Trans inmate wins health care and will move to women’s prison after suing Minnesota

Christina Lusk, a transgender woman who is suing the Minnesota Department of Corrections over her treatment while in prison, has reached a settlement that includes transfer to the women-only Shakopee State Prison and access to health care that states the genre.

Lusk has fought for these rights since she was incarcerated in 2019 and filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Corrections nearly a year ago.

As part of the settlement, Lusk will also receive a $495,000 payment, which includes approximately $250,000 in attorney fees.

“With this agreement, the Department of Corrections takes an important and necessary step toward fulfilling its responsibilities to those in its care,” said Jess Braverman, general counsel, gender justice. The organization represented Lusk in this case, along with Robins Kaplan LLP.

“Thanks to Christina Lusk’s willingness to speak out, transgender individuals in custody will now have wider access to the housing and health care they need and the legal protections they deserve,” Braverman said.

A new Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) transgender policy that covers medical care and allows transgender or gender nonconforming people to request a facility that matches their gender identity went into effect in January, months after Lusk filed his lawsuit.

The DOC says it currently houses 48 transgender people out of a total incarcerated population of just over 8,000. Lusk is the first transgender person to be transferred to a facility that matches her gender identity, the department said in a statement.

“As part of the settlement of the lawsuit and in accordance with the DOC’s new transgender policy, the DOC has agreed to provide [Lusk] access to a transgender healthcare specialist to determine if gender affirmation surgery is medically necessary. The DOC will also assist you in getting surgery if the specialist deems it necessary,” the DOC said in a statement.

“The DOC is constitutionally obligated to provide medically necessary care to incarcerated individuals, which includes treatment for gender dysphoria,” said Minnesota DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell. “Based on the facts of this specific case, the incarcerated person will now have access to the medical care he needs, which he deserves, and we have a legal obligation to provide it.”

NPR covered Lusk’s case last fall and how it fits into the broader issues facing transgender inmates incarcerated in the U.S. prison system.

Lusk’s plight is shared by many transgender people behind bars in the United States. They are often forced to remain in prison depending on their gender assigned at birth or their genitalia at the time of arrest. This puts them at greater risk of assault, discrimination and abuse, NPR’s previous report highlighted.

Many attorneys and lawyers have said that lawsuits are the primary way people can be moved into facilities that align with their gender identity, as Lusk’s case demonstrates.

Following her guilty plea in 2019, Lusk was sent to the Moose Lake men’s facility. This happened despite the fact that Lusk had a reissued birth certificate which states she is female and she underwent gender affirmation procedures.

(It should be noted that the authenticity of a trans person’s gender identity is not inherently tied to surgery, other medical treatment, or changes to legal documents. Some people do not take these steps for a variety of reasons.)

It was at Moose Lake where Lusk said she faced harassment and assault, was denied gender-affirming health care and was constantly counterfeited by OCD, she said.

In his lawsuit, Lusk said the DOC’s discriminatory policies and practices violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act and Minnesota’s constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law, physical autonomy, and freedom from cruel or unusual punishment.

Lusk also wanted the judge to rule that the DOC denying her gender-affirming surgery was unconstitutional.

While the deal stalls short of that, the Minnesota DOC has agreed to strengthen its policies to better protect “fundamental rights, health and safety

of all transgender people incarcerated in Minnesota,” Gender Justice said in a statement.

The DOC will follow the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s standards of care, contract with a WPATH certified health care provider, train staff to provide appropriate care to transgender people, and honor name changes of incarcerated transgender people.

Federal guidelines require housing decisions for transgender inmates to be made on a case-by-case basis. But NPR found that some states explicitly don’t.

Other states have policies that are in line with federal standards, but in practice they tend to house inmates based on their gender assigned at birth.

The policies of the vast majority of states, including Minnesota, are in line with federal guidelines. They say decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, with the inmate’s gender identity being part of that consideration. The safety of the prisoner is considered a priority.

Lusk will be released in May 2024.

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