestic violence.

Correctional authorities are also concerned that the costs of sex-change surgery, estimated to be $100,000, will severely impact the prison’s budget, particularly if additional inmates seek similar orders in the future. The State’s cost estimate has been criticized as an exaggeration by transgender support workers.

The floodgates argument is difficult to assess as statistics on the transgender population in the United States are hard to come by.

Gary Gates, a demographer at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law’s Williams Institute, who studies sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, is responsible for one of the most frequently cited estimates of the transgender population — 700,000, about 0.3 percent of U.S. adults, an estimate that remains controversial.

As transexuals, transgenders, and cross-dressers feel more accepted and become comfortable in disclosing their sexual orientation, data-collection and public policy will advance in this area.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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