Federal Court Says Transgender People Must Be Allowed Medical Treatment in Prison: Lambda Legal and ACLU Applaud Ruling
(Milwaukee, WI, April 1, 2010) — The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin yesterday struck down a law that barred transgender people from receiving medical care while they are incarcerated. The ACLU and Lambda Legal brought a challenge in January 2006 to the law on behalf of transgender prisoners, some of whom had been receiving hormones in Wisconsin prisons for years prior to the passage of the law.
"The court understood that medical treatment is critical for transgender people and that medical decisions should be made by doctors—not legislators,” said Dru Levasseur, Lambda Legal’s Transgender Rights Attorney. “The state cannot decide to withhold treatment from people because they disapprove of their gender identity or medical needs—it’s unconstitutional."
Overriding concerns raised by of the Department of Corrections medical personnel, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law, effective in January 2006, that prohibited prison doctors from deciding the best course of treatment for transgender people by barring them from prescribing any type of hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery for transgender people in state custody.
"This decision recognizes that many inmates have a serious medical condition that requires individualized medical treatment. The court's ruling doesn't require inmates to receive hormones or surgery for sex reassignment, it simply means that doctors are the ones who make the decisions about treatment," said John Knight of the ACLU. "The court's decision is just common sense."
The lawsuit charged that it is a violation of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection as well as the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment to bar transgender inmates from access to individualized medical care. The legal groups base their challenge on federal case law that establishes that health care providers must determine proper treatment for all prison inmates.
The court ruled that the statute's ban on medical care “constitutes deliberate indifference to the plaintiff's serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment inasmuch as enforcement of the statute results in the denial of hormone therapy without regard for the individual medical needs of inmates and the medical judgment of their health care providers."
According to the ACLU and Lambda Legal, Wisconsin is the only state in the country to have enacted a law denying transgender people access to medical care while in state custody. The legal team includes John Knight, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project, Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, Cole Thaler and Dru Levasseur, former and current Transgender Rights Project Attorneys of Lambda Legal, and cooperating attorney Erik Guenther of Hurley, Burish & Stanton, S.C.M.