RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals panel said Monday that a Virginia inmate is entitled to a full court hearing on her lifelong quest for a sex-change operation.
The three judges of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals returned Ophelia De’Lonta’s case to a lower court, concluding that her constitutional claim should be heard. She contends that the denial of her sex-change operation amounts to a violation of her Eighth Amendment freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.
A federal judge in Roanoke dismissed De’Lonta’s self-filed lawsuit in 2011 after he concluded the Virginia Department of Corrections was adequately treating De’Lonta.
Born Michael A. Stokes, De’Lonta has been in prison for 30 years serving a 73-year sentence for bank robbery.
De’Lonta has been diagnosed with a severe form of a rare, medically recognized illness known as gender identity disorder. Her desire for a sex-reassignment surgery has prompted her several times to attempt to castrate herself.
Corrections officials have provided her with psychological counseling and hormone treatments and she has been allowed to dress as a woman in a men’s prison. Those actions, however, have not dissuaded her from her desire for a sex change, and she was hospitalized in 2010 for injuries suffered in a self-castration attempt.
The appeals panel ruled only on the constitutional question and not De’Lonta’s request for a sex-change operation. However, it compared her plight to a prisoner who was denied surgery for a serious injury that was treated only with pain medication.
While a prisoner does not have a constitutional right to the treatment of his choice, “the treatment a prison facility does provide must nevertheless be adequate to address the prisoner’s serious medical need,” the judges wrote in their unanimous decision.
De’Lonta’s attorneys have said the surgery could be done at a cost to the state of about $20,000.
Similar lawsuits have failed in a handful of other states. Lawmakers in some states have tried to ban the use of taxpayer money for the operations.