October 17, 2016 - The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon (ACLU of Oregon) filed a lawsuit today in federal court against the officials at the Oregon Department of Corrections on behalf of a transgender prisoner who is being denied essential medical care. The suit, on behalf of Michelle Wright, a transgender woman who is currently housed at Two Rivers Correctional Facility, argues that it is cruel and unusual to deny medically-necessary care to prisoners.
“The Oregon Department of Corrections is denying our client lifesaving care,” said Mat dos Santos, legal director at the ACLU of Oregon.
Wright, age 25, felt a deep disconnect between the gender she was assigned at birth and her female gender since childhood. Although she identified as transgender, she was unable to begin hormone therapy prior to her incarceration. According to the complaint, Wright has been denied medical care despite submitting nearly 100 requests. Facing repeated denials of care, she has attempted suicide multiple times and, on three occasions, attempted to castrate herself.
“At this point, I’m afraid I will lose her forever,” said an emotional Victoria Wright, mother of the plaintiff. “She should be held accountable for her mistakes, but I’m worried she is being damaged in prison in a way that might not be fixable.”
Dr. Christina Milano, associate professor of family medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, said people with gender dysphoria experience extreme distress from their bodies being incongruent with their gender.
“When people feel misaligned with their bodies, it produces severe anxiety and depression, and in many cases, self-harm and suicidal thoughts,” said Dr. Milano. “We know that competent, transgender-affirming care, in the form of therapy, hormones, and/or surgery, can be lifesaving for an individual who has gender dysphoria.”
In addition to the anguish that goes along with denial of care, transgender prisoners are often vulnerable to harassment and abuse from both prison staff and fellow prisoners. The complaint outlines incidents when guards told Wright to “man up” or “be a man,” called her a “fag,” and told her she was a “fucking freak.”
Since being incarcerated in 2013, Wright has spent over 400 days in administrative or disciplinary segregation, which the ACLU of Oregon says is “effectively solitary confinement.”
Dos Santos said that the ACLU of Oregon has heard from a number of transgender prisoners who have been denied appropriate health care.
of Michelle in prison with her mom and a family friend“This unconstitutional and inhumane treatment of people must stop,” said dos Santos. “Without significant changes in policy and to the staff’s approach to treating transgender prisoners, people are going to get hurt and die. Oregon needs to do better for this vulnerable group.”
The lawsuit demands adequate and effective policies be put in place to provide meaningful access to transgender-related medical and mental health care. Similar suits have been successful in other states.
In a pre-recorded video statement, Wright said she hoped the lawsuit would help her and other transgender prisoners be able to live heathier and more productive lives.
Attorneys Ed Reeves, Kennon Scott, and Samantha Sondag of Stoel Rives LLP are representing Wright pro bono on behalf of the ACLU Foundation of Oregon in addition to Mat dos Santos and Kelly Simon of the ACLU Foundation of Oregon.