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Transgender inmate settles Oregon lawsuit over medical care

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 24, 2017

This July, 2017 photo provided by the ACLU of Oregon shows transgender inmate Michalle Wright at the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, Ore. (Mat dos Santos / Associated Press)
This July, 2017 photo provided by the ACLU of Oregon shows transgender inmate Michalle Wright at the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, Ore. (Mat dos Santos / Associated Press)
By Gillian Flaccus Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. – The state prison system in Oregon will provide a transgender inmate with hormone therapy, bras and women’s underwear and will consider transferring her to the state’s only all-women’s prison as part of a settlement agreement announced Tuesday.

The state will also pay Michalle Wright $167,500 in damages, waive medical fees associated with three suicide attempts, provide counseling and consider referring her for gender surgery in January if it’s deemed medically necessary, according to the agreement.

The agreement was announced by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and confirmed by the Oregon Department of Corrections in a brief statement.

“She was begging for help, I was begging for help – but nothing was getting better. Watching your child suffer needlessly was the worst pain a parent can experience,” Wright’s mother, Victoria Wright, said. “Nobody chose this road, nobody chose to be different.”

Victoria Wright said she watched her 26-year-old child’s mental health spiral after her conviction on a charge of attempted armed robbery in 2013.

Wright attempted suicide three times behind bars and tried to castrate herself twice. Nearly 100 requests for hormone therapy and other treatment for her gender dysphoria diagnosis – including the use of hair removal cream and access to a curling iron – were denied or ignored, according to court documents.

The settlement applies specifically to Wright, but it also outlines significant policy changes in Oregon prisons for all transgender inmates, said Mat dos Santos, legal director for ACLU Oregon. Those include access to doctors with experience treating transgender people, mental health care tailored to those with gender dysphoria and training for prison guards and staff, he said. There are about two dozen transgender inmates in the state’s prisons, dos Santos said.

The state began providing hormone therapy for inmates about three months after Wright filed her October 2016 legal claim, dos Santos said.

In a statement, Oregon Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters said Oregon is a national leader in developing medical protocols for treating inmates with gender dysphoria and has an ongoing collaboration with Basic Rights Oregon to provide training and resources to prison staff.

Peters did not address the individual claims in the lawsuit, including allegations that prison guards had used slurs against Wright and taunted her for being transgender.

“Although ODOC disagreed with many of the allegations in this litigation, we never disputed the basic principles that transgender individuals within our care and custody should have access to quality medical and mental health care, and that they should be treated in a respectful, inclusive manner,” Peters wrote.

Wright’s mother said her daughter sensed from a very early age that she was transgender but didn’t feel free to come out until her father passed away. Starting at age 16, she began to wear women’s clothing and dealt with her anxiety and depression by drinking and abusing drugs, including heroin. She eventually wound up on the streets.

She was receiving therapy at a nonprofit that helps gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth and had started discussing the possibility of hormone treatments when she was raped, according to the lawsuit. She then committed the robbery that landed her in prison, her mother said Tuesday.

She accepts responsibility for her crime, her mother said, but needs more support and medical treatment while in custody.

“You are trapped inside your own body (and) your body is lying to you because your outside does not match your inside,” Victoria Wright said.

Wright’s earliest release date is November 2018.

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