It can’t be easy to be trans anywhere in modern society. So it’s got to be far worse for trans people in Illinois prisons.
But those who fit into that group have found a champion, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Rosenstengel.
The federal judge who presides in the Southern District of Illinois recently ordered the state prison system to revamp its procedures dealing with trans people, established a Jan. 22 deadline for a report on progress and singled out three prison officials for potential sanctions.
Like an angry schoolmarm cracking down on disobedient students, Rosenstengel gave Department of Corrections officials John Baldwin, Steve Meeds and Melvin Hinton an extra homework assignment.
“The court notes that no (corrections) representative attended any portion of the two-day preliminary injunction hearing. Because the court is concerned that IDOC is not taking plaintiffs’ allegations in this lawsuit seriously, the court orders each named defendant shall read the transcript of the evidentiary hearing, held on July 31-Aug. 1, and certify to the court, on or before Jan. 2, 2020, that he has done so.”
It remains to be seen how this legal battle will play out, although Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s corrections department is clearly on the defensive.
State officials have made no public comments on the judge’s order. They also have not responded to basic questions on the extent of the problem.
For example, how many transgender inmates are there among the 43,000-plus in state prisons? The corrections department’s “transgender committee” meets each month to review “approximately 20 cases” and go “over treatment plans and inmate requests.”
But is 20 the extent of the issue? Or are there more?
The gulf between the corrections department and the six plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union is vast.
The lawsuit provides six female names for the plaintiffs. But the department’s inmate locator shows no inmates identified by those names in the suit.
Because five of the six have common last names, it’s impossible to identify their location in the prison system. Only one of them — Sora Kuykendall — is potentially identifiable because there are only two Kuykendalls in the state prison system.
The ACLU is alleging that transgender inmates suffer from a variety of mental and physical disabilities, many of which stem from gender dysphoria. The ACLU is seeking a variety of policy and medical changes, including hormone therapy for transgender inmates not already receiving it, and sex-reassignment surgery.
Short of that, they want transgender inmates held in facilities consistent with their sexual identity, to be searched by guards whose gender matches theirs, access to products and clothing consistent with their gender, and the required use of their preferred pronouns by guards.
The litigation is based on the trans inmates’ constitutional claim that the state’s prison system is “indifferent” to their health concerns and, as a consequence, must be compelled by the court to make changes.
The issue was brought to the fore last year when a transgender inmate, Strawberry Hampton, sought a transfer to a women’s prison where she expected to be treated better.
Hampton, who has since been released, later won her transfer.
Rosenstengel’s opinion, however, indicated that trans women are not “well received” by inmates at women’s prisons.
One of the plaintiffs — Janiah Monroe — has been an inmate at a women’s prison. Authorities said she subsequently refused to take her prescribed hormones and sexually pursued other female inmates.
While the ACLU maintains that gender dysphoria is the problem that must be addressed to resolve the trans inmates’ issues, Dr. Lawrence Jeckel, a Champaign psychiatrist, expressed skepticism of that view.
“That’s not the case if you look at it in depth. These are very complicated, often tortured individuals,” Jeckel said.
He said they “have a belief they’re the wrong sex” and are often convinced that “surgery and changing will make them feel better.”
“That’s the wish, and that’s the hope,” said Jeckel, indicating that it’s not necessarily the result.
The plaintiffs testified to a long list of woes during the two-day hearing, detailing years of mental-health problems, including schizophrenia and depression, suicide attempts and self-mutilation, and frustration about being groped by fellow inmates and sometimes guards.
The judge was clearly sympathetic to their plight, even adopting some of the language invoked by trans advocates. For example, in her opinion, Rosenstengel referred to plaintiffs being “assigned” genders at birth.