Today, we announced that a settlement has been reached in our lawsuit against officials at the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) on behalf of Michalle Wright, a transgender prisoner who was denied essential medical care and subjected to cruel treatment. We filed the lawsuit last year after attempts to work with the state were not successful. At the time, Michalle had requested medical care over 100 times, but had been repeatedly denied. She had become so desperate that she had attempted suicide and self-castration multiple times.
I am happy to announce that because of this important case, Michalle is now receiving the care she and every transgender or gender nonconforming prisoner deserves. Further, the settlement agreement stipulates significant policy changes in the treatment of transgender and gender nonconforming prisoners in Oregon including access to doctors with experience treating transgender people, competent mental health treatment, hormone therapy, and, if medically necessary, gender confirmation surgery. In addition, the state has agreed to pay $167,500 to Michalle and $100,000 in attorneys’ fees. Also, the state had charged Michalle for her medical care following a suicide attempt, and that debt has been forgiven. The Oregon Department of Corrections has also agreed to work with Basic Rights Oregon and the ACLU of Oregon to ensure that their policies and training continue to align with the standards of care for transgender people.
This is a huge victory for our client and all transgender prisoners in Oregon. For too long, Oregon prisons have been treating transgender prisoners in cruel ways and denying them the lifesaving care they need. We look forward to continuing to work with the state to ensure that prison staff are treating transgender prisoners fairly and decently.
But let’s be clear, the changes here merely represent bringing Oregon in line with widely accepted standards of care for treating gender dysphoria, or the feeling that your body doesn’t align with your gender. When untreated, this can produce extreme anxiety and depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. Gender affirming care can mean the difference between life and death for transgender people who feel their bodies are misaligned. To deny necessary medical care is cruel and unusual punishment. Being sentenced to time in prison does not mean you should be subjected to torture.
To deny necessary medical care is cruel and unusual punishment. Being sentenced to time in prison does not mean you should be subjected to torture.
In addition to repeated denials of medical care, Michalle faced harsh treatment by guards who told her to “man up,” “be a man,” called her a “fag,” and told her she was a “f---ing freak.” This settlement provides for ongoing accountability by leaving its enforcement in the hands of the court. If this kind of cruel treatment is repeated in the future, it could violate the settlement agreement. I hope that will provide sufficient motivation for the prison staff to treat transgender prisoners with dignity and respect.
Unfortunately, Michalle’s experience as a transgender prisoner was not unique. We have talked with many other transgender prisoners in Oregon’s custody with similar stories. Each of them deserve fair treatment, a safe environment, and life saving medical care. If that doesn’t happen, we won’t hesitate to go back to court.
We are rightly judged by the way we treat the most vulnerable among us, and today, we hope that once and for all, Oregon’s prisons will treat transgender and gender nonconforming people in their custody with the civility and care that every prisoner is due.