Lisa Mitchell, an African American transgender woman who has lived as a woman her entire life, was continually denied the critical hormone replacement therapy she needed. In October 2011, Mitchell was convicted of a crime and was sent to Wisconsin Columbia Correctional Institution where she would serve her 18-month sentence. A month after being in the Correctional Institution, Mitchell requested her hormone treatment. Because of the DOC’s guidelines and policies on Health Care Treatment for transgender inmates, her initial request was a multistep process, including an interview of Mitchell. Through the many steps that Mitchell had to go through to even request medical assistance for her hormone treatment, her interview did not occur until six months after her initial request for care. In the months leading up to the interview, Mitchell repeatedly asked her Psychologist for help and updates. Her Psychologist continually did not respond to her requests. In the meantime, Mitchell’s psychological health was deteriorating. In her mental health counseling appointments, the Psychologist was encouraged to focus on other mental health issues, not now Mitchell was responding in the wait for treatment. After over a year of waiting, Mitchell finally received the signatures necessary to start the hormone treatment. Though her file indicated that treatment was necessary, the medical officer, Dr. Kevin Kallas, refused to begin the treatment because Mitchell’s release was a month away. Once Mitchell was on parole for 18 months, she was prevented from expressing her gender identity and obtaining treatment. Her probation officers refused her treatment, despite her file stating that treatment was necessary and would reduce the risk from committing another crime. Ultimately, because the prison medical staff refused her treatment and she was refused treatment while on parole, Mitchell did not receive medical care and was discriminated against.
Once Mitchell finished her parole in 2015, Mitchell represented herself sued Dr. Kevin Kallas and Dr. Dawn Laurent along with three parole officers for denying her medical treatment under the Eighth Amendment. The United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin dismissed her claims against the parole agents without prejudice (meaning she can refile) ruling that she failed to state sufficient facts to sustain her Eight amendment claims. However the court determined that her claims against the two doctors were sufficiently pled and allowed them to proceed.
The doctors moved for summary judgment claiming that their actions did not violate her constitutional rights. The court ruled for Dr. Kallas and Dr. Laurent and dismissed her remaining claims on summary judgment. The court found that the doctors’ actions were not deliberately indifferent to her medical needs and were protected by qualified immunity (the legal doctrine that protects government officials from being subjected to suit for actions under color of law as long as their actions are reasonable and do not violate clearly established rights). The court claimed that there was no clearly indicated medical right to hormone treatment.
On July 10, 2018, after the case had been argued in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals on January 10, 2018, the court decided Mitchell’s case. The Court ruled that Mitchell stated viable constitutional claims against the parole officers and the district court should have allowed her claim against Dr. Kallas to go to trial. The Court allowed the dismissal of Dr. Laurent to stand ruling that she was not sufficiently involved in the failure to provide Mitchel hormone therapy to stand trial.
Additionally, the Seventh Circuit indicated that gender dysphoria is not distinct from other conditions that require medical treatment. Therefore, the prison officials were at fault for denying treatment to Mitchell. The appeals court sent the case back to district court, where Mitchell’s claims will be reevaluated.
Mitchell’s mistreatment is not atypical and her experience is consistent with that of many transgender inmates. There are transgender inmates who are often denied medical help and receive discriminatory treatment from prison staff. This mistreatment leads to a variety of impacts on the individual’s mental health, leading to extreme emotional distress. In many ways, transgender inmates are some of the most vulnerable individuals in the prison population and they deserve for their rights to be recognized.
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