Rhode Island Justice pens First Circuit Opinion on Transgender Prisoner Rights

In a ruling applauded by transgender advocates, the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that transgender inmates have a constitutional right to access transition-related care, including gender-confirming surgeries

Here is a link to the opinion in Kosilek v. Spencer. The opinion was written by the Rhode Island Justice on the Court, Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson.

The case involved, Michelle Kosilek, a transgender woman currently serving a life sentence for murder of Cheryl McCaul. The Advocate has reaction from the LGBT community:

“The Appeals Court affirmed that the District Court properly found that Michelle Kosilek needed this lifesaving medical care,” said Jenifer Levi, director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders’ Transgender Rights Project, in a statement Friday. “If she needed treatment for cancer or heart disease, this case would never have wound up in court. If we are to call ourselves a civilized society, there is a baseline of care that has to be provided to all prisoners, including prisoners who are transgender.”

“Today’s decision affirms the increasing consensus among the courts that transgender-related healthcare is just healthcare and that people behind bars, including transgender people, have a constitutional right to healthcare,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “Decisions about treating serious healthcare decisions like sex reassignment surgery need to be made by doctors and patients, not prison authorities.”

The Court concluded as follows:

We are assuredly mindful of the difficult tasks faced by prison officials every day. But as the Supreme Court has cautioned, while sensitivity and deference to these tasks is warranted, “[c]ourts nevertheless must not shrink from their obligation to ‘enforce the constitutional rights of all ‘persons,’ including prisoners.'” Brown v. Plata, 131 S. Ct. 1910, 1928 (2011) (quoting Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 321 (1972) (per curiam)). And receiving medically necessary treatment is one of those rights, even if that treatment strikes some as odd or unorthodox.

Here the trial judge had the opportunity to preside over two lawsuits involving the same players and similar allegations, to hear evidence in this case over the course of a twenty-eight day trial, to question witnesses, to assess credibility, to review a large volume of exhibits, and, in general, to live with this case for twelve years (twenty years if you count Kosilek I). The judge was well-placed to make the factual findings he made, and there is certainly evidentiary support for those findings. Those findings — that Kosilek has a serious medical need for the surgery, and that the DOC refuses to meet that need for pretextual reasons unsupported by legitimate penological considerations — mean that the DOC has violated Kosilek’s Eighth Amendment rights. The court did not err in granting Kosilek the injunctive relief she sought.


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