Wisconsin’s Anti-Trans Prison Law Struck Down
The United States Supreme Court has refused a review of a case involving Wisconsin’s anti-trans law that denied prisoners access to medically necessary transition-related treatment, meaning a lower court ruling stands and the law is struck down.
The Wisconsin legislature passed a law in 2005 termed the “Inmate Sex-Change Prevention Act” that prevented prison doctors from giving trans prisoners access to medically necessary transition-related care like hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery while in state custody.
As a result Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit, Fields v. Smith, on behalf of several trans women in prison who were being harmed by this law when their hormone treatment, required to maintain their gender presentation, was stopped.
The trial heard expert testimony that transition related care is not cosmetic but rather is a medical necessity for trans prisoners in the same way that other prisoners would require their medical needs to be met. The medical director of the Wisconsin prison named in the lawsuit also testified in support of Lambda Legal’s case.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin concluded that the law was unconstitutional on grounds of both the Eighth Amendment, that denying transition-related care amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and the Equal Protections Clause.
However, the State of Wisconsin appealed the ruling in 2010.
A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit then upheld the lower court’s ruling, remarking: “Refusing to provide effective treatment for a serious medical condition serves no valid penological purpose and amounts to torture.”
The court also went so far as to say, “Surely, had the Wisconsin legislature passed a law that DOC inmates with cancer must be treated only with therapy and pain killers, this court would have no trouble concluding that the law was unconstitutional. Refusing to provide effective treatment for a serious medical condition serves no valid penological purpose and amounts to torture.”
The state then appealed the ruling directly to the Supreme Court of the United States. However, the SCOTUS this week declined to hear that appeal, meaning that the law is struck down.
A note on this important victory from Lambda Legal via the group’s website:
Although the Fields v. Smith case does not mean that all transgender people in prison now have full access to transition-related care, it does send a clear message that medical care should be left in the hand of doctors, not legislators who may be operating on bias and misinformation about the medical needs of a marginalized population. Access to discrimination-free health care is a constant challenge for transgender people and people in prison are particularly vulnerable to limited care. Legislators, politicians and policy makers should not be in the business of making medical decisions. We all lose when politicians get to decide what course of treatment our doctors prescribe for us.
More information on this case can be found on the American Civil Liberties Union case profile page here.