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.


Related Reading:
I Am More Than Just My Gender Says Trans Video Project
Dear Mark, End Facebook’s Restrictive Gender Labels
Parents of Trans Kids: It Gets Better (VIDEO)

Image used under the Creative Commons Attribution License with thanks to thomas_sly.


Samantha Richardson

I am glad that the Supreme court made a sensible (and just) decision in this case. FU Wisconsin, you homophobic state.

James Campbell
James Campbell5 years ago

Nancy R.

Your moral outrage appears to be directed at all prisoners whatever they have been imprisoned for. Even within a penal system there must be room for compassion. The fact is that many prisoners will have mental health issues, suffer from addiction or have lived extremely dysfunctional lives due to deprivation and/or low levels of intelligence. Of course, others will have committed more serious crimes which do merit long sentences. Whatever their crime however, they are all entitled to health care. Some offenders will not be in prison forever and a major problem for society is the percentage of repeat offenders once they have been released. If only for our our own sakes, we must work to reverse this trend by attempting to find a way to balance punishment with rehabilitation. You cannot impose a brutal regime on people and then expect them to come out of jail and behave in a gentle, civilised manner. In this particular case, the ruling is in relation to medical care not luxuries. The text says "that medical care should be left in the hand of doctors" and as a doctor I second this, or do you disagree and would hand medical care over to the prison staff who have no qualifications to take on this responsibility?

Karen and Ed O.
Karen and Ed O5 years ago

Hmmm! And just when I was offering a trade of Supreme Courts with Canada.

Nancy R.

If Jesus were still around, I wonder what he would make of you.

John Mansky
John Mansky5 years ago

Thank you for the article...

Jen Matheson
Past Member 5 years ago

This is so sad. I guess it's official, [risoners are not human beings with the same right as the rest of us!

Michael MacDonald

so you might want to rethink your prejudices
as this is what the evidence backs up.

Michael MacDonald

@Nancy R.

you're ideas about prisoners are completely black and white.

most prisoners are unjustly imprisoned due to cruel drug laws like prohibition that charge the victim (the addict) as a perpetrator which clearly violates freedom from excessive punishment under cruel and unusual as well as meeting the very definition of an unjust law outlined by Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Augustine.

recent studies have found that over 90% of drug addicts are self-medicating mental illnesses and past physical/sexual abuses.
This has never been more clear.

In fact, both the ex head of the DEA and the guy who wrote mandatory minimums are both coming out against prohibition now along with a United Nations security council on it and even an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Now, my point is,
that you shouldn't perceive all inmates as being inherently evil.
That kind of black and white analysis is too naive for even a child to believe.
The vast majority of prisoners are in prison because of unjust laws.
In fact, the largest portion of inmates are mentally ill and are in there for drug addictions.

Besides that,
look at countries which have created justice systems that are based on rehabilitation instead of revenge and you'll soon see that their ex-criminals are drastically less likely to re-offend.
Cruelty does not reform criminals.
It actually turns small time criminals into hardened ones
so you might want to rethink your prej

Michael MacDonald

it's not just cosmetic,
because once you have started the treatment
you have to continue it or else serious problem can arise.
Then it becomes a health concern which is hardly simply cosmetic.

Alice B.
Alice B5 years ago

Thank GOODNESS! Wisconsin has progressive areas and people, in spite of that IMBECILE Scott Walker. Thank goodness for this victory - it is an important step and sets precedent. Thank you so much, Steve, for this important story.

Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons5 years ago

good throw walker out.