Sex change behind bars

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – A Virginia inmate wants to become the first in the nation to have a state-funded sex change operation. She says it's a medical necessity, brought on by a severe case of Gender Identification Disorder (GID). The transgender inmate is appealing a judge's ruling that tossed out her lawsuit.

There's more to the story than, should tax payers pay for her sex change surgery? Ophelia Delonta wants people to see a transgender in prison, trapped in the wrong body, is a target. My interview with her was not like before. A spokesman for the new corrections' director said a camera interview at the prison would be too disruptive and a security risk. So we talked over the phone.

Never mind she has female curves and doesn't see herself as a man, Ophelia Delonta has a penis and that makes her a man according to Virginia prison guidelines.

"I am female. I was born female. My body is not conformed to how I was born," Ophelia said.

Inmates diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder are placed with prisoners with the same external genitalia. So a transgender who sleeps in a gown, has breasts, and wears makeup, has a cell at Buckingham Correctional Center - population 1,038…all male.

"You treat me just like a female but you don't house me with females," she said. "You're dangling the carrot in front of the rabbit. You put me at substantial risk for assault."

Ophelia spoke candidly in 2007 about an alleged rape and cover up she says resulted from inadequate housing. D.O.C's position then is unchanged.

"There is nothing that we're aware of currently in the law that says we're required to segregate or house inmates with this disorder in any type of separate housing," said the Communications Director for DOC Larry Traylor in 2007.

Now she tells me about two more sexual assaults and attempted extortion. A Powhatan officer was fired; Ophelia won a judgment and was transferred to Buckingham where she alleges inappropriate touching by another female officer which may still be under investigation.

"She reached toward me between my legs and touched me. I said that don't work. She made the comment, I'll make it work," Ophelia stated.

Ophelia's 2004 court settlement allows her to dress like a woman, be spoken to as a woman, and get hormone therapy to stop the urge to self castrate. Ophelia says the hormones don't work anymore and she's cutting at her testicle again.

"I've got rid of one. I just have to get rid of the other one," she said. "I consider it a birth defect that has to be corrected by me or by the doctors."

She says surgery is the next step to treating her disorder. The judge who dismissed her suit ruled inmates are guaranteed only minimum care, and not preferred therapies.

"They have to provide treatment and the treatment has to be adequate. It's not a thing of who's right or who's wrong," added Ophelia.

Richmond lawyer and activist Paul Goldman draws the line on sex change surgery.

"She's probably going to be in for a rude surprise. The courts all over the country have rejected this idea for the very simple reason, it is perfectly reasonable and responsible for states to decide that this is not a proper expenditure of tax money," Goldman said.

The A.C.L.U. one of two organizations with strong interest in the case has expressed its views to the court.

"We were concerned to see that the district court had dismissed this more recent case without allowing her a chance to put on evidence to prove her claim," said Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU Legal Director. "She's entitled to have her medical needs evaluated by a professional who understands gender disorder. She's entitled to have a decision made on medical reasons and not for political reasons and not for expense reasons."

Other states are watching. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care is a leader in setting standards in jails and prisons.

"If we're talking about an individual not having true GID, and is more of a sexual worker then we really need to divorce the issue," said Dr. Scott Chavez, Vice President of the NCCHC.

Dr. Chavez says the patient-provider relationship should make treatment decisions not be second guessed by outsiders.

"If it's a medical diagnosis of GID, that's where we land on that's where the medical treatment and therapy and surgery and has to truly be looked at," he said.

As her appeal moves through the court, I'll keep you informed. Meantime, Ophelia says gender reassignment surgery is not about sex, she's celibate. It's about survival. Her release date is 2049. She was incarcerated at 18 for robbing 3 banks with an unloaded gun to get money to go to California for the surgery. That was 32 years ago.

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