Transgender Inmate Sues State for Sex Reassignment

California inmate Lyralisa Stevens says that the surgery could save her from being harassed and sexually assaulted in a male prison.

By Asraa Mustufa Apr 21, 2011

We’ve written about the shocking levels of sexual assault that occur in the U.S. prisons before on Colorlines, as well as the Department of Justice’s slowness to address the problem. Jack Dolan at the LA Times writes about the uniquely vulnerable place in which many transgender inmates find themselves when they enter the system.

California inmate Lyralisa Stevens, a transgender woman, is asking the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco to require the state to pay for a sex-change operation. A ruling in her favor would be the first instance in the country where a state would be compelled to provide an inmate a reassignment surgery.

Dolan writes at the Times:

As prison officials have struggled to address chronic overcrowding, the constant threat of gang violence and a health system that federal judges have equated with ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment, they have also gone to court multiple times to answer allegations that they failed to properly treat and protect transgender inmates.

Judges have sided with transgender prisoners — who according to a UC Irvine study are 13 times more likely to suffer sexual assault than other inmates — on some significant cases.

Dolan details other court cases that have generally ruled in favor of transgender inmates, and the complexities that arise for them in a prison system that makes assignments to men’s or women’s institution based on gender. There is also the issue of the high cost of reassignment surgery, especially considering that the state is only required to provide "minimally adequate care."

Life for transgender individuals, especially those of color, is already difficult outside of prison. Dolan’s article sheds light on how these problems are further complicated for those incarcerated. One transgender inmate interviewed for the LA Times article said she understood the state’s reluctance to require the surgery given California’s budget crisis, however, the condition of transgender inmates should be considered as well.

"’But if you could only go into our heads for a day or two to see what we go through internally," she told the Times, "you would get a greater appreciation of how devastating it is to be a transgender individual locked up in a man’s prison.’"

The National Center for Lesbian Rights also has a short fact sheet on the rights of transgender prisoners, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s report "It’s a War in Here" outlines the problems facing trans inmates in New York’s state prison system.

Read more about Lyralisa Stevens’ account, and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section below.