Utah prison discriminated against transgender inmate, Dept. of Justice says

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — The Utah Department of Corrections was found in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act after discriminating against a transgender inmate with gender dysphoria, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday.

The investigation was opened after a complaint was filed by a transgender woman who was incarcerated. The woman said the UDOC discriminated against her because of her gender dysphoria, denied her equal access to healthcare and denied her “reasonable modifications.”

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How was the inmate discriminated against?

The Utah Department of Corrections was found to be in violation of the ADA because they denied the inmate equal access to healthcare, imposed “unnecessary eligibility criteria” for the treatment and assessment of her gender dysphoria and failed to “reasonably modify” procedures and policies to avoid discriminating against the woman, the Justice Department said.

The investigation conducted by the department included interviews with the inmate, as well as with various staff in the prison.

In its letter of findings, the Justice Department said access to the proper medical care was delayed, and the inmate had to wait nine months for a diagnostic assessment for gender dysphoria and another six months to be prescribed hormone therapy.

“During Complainant’s incarceration, the committee included members who demonstrated overt bias against the individuals seeking care and expressed reluctance to prescribe medically appropriate treatment, including hormone therapy, for gender dysphoria,” the letter says.

The letter also says UDOC denied the inmate’s requests for “reasonable modifications” to certain policies and procedures.

The inmate requested to be allowed to purchase gender-affirming clothing and makeup at the UDOC commissary, be assigned female housing and be given female clothing issued by the prison, among other things. Those requests were denied, even though the inmate filled out ADA request forms, the letter says.

After filing an appeal in response to the denials, UDOC said its policy doesn’t allow female underwear or cosmetics for transgender women.

Additionally, the letter says the complainant would often eat alone in her cell because inmates are routinely searched when leaving the dining hall. She said she did not want to be searched by male officers, but those requests were also denied, the letter says.

The inmate was also denied the opportunity to live in female housing because the letter says UDOC assigns people to housing “based solely on sex at ‘commitment,’ as determined by staff conducting a visual search of genitals.”

The letter also declares that, while the complainant did eventually get access to hormone treatment, the assigned doctor tried to talk her out of it and did not take the necessary steps to ensure the treatment was done safely and appropriately.

What is gender dysphoria?

The letter of findings clarified that gender dysphoria is a disability under the ADA.

“Gender dysphoria is a serious medical condition experienced by some transgender individuals and is a diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM),” the letter states.

The Department said that to manage gender dysphoria, some requirements are medical care and “living consistently with one’s gender identity.” Untreated gender dysphoria can lead to the risk of suicide and “surgical self-mutilation,” as stated in the letter of findings.

According to the letter of findings, the inmate “performed dangerous self-surgery” after 22 months of being in custody and experiencing several denials and delays. The letter also stated that the inmate had gender dysphoria for several years before she was placed in custody.

UDOC has policies in place to treat individuals with gender dysphoria “in a humane and safe correctional environment,” as stated in the letter. UDOC has a gender dysphoria committee, and requests for medical care go through the committee rather than directly to medical staff as most other requests.

What did the Department of Corrections say?

In response to the letter of findings released by the Department of Justice, the Utah Department of Corrections issued a statement on March 12.

“We fundamentally disagree with the DOJ on key issues, and are disappointed with their approach,” Executive Director Brian Redd said in the statement.

The statement from UDOC said it was “blindsided” by the public announcement from the Department of Justice.

“We have also taken steps on our own, and as a state, to address the needs of inmates while maintaining the highest safety standards,” Redd said.

UDOC said it is working on addressing “this complex issue.”

What’s next?

At the end of the letter of findings, the Justice Department supplied corrective measures for the prison to take to address the violations against the inmate and protect others with gender dysphoria.

Some of the corrective measures include training employees on the ADA requirements and providing individuals with gender dysphoria equal opportunities to access UDOC services and activities (including healthcare services).

The Justice Department is also saying UDOC should pay damages to the inmate who filed the complaint and “provide otherwise appropriate relief.”

“All people with disabilities including those who are incarcerated are protected by the ADA and are entitled to reasonable modifications and equal access to medical care, and that basic right extends to those with gender dysphoria,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said.

The full letter of findings from the Department of Justice can be read below.


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