On March 31, 2010, in a case brought by Lambda Legal and the ACLU, a federal court in Wisconsin ruled that a law barring transgender people from receiving medical care in prison was unconstitutional.
“The court understood that medical treatment is critical for transgender people and that medical decisions should be made by doctors—not legislators,” says Dru Levasseur, transgender rights attorney for Lambda Legal.
Despite concerns raised by Department of Corrections medical personnel, Wisconsin legislators passed a law, effective January 2006, barring prison doctors from prescribing hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery to transgender people in state custody.
“The state cannot decide to withhold treatment from people because they disapprove of their gender identity or medical needs,” says Levasseur. “It’s unconstitutional.”
The ACLU and Lambda Legal brought its challenge in January 2006 on behalf of transgender prisoners, some of whom had been receiving hormones in Wisconsin prisons for years prior to the passage of the law. The lawsuit charged that the law was a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection as well as the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.
The court ruled that the statute’s ban on medical care “constitutes deliberate indifference to the plaintiff’s serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”
According to the ACLU and Lambda Legal, Wisconsin was the only state in the country to have enacted a law denying transgender people access to medical care while in state custody.
“The court’s ruling doesn’t require inmates to receive hormones or surgery for sex reassignment; it simply means that doctors are the ones who make the decisions about treatment,” says John Knight of the ACLU. “The court’s decision is just common sense.”