Why I’m Suing Missouri’s Department of Corrections

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August 24, 2016
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Jessica Hicklin

This post was authored by Lambda Legal client Jessica Hicklin, a 37-year-old transgender woman incarcerated at the Potosi Correctional Center, a facility for male inmates, in Mineral Point, Missouri.

When I was 16, I was convicted of first-degree murder and criminal action and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, plus 100 years. In the 21 years since then, I have been incarcerated at Potosi Correctional Center (PCC), a maximum-security prison in Mineral Point, Missouri for male inmates.

At the sentencing, I didn’t feel anger or sadness. Instead, I was relieved.

Even at 16, I felt I was on my way to certain death. I didn’t know what gender dysphoria was, or how to explain my feelings to my family or others in my small town. But I had felt I was a girl since I was very young, even though I was assigned the male sex at birth. Also a victim of abuse as a child, I turned to drug use to cope with my pain. My life then was filled with chaos, and learning I would spend the rest of it in prison, in a tragic way, felt like my escape.

At 16, the magnitude of my situation did not immediately strike me. After some time at PPC, the reality of my life in prison sunk in. PCC is a death-row prison: an ugly, dark, and violent place. Within my first two years of incarceration, I was sexually assaulted three times.

I languished in the closet for years, afraid of what might happen if I had the courage to live my truth as a transgender woman. Would I be safe? Would people understand?

I spent many years this way, grappling with these questions, eventually telling myself that I could not continue to live in a body that does not reflect who I really am. For me, the fear of living the rest of my life like that was worse than the fear of sexual assault and people knowing the truth. 

Potosi Correctional Center is a place people go to die, but ironically I feel like I was born here.
—  Jessica Hicklin

Although I have struggled for years to name what I was experiencing, and I sought treatment for depression and anxiety, it wasn’t until several years later that I realized that I am a woman who is transgender.

I then approached mental health providers at PCC to get treatment for my gender dysphoria. Several medical and mental health professionals advised hormone therapy for my dysphoria, as well as access to gender-affirming canteen items and permanent hair removal. Yet the Department of Corrections continues to maintain its discriminatory policy, which is far out of step with current medical standards.

That is why, with the help of attorneys at Lambda Legal, I am challenging the Missouri Department of Corrections’ “freeze-frame” policy on medical care for transgender people in custody as a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which is cruel and unusual.

Potosi Correctional Center is a place people go to die, but ironically I feel like I was born here. When I came out as transgender, many of the other inmates, some transgender, some not, commended me for my courage. I have tried to use my time here as positively as possible: facilitating a class on the impact of crime on victims, volunteering with the Puppies for Parole program, and participating in restorative justice activities. The support is humbling, and part of the reason I have the strength to live my truth.

This is not a fight just for me, but for all transgender people in custody who may be denied medical care. Without care, I feel as though I am resentenced each day, further locked in a prison within a prison—my body.

This personal prison is much crueler, and without a change in policy, I’m not sure I will survive it.