Victory Behind Bars

Transgender Inmate Ophelia De’Lonta Wins Appeal To See Gender Specialist In Long Struggle For Sex-Reassignment

A Virginia inmate is one step closer to getting sex-reassignment surgery.

53-year-old Ophelia De’Lonta, born Michael Stokes, is currently serving a 73-year prison sentence for bank robbery. She has spent the past 30 years at the Buckingham Correctional Center in Buckingham County, Virginia.

De’Lonta has been fighting for her rights behind bars since 1999, when she first filed a lawsuit petitioning for hormone treatment. That lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge. In 2003, De’Lonta tried again. This time an agreement was reached. State authorities agreed to provide her with hormone treatment and psychological therapy. De’Lonta would also be allowed to dress as a woman in the men’s prison.

Despite receiving hormone treatment, De’Lonta continued to suffer. She made several attempts at self-castration and, in 2010, was hospitalized after an attempt resulted in the destruction of one of her testicles.

In 2011, she filed a lawsuit that claimed the Virginia Department of Corrections decision to prevent her from having sex-reassignment surgery violated her Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. She claimed  she suffers from the uncontrollable urge to castrate herself and needs the surgery to prevent serious self-mutilation.

US District Judge James C. Turk dismissed the lawsuit; De’Lonta appealed. In January, a three-judge panel of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals sent her appeal back to the lower court, concluding that the claim should be heard.

Until now, prison officials have refused to provide an examination by a gender specialist, claiming the hormone treatments and psychological therapy they provide are adequate while alleging that she suffers from borderline personality disorder.

George Brown, a specialist who sits on the board of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and who is serving as the expert supporting De’Lonta’s case, argues that the prison officials treating De’Lonta are not trained in gender dysphoria. Furthermore, he says, Virginia prison officials’ protocol for inmates with gender dysphoria is “grossly clinically inappropriate” and at least 10 years out of date.

This week, Judge Turk ruled that officials must grant De’Lonta her right to be examined by a gender specialist. The evaluation, which De’Lonta must pay for herself, will determine whether the sex-reassignment surgery is medically necessary. If it is deemed so, the Virginia Department of Corrections will then be required to foot the bill, which is estimated at $20,000.

Lawsuits similar to De’Lonta’s have failed in other states, and some lawmakers have gone so far as trying to ban the use of taxpayer money for such treatment and operations.

But prisons cover the cost of inmates’ surgeries all the time, so why should De’Lonta’s operation, if determined to be medically necessary by gender specialists, be any different? Is the issue really about the $20,000, or does it have more to do with certain people’s unwillingness to recognize gender dysphoria as a real medical condition?

The Washington Times reports that At least 12 other prisoners have reported self-castrations in North Carolina, Kentucky, Oregon, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Idaho over the past 15 years.

“Transsexuals are born and not made,” Brown said. “If you didn’t have this condition, why would you want to have your genitals removed, if not by a competent surgeon but by your own hand?”

While De’Lonta sleeps and showers alone, she is not segregated from male inmates and must keep her hair cut short as is required of all male inmates. If she does have the surgery, she will be transfered to a woman’s prison.

De’Lonta herself says that if she loses her case, she will continue to try self-surgery, even if it kills her. At least then, she says, she will “have peace.”