Nearly a year after a federal judge ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to grant a transgender inmate gender-affirming surgery, the woman at the center of the case has reached a historic settlement with the state.
Last April, Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, a transgender woman who was then incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif., won a landmark legal victory when a federal district court ruled that the state was required to grant her the gender-affirming surgery her doctors had deemed medically necessary. Denial of such medically necessary treatment amounted to a violation of Norsworthy's constitutional rights, the court decided.
However, before Norsworthy could obtain the surgery, she was paroled in August.
Now Norsworthy has won a groundbreaking settlement. The state has agreed to no longer appeal the April ruling and to provide “almost half a million dollars to cover attorney’s fees and costs,” according to a statement from the Transgender Law Center, which represented Norsworthy.
“That means that the ruling will continue to stand as significant legal precedent that other courts across the country will look to when considering cases involving transgender people and health care,” says the center's statement.
“What the state of California did to me was not right,” Norsworthy said in a prepared statement. “I was denied medical care, experienced repeated and brutal sexual assault, and suffered the daily rejection of my basic humanity and identity for 30 years. This settlement is a message that transgender people’s medical needs are real and cannot be dismissed by the state just because of who we are. Even though I have been released, this settlement means that there is an undisputed legal precedent out there for all of the transgender people still suffering in prison today.”
At her parole hearing last May, Norsworthy said that she accepts responsibility for her crimes, according to U.K. newspaper Daily Mail. When she was 21 years old, Norsworthy fatally shot a 26-year-old man three times during a bar brawl. She testified to the parole board that when the crime took place in 1985, she had been “pretty much drinking every day all day.”
But at her parole hearing, Norsworthy said that she is now sober and had faithfully attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings while in prison. Norsworthy also told the parole board that she practices anger management techniques and has learned to make better judgements. After that hearing, the state deemed her no longer dangerous and freed her from prison after almost 30 years of incarceration for murder.
Norsworthy began taking hormones after being diagnosed with gender dysphoria in prison in 1999. Even though she was housed in a men’s prison, she has long identified as female. After finding out that a Massachusetts judge had ordered the state to pay for a prisoner named Michelle Kosilek's gender-affirming surgery (a decision later overturned), Norsworthy took California to court to gain access to her medical care.
Now that she has been released, Norsworthy may be eligible to obtain gender-affirming care through Medi-Cal, which began covering gender-confirming surgery on January 1, after Gov. Jerry Brown signed four LGBT-supportive bills into law last October.
Norsworthy’s case and that of Shiloh Quine, another transgender woman represented by the Transgender Law Center, “prompted the California prison system to make history as the first state in the country to adopt a policy for transgender people in prison to access gender-confirmation surgery,” reports the center's statement.
"[The settlement] is a long-awaited victory for Michelle and ensures her case will continue to stand as a critical legal precedent,” Flor Bermudez, detention project director at the Transgender Law Center, explains in the statement. “It’s clear: prisons have a legal constitutional obligation not to deny the medical needs or humanity of transgender people just because of who they are.”