ACLU and Lambda Legal Challenge Law Barring Transgender People Access to Medical Treatment in Prison

Affiliate: ACLU of Wisconsin
January 24, 2006 12:00 am

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MILWAUKEE, WI – Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit today in federal court on behalf of two transgender women challenging a Wisconsin law that bars them from access to appropriate medical treatment while they are incarcerated.

“The Wisconsin legislature should stick to solving the problems of the state, not interfering in the medical treatment of prisoners,” said John Knight, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “This law bars prison doctors from properly treating their patients and puts lives at risk.”

Over the objections of the Department of Corrections, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law last year that bars prison doctors from deciding the best course of treatment for transgender people by denying them access to any type of hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery while in state custody. Lambda Legal and the ACLU are representing Kari Sundstrom and Andrea Fields, who are both serving time in Wisconsin prisons on forgery charges. Sundstrom, 41, has been on hormone therapy since 1990. Fields, 29, has been on hormone therapy since 1996.

“It is well-established medical practice to prescribe hormone therapy to transgender people,” said Dr. Randi Ettner, a clinical psychologist who practices in Evanston, Illinois. “Blocking people from access to hormone treatment after they have been on the treatment is especially dangerous and could cause life-threatening damage including hypertension, diabetes, muscle wasting, osteoporosis and potentially even heart failure.”

Legislators supporting the law claimed that it was necessary to reduce expenses. However, when the law went into effect on January 24, 2006, only a handful of people in the Wisconsin prison system were receiving hormone therapy.

“This legislation has absolutely nothing to do with costs. It is designed to punish transgender people and deny them access to necessary medical care,” said Cole Thaler, Lambda Legal’s transgender rights attorney. “Doctors, not lawmakers, should be the ones deciding what health care is appropriate for their patients.”

The lawsuit charges that it is a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection as well as the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment to bar transgender inmates from access to individualized medical care. In legal papers filed today, the organizations asked the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin to issue an immediate order barring the law from going into effect so that the two women will continue to receive the prescribed medication they have been taking for years. The legal groups base their challenge on federal case law which establishes that health care providers must determine proper treatment for all prison inmates. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit do not seek sex reassignment surgery, but merely seek to continue the hormone therapy they have received for all of their adult lives.

According to the ACLU and Lambda Legal, Wisconsin is believed to be the only state in the country to have enacted a law denying transgender people access to medical care while in state custody.

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