By Elizabeth Hardison
For the Pittsburgh Current
A transgender prisoner at a women’s prison in northwestern Pennsylvania is suing the state Department of Corrections, saying that bureaucratic hurdles, inadequate medical training, and invasions of privacy put them on a path to depression and self-mutilation.
The lawsuit, filed last month in the U.S. District Court for Pennsylvania’s Western District in Pittsburgh, seeks monetary damages and immediate medical care and housing accommodations for the prisoner, who was identified at birth as a woman, but does not identify as male or female now, according to court documents.
It also names a dozen corrections employees as defendants, including Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and prison psychologists, doctors and staff.
Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said on Tuesday that the agency does not comment on litigation.
The prisoner, identified in court filings by the pseudonym Sam Doe, is being represented by the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, a statewide legal aid organization that litigates prisoner civil rights claims.
The attorneys say the prison’s failure to properly administer Doe’s testosterone treatment caused Doe significant anguish and physical harm. That violated Doe’s rights under the eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which outlaws cruel and unusual punishment for prisoners, they said.
“Prisons have a duty to provide essential medical care and safe accommodations to all incarcerated people, regardless of gender identity,” Su Ming Yeh, the agency’s interim executive director, said in a statement released Tuesday. “Unfortunately, the Department of Corrections and its staff’s bureaucratic hurdles and severe violations of privacy have led to physical and mental harm and caused unnecessary suffering.”
The complaint says that Doe, who uses the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them,” was diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2017 by doctors at SCI-Cambridge Springs in Crawford County.
Recognized as a health condition by the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization, gender dysphoria refers to the emotional distress that occurs when a person’s gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
Gender dysphoria can be treated with hormone therapy, psychotherapy and gender-affirming surgeries, according to the Mayo Clinic. Left untreated, it can lead to depression, self-harm and suicide.
Doe’s lawyers say that’s what happened to their client after Cambridge Springs doctors failed to put Doe on a treatment plan.
Depression and self-harm
The suit claims that prison staff did not have enough knowledge to treat Doe’s dysphoria or answer Doe’s questions about their gender transition. Staff also denied Doe’s request for hair removal treatment and gender-affirmation surgery.
Doe takes testosterone to masculinize their appearance. But the suit says prison staff failed to properly test Doe’s hormone levels, leading to inaccurate readings and insufficient doses of testosterone.
The hormone fluctuations led Doe to depression, thoughts of suicide and self-harm, culminating in an April 2018 crisis where Doe cut themself and removed their nipples.
Doe says they only reported the incident to prison staff. But rumors of their self-mutilation spread among other prisoners, leading to harassment and threats, according to the complaint.
Doe said the harassment worsened when a prison staffer allegedly outed them as transgender.
Doe faced sexual harassment from other inmates, the complaint says, and received one death threat. Doe reported the incidents to prison staff, who took no disciplinary action, according to the complaint.
Doe’s lawyers say their client continues to endure harassment as they battle depression and suicidal thoughts. They also say Doe is afraid to leave their cell alone.
The suit also challenges a policy requiring transgender inmates to have their healthcare approved by a committee that meets at the Department of Corrections headquarters in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County.
According to the suit, the committee is composed of six medical experts who must unanimously sign off on treatment plans for inmates with gender dysphoria.
Doe’s lawyers say the policy is burdensome and misguided, since the committee members making decisions about prisoners’ healthcare plans never personally treat those prisoners at state corrections facilities.
They also claim that transgender prisoners are the only ones subjected to these committee-level decisions about their healthcare.
“[The Department of Corrections] has decided to single out transgender healthcare for a lengthy administrative process that disregards medical judgement,” Institutional Law Project attorney Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz said in a statement. “Healthcare should not be decided by an administrative committee.”