Ophelia De’Lonta had had enough. Tired of prison guards referring to her as a man, despite her repeated insistence on identifying as a woman, De’Lonta took matters into her own hands. For three hours she sawed away at her genitalia with a disposable razor in an attempt to castrate herself, and become the woman she feels she is. She was eventually discovered by guards before she could complete her brutal task. The wound required 17 stitches to heal.
It was not her first such attempt.
A pre-operation transgendered inmate on hormone therapy inside a Virginia men’s prison, De’Lonta is now suing for the state to provide her with gender reassignment surgery—citing the medical necessity of the procedure. She is one of several transgendered individuals incarcerated across America who is seeking similar treatment.
MORE: Isis King and Janet Mock on Transcending Transgender 101 (Video)
The surgery, however, is expensive—it can cost upwards of $20,000. Though many detention facilities pay for hormonal treatment for transgendered inmates, they are drawing the line at reassignment surgery.
“A prison is not required by law to give a prisoner medical care that is as good as he would receive if he were a free person, let alone an affluent free person,” California state attorney Steven J. Bechtold, wrote in a legal response to a reassignment request by an inmate serving life in prison on a third-strike burglary charge.
Many advocates for the transgendered community are insistent that sexual reassignment surgery is a medical necessity for those who have received the approval of a doctor.
“We continue to validate that system of unworthiness through out healthcare and prisons,” says Mock. “Imagine you’re a 22-year old girl who worked for four years to get hormone treatment. How do you pay for that all over again? How do you get a job now?”
“All people who are incarcerated have a right to access healthcare that they need,” Kristina Wertz, director of program and policy for the Transgender Law Center, tells TakePart. “Too many of our transgender sisters who are on the inside are denied the basic care they need to be healthy and safe.”
Journalist Janet Mock, who opened up about her sexual reassignment surgery in 2011 and has become a leading advocate for the trans rights movement, agrees.
“This is not about rewarding prisoners,” she tells TakePart. “These surgeries and care are necessary. It’s about a person and their doctor. Do you just deal with it each time they cut themselves? We need to take society’s popular conception of morality out of this.”
Mock notes that many transgendered women find themselves in the prison system in the first place because of discrimination in the workforce and the tremendous expense of hormonal treatment and reassignment surgery.
“Most of these women are not in jail for violent crimes; it’s for survival work.”
Meaning prostitution. Because of the aforementioned job discrimination, as well as the fact that, even for those who do have jobs, insurance rarely covers hormonal treatment, and certainly doesn’t cover reassignment surgery, working the streets is an all-too-common revenue source for trans women in the early stages of their transition.
Advocates believe that pre-operation transgendered prostitutes are particularly targeted by police and arrested. While these women are incarcerated, they are treated as men and lose all progress they’ve made in their transitions. The result is a vicious cycle of incarceration, treatment started and treatment lost.
“We continue to validate that system of unworthiness through out healthcare and prisons,” says Mock. “The one thing they know about is stripped away from them. Imagine you’re a 22-year old girl who worked for four years to get hormone treatment. How do you pay for that all over again? How do you get a job now?”
Though the social inequalities that put transgendered individuals at greater risk of being incarcerated show no signs of abating, at least some law enforcement departments are starting to exercise more care in dealing with transgendered inmates. This past April, the Los Angeles Police Department instituted a series of reforms for dealing with incarcerated transgendered individuals.
Officers are now expected to refer to trans inmates by their chosen name, even if it differs from their identification. LAPD also no longer permits pat downs of transgender inmates to determine their anatomic sex. A separate holding facility has been created for inmates awaiting arraignment.
These concessions to the fair treatment of transgendered inmates, however, are the exception and not the norm. Trans women in men’s facilities are 10 times more likely to face sexual assault then other inmates. Sexual assault rates for prison and jail populations are already astoundingly high. In these cases, sexual reassignment surgery would allow these women to transfer to an all-female facility—greatly enhancing their security.
In September 2012, a federal judge in Boston unleashed a firestorm of controversy when he ruled that Massachusetts authorities were obligated to provide taxpayer-funded gender reassignment surgery to Michelle Kosilek, a transgender inmate at an all-male prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts.
At a time when budget cuts are threatening the American social safety net on all fronts, convincing states to pay for gender reassignment surgery is a difficult proposition. What shouldn’t be difficult is this: a society that respects transgendered individuals and their healthcare needs. Ending the punitive cycle of incarceration for trans women is arguably the most effective way of heading off escalating costs to the state.
As Mock puts it: “If you’re going to run a huge prison industrial complex, the state should have to take on the costs associated with that.”
Do you feel that transitional care for transgender inmates is a basic human right or coddling? Talk it out in COMMENTS.
Related Stories in TakePart:
• Miss Universe: Big Enough to Include Transgender Beauty?
• Women Who Rock: Transgender Veteran, Pam Bennett
• Argentina Is a Transgender Wonderland
Matthew Fleischer is a former LA Weekly staff writer and an award-winning social justice reporter in Los Angeles. Email Matt