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Federal judge orders Ill. prisons to ‘immediately’ improve treatment of transgender inmates

The ACLU of Illinois calls the ruling a “major victory”


Inmates share a dormitory at the minimum-security Vandalia Prison in Vandalia, Ill. Five transgender women filed a class action lawsuit in 2018 regarding their treatment in the state’s men’s prisons.

AP Photo/Seth Perlman

By Muri Assunção
New York Daily News

A federal judge has ordered the Illinois Department of Corrections to “immediately” improve its treatment of inmates seeking treatment for gender dysphoria.

The ruling — which the ACLU of Illinois calls a “major victory” — comes after a four-day trial in East St. Louis last week, in which transgender inmates told the court how they were denied access to basic treatment, including hormone therapy, and how that affected them.

In December 2019, IDOC was ordered to improve care for transgender individuals who were part of the state’s correctional system. But according to U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Rosenstengel, it has failed to do so.

In a rare oral order delivered after the conclusion of the trial, Rosenstengel slammed as “nonsense” and a red herring IDOC’s arguments that the slow process for giving trans prisoners appropriate medical care was due to concerns over non-transgender “predators.”

The court also rejected claims that the COVID-19 pandemic justified delays in the process.

“I don’t have faith to simply ‘let the process play out,’” as the defendants requested. “I acknowledge that COVID understandably caused delays. But, COVID does not authorize inadequate medical care and treatment,” Rosenstengel said.

The trial was the culmination of a class action lawsuit filed in January 2018 on behalf of five women, as well as a “class or similarly situated individuals,” who had requested evaluation or treatment for gender dysphoria.

One of them, Sora Kuykendall, told the court that, “during strip searches I would break down and cry and shake, and when I would get back to my cell I would do the same.”

Kuykendall, who refuses to be strip-searched by male guards because she is a trans woman, said that as a result she hasn’t been able to receive visits from her mother.

Another one, Marilyn Melendez, said that it’s “humiliating” to be a woman in a men’s prison. “And they are disrespectful,” she added.

“You know, you have me surrounded by men, I have to go to yard with men, I have to be surrounded by men, go to eat with men, I have to go to counseling with men. I am being subject to be around them 24/7, even if I am in a cell by myself,” she said. “I’m not woman should be forced to be around a man in prison.”

Another trans inmate, who wasn’t named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told the court the difficulties she faced when she resumed taking hormones, which had been prescribed by IDOC during a previous incarceration.

“I felt heartbreak, I felt pain, I felt sadness,” London Fulton told the court. “To be honest, I really feel like I was really being overlooked and not being taken seriously for my transgender treatment.”

“Our clients have endured years of suffering, waiting for IDOC to simply provide basic health care,” said John Knight, LGBTQ and HIV project director at the ACLU of Illinois.

“The court recognized that IDOC’s promises of better treatment and the other steps it has taken on the eve of trial have failed to result in any meaningful improvement in the care provided. We must do better to end the human suffering our Illinois prisons are causing transgender Illinoisans by continuing to provide them an abysmal level of care,” added Knight, who represents the prisoners in this case.

Rosenstengel ordered IDOC officials to “immediately ensure” that plaintiff class members are only treated by medical staff and mental health professionals who have taken WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health) training and who are “committed to continuing education on issues of transgender health.”

They also need to “immediately” provide plaintiffs with “access to gender affirming items in the commissary.”

Plaintiff class members who have requested hormone therapy previously must get blood testing within 21 days, and then start hormone therapy within 14 days after that, with follow-up blood work at least every three months until the levels are within an appropriate range.

Plaintiffs should also be allowed to choose the gender of the correctional officer who will conduct a search of them, and “the search SHALL BE conducted by a correctional officer of the gender requested.”

Those who have requested transfer to a facility matching their expressed gender needs to be evaluated for transfer within 120 days of the date of the order.

“Our clients’ voices were heard in this trial, and the obvious need for court intervention was made clear,” Knight said.

Despite acknowledging that the defendants have already “made some progress toward compliance with the Court’s orders for preliminary injunctive relief” and recognizing that the COVID-19 pandemic did cause “some of the delays in accomplishing compliance,” the judge wrote that, “this progress must continue.”

Accordingly, Rosenstengel ordered IDOC officials to finalize a number of projects they had claimed that were “in the works” — in the next 120 days.

They include: finalizing a contract to “provide gender affirming surgery to Plaintiff class members who are approved to receive such surgery; completing “IDOC’s written surgical standards for transgender care;” and finalizing and implementing “additional and ongoing training for all correctional staff on transgender issues and awareness, including the harm caused by misgendering and harassment.”

©2021 New York Daily News.

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