Today, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon (ACLU of Oregon) announced that a settlement had been reached in their lawsuit against officials at the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) on behalf of Michalle Wright, a transgender prisoner who was denied essential medical care. Wright is currently incarcerated at the Oregon State Correctional Institution.

As part of the settlement, the ODOC has agreed to significant policy changes in how the department will treat transgender and gender nonconforming prisoners in Oregon. The new policy includes access to doctors with experience treating transgender people, competent mental health treatment, hormone therapy, and, if medically necessary, gender confirmation surgery.

It also states that all prisoners will be allowed to express their gender identity in a way that is comfortable to them, through grooming, pronoun use and dress. Perhaps most important of all, the new policy prohibits staff at correctional facilities from purposefully using incorrect pronouns, making discriminatory comments about an inmate’s gender identity, or taking punitive actions against gender nonconforming and transgender inmates.

The state has also agreed to pay $167,500 to the plaintiff and $100,000 in attorneys’ fees. Going forward, ODOC will be working with Basic Rights Oregon and the ACLU of Oregon to ensure that their policies and training continue to align with the standards of care for transgender people.

“Watching your child suffer needlessly is the worst pain a parent can experience,” said Victoria Wright, mother of the plaintiff. “Everyone knew that Michalle needed hormone treatment and mental health care, but until the ACLU got involved, my daughter’s cries for help went unanswered. They just didn’t care.”

“This is a huge victory for our client and all transgender prisoners in Oregon,” said Mat dos Santos, legal director at the ACLU of Oregon. “For too long, Oregon prisons have been treating transgender prisoners in cruel ways and denying them the lifesaving care they need. We look forward to continuing to work with the state to ensure that prison staff are treating transgender prisoners fairly and decently.”

Chase Doremus, the transgender justice trainer and organizer at Basic Rights Oregon, said when transgender people are denied health care, suicide attempt rates exceed 40 percent: “When people receive gender affirming care, they are able to take better care of themselves, contribute more fully to society, and their suicide rates drop significantly.”

Wright, age 26, felt a deep disconnect between the gender she was assigned at birth and her female gender since childhood. Although she identified as transgender, she was unable to begin hormone therapy prior to her incarceration. According to the complaint filed just over a year ago, Wright was denied medical care despite submitting nearly 100 requests. Facing repeated denials of care, she attempted suicide multiple times and also attempted to castrate herself.

In addition to repeated denials of medical care, Wright’s complaint outlined harsh treatment by guards who told her to “man up,” “be a man,” called her a “fag,” and told her she was a “fucking freak.” Dos Santos said that if this kind of cruel treatment is repeated in the future, it could violate the settlement agreement, a stipulation he hopes will provide sufficient motivation for the prison staff to treat transgender prisoners with dignity and respect.

Unfortunately, Wright’s story is a familiar one for us here at Basic Rights. Throughout our organization’s history, we’ve received calls and letters of distress from incarcerated individuals who were unsafe and individuals who were being denied care. In 2009, in response to these calls and letters, we began working with the Oregon Department of Corrections providing staff trainings, policy guidance and other support.

We firmly believe that all people deserve access to health care and, as a state, we have a moral and ethical obligation to ensure that everyone who is in prison receives the same standards of care. Every leading medical professional association supports access to hormonal and surgical healthcare for transgender people, because it saves lives. 

This agreement ensures that Michalle Wright and any transgender people in our prisons will no longer be denied the care they need. Thank you to Oregon Department of Corrections and the Justice Department for your work to make these systemic changes, and to our long-time partners in LGBTQ equality, the ACLU of Oregon.