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The 53-year-old inmate, born a male, wants to receive sex-reassignment surgery at state expense.
[Associated Press | File 2011
Born a male, Ophelia De’lonta claims a female identity. The 53-year-old convicted bank robber has breasts and a higher-pitched voice after years of hormone therapy, assumed a woman’s name and wears women’s clothes at a men’s prison in Buckingham County. March 9, 2011 AP photo; iOphelia De'lonta during an interview at the Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)]
Monday, August 26, 2013
A federal court judge in Roanoke plans a hearing today for a Virginia prison inmate who sued the state to get sex-reassignment surgery.
Transgender advocates say Ophelia De’lonta, a preoperative transsexual, should receive the care she needs.
Prison officials say the readiness exam for sex-change surgery that De’lonta seeks isn’t medically necessary or prudent in the clinical judgment of the prison’s psychiatrist. They report that De’lonta is mentally ill and too sick for the care she seeks and has not complied with expert efforts to help her get better.
Born a man, De’lonta claims a female identity. The 53-year-old convicted bank robber has breasts and a higher-pitched voice after years of hormone therapy, assumed a woman’s name and wears women’s clothes at a men’s prison in Buckingham County.
A legal win appears to be her only near-term shot at a complete sex change. She has been locked up for 30 years and has more than 40 years left on 78-year sentence.
De’lonta is far down the legal path that Pvt. Bradley Manning may soon begin, as the convicted leaker of secret government records commences a 35-year prison sentence issued Wednesday.
Manning on Thursday declared himself transsexual and requested to live as a woman supported by hormone therapy in prison.
Military prison officials have said military prisons don’t provide hormones, or sex change surgery for that matter, but Manning’s lawyers could file lawsuits.
In the legal claim scheduled to be heard today, De’lonta argues that because of an uncontrollable urge to sever her male genitals, due to a rare, severe case of gender identity disorder, it’s medically necessary for her to be considered for a sex-change operation.
Under established law, prisons are required to provide all medically necessary care; not doing so would violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Gender identity disorder, a recognized medical diagnosis, is a strong and persistent cross-gender identification. People who have it often hate their bodies and want a body consistent with their internalized sense of who they are.
“I suffer almost constantly because my identity as a woman is at odds with my biological sex, which is male,” De’lonta said in a statement filed in court.
Known as Michael Stokes before a legal name change in 1999, De’lonta has stabbed or cut her genitals on more than 20 occasions, destroying one testicle and causing other damage, Bradford Hardin, one of her attorneys, said in court papers.
Her lawyers have petitioned Judge James Turk to order the readiness exam for a surgical sex change at state expense and a related exam at De’lonta’s cost for unspecified reasons related to the lawsuit, saying it all falls within her right to medically necessary care. They say state officials have violated her rights by refusing her requests.
State prison officials say that, far from being indifferent to De’lonta’s medical needs, they have provided care by psychiatric and medical specialists, hormones, extensive counseling and lifestyle accommodations.
They say they have complied with a 2004 legal settlement with De’lonta over her care and met their legal duty to treat De’lonta for her identity disorder.
They also say she isn’t suited for the exam because she suffers from borderline personality disorder, which brings on instability, irritability, unrealistic expectations and impulsivity. They say De’lonta has mutilated herself most often because of the personality disorder, but she won’t meaningfully participate in therapy.
Boiled down, this is a dispute between an inmate and prison medical personnel over medical matters that aren’t reviewable by a judge, state lawyers argued.
The lawsuit, whose overall aim is surgery for De’lonta, has been pending since 2011. State officials have told The Associated Press that transfer to a women’s prison isn’t an option even if De’lonta has surgery, because inmates are assigned to particular prisons based on sex at birth.
Turk has previously ruled for the state, but an appeals court overturned his decision, directing Turk to give De’lonta’s claims further attention. The appeals court noted that state officials know De’lonta has gender identity disorder and know of its debilitating effects .
In a similar case in New England, a federal judge in September 2012 ordered Massachusetts to provide sex-change surgery to inmate Michelle Kosilek, a convicted murderer. That ruling, a first, has been appealed by the government.
Transgender issues involving inmates have triggered sharp public debate. After hearing that transgender inmates in state prison received hormones, Wisconsin lawmakers passed a law called the Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act banning the use of public funds for hormones or sex-change surgery for transexual inmates. An appellate court struck down the law, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the state’s appeal.
Mara Keisling, who directs the National Center for Transgender Equality, said Manning and De’lonta have a right to the care they need.
“I think Americans are tired of their health care decisions being made by Congress and insurance companies and scare-tactic, right-wing politicians and by wardens,” Keisling said. The public may be less sympathetic to the plight of transsexual people in prison, “but health care is either a right or it’s not. I believe it’s a right and health care for prisoners is a constitutional mandate.”
Sex reassignment surgery for a man involves the creation of a functioning neovagina through repositioning of the urethra, removal of the male genitals and skin work. The patient can engage in sexual intercourse. The procedure can cost $20,000.
De’lonta has been to court several times in connection with lawsuits she has filed against prison authorities. In July, she accused a female former guard at the prison where she lives of sexual assault. A Roanoke federal court jury deliberated 15 minutes and ruled for the guard.
Dr. Victoria Codispoti, a psychiatrist, said in court papers that De’lonta has multiple mental illnesses and a history of manipulative and maladaptive behavior in prison. She had a difficult childhood and was hospitalized and medicated as a child for psychiatric issues, the doctor said.
As a child she cut the brake lines of the vehicle that belonged to her father, who whipped and beat her and threatened to kill her; tried to drown her brother in a swimming pool; put her mother’s medicine in a pot of beans being prepared for the family dinner; and set fire to her school with a friend, Codispoti said.
De’lonta cut open animals to see inside them, to see if they were different on the inside from the outside, according to Codispoti’s report.
“This is a definite correlation as to how she saw herself, differently in the mirror — the outside — than what she felt about herself — on the inside,” Codispoti wrote.
Turk’s options include granting a preliminary injunction to order the exam, or declining to do so and letting the case progress toward trial.
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