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WA Department of Corrections agrees to settlement over transgender inmate care

Under the agreement, Corrections will designate a “gender-affirming mental health specialist” at 11 prisons and corrections centers.

Published: October 13, 2023 11:00pm

(The Center Square) -

The Washington State Department of Corrections and a nonprofit disabilities advocacy organization on Wednesday announced a proposed lawsuit settlement regarding care of transgender inmates serving time in prison.

The settlement will include a single payment of more than $1 million and annual payments of $300,000 for an outside monitor.

The agreement with Disabilities Rights Washington is still pending a judge’s review and acceptance. If approved, it applies to inmates in state prisons, but not local jails or federal penitentiaries.

“For over ten years, DRW has tried to convince DOC to provide healthcare for serious medical needs as required by the constitution,” the organization said on its website.

DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange called it “a landmark agreement” and said the department would continue to work closely with Disabilities Rights Washington to implement it.

“We have already made substantial improvements to the gender-affirming care offered to transgender incarcerated individuals in recent years, and this is another step in the right direction,” Strange said reference to the department’s implemented policies.

Under the agreement, Corrections will designate a “gender-affirming mental health specialist” at 11 prisons and corrections centers. The department will also retain external providers as necessary to perform treatments and services for inmates under provisions of the Washington Health Care Authority’s transhealth program, which includes options for hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgeries.

Other provisions of the agreement include requiring more transgender-focused training to correctional officers, providing gender-affirming clothing to transgender individuals, and allowing them to shower and change clothing separately from others. Pat-downs and searches of transgender individuals will be performed by a correctional officer of the gender formally requested by the inmate. The department will be monitored for compliance over a three-year period.

Provisions of the agreement will apply to about 200 individuals who are currently incarcerated, DOC spokesperson Christopher Wright said on Friday. The number is a relatively small percentage of Washington state’s prison inmate population that currently totals over 13,500.

There was no cost estimate yet on implementing the provisions, said Wright.

However, Wright acknowledged the agreement calls for the state to pay $1.5 million in compensation to Disabilities Rights Washington for its investigation and $300,000 a year to track future data during the compliance period.

DOC and Disabilities Rights Washington have been in negotiations since 2019, following a lawsuit filed in federal court in western Washington alleging violations of the U.S. Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act regarding treatment of incarcerated people with disabilities who are transgender. The complaint claimed Corrections discriminated against transgender patients in the provision of gender-affirming medical and mental health care and failed to modify practice and procedures to accommodate them.

Separately, In April 2021, Disabilities Rights Washington and the ACLU of Washington sued the Department of Corrections in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington on behalf of four current and formerly incarcerated transgender persons to stop the department from releasing their personal and private information, including mental health information, transgender status, and history of sexual victimization.

Also listed as “interested parties” in the lawsuit were a private individual and three media outlets -- KIRO Radio, The McClatchy Co., and the Tacoma News Tribune. The plaintiffs, identified only as John Doe 1 through 4, alleged that the media outlets and others made public records requests to DOC which would identify them as transgender, non-binary, or intersex individuals.

The plaintiffs said disclosure of such personal information violated their civil rights to privacy and was “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Washington state and U.S. Constitutions. They alleged that at least one anonymous Corrections employee had provided confidential information to the public and that a member of the media had “outed” at least two transgender women in public reporting. They also contended that a county sheriff said in a radio interview that some male inmates were claiming to be women to get transferred to women’s prisons.

In July of this year, the U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice of Eastern Washington entered an order requiring Corrections to keep such information private to protect current and former transgender inmates from potential public harassment, privacy invasion, and assault both in prison and in the community. He also entered a judgment awarding $650,000 for the plaintiffs’ legal fees and costs.

Earlier, Rice had issued a preliminary injunction which said transgender prisoners are frequently targeted for attack by other prisoners and that corrections officers have a duty to protect incarcerated individuals from violent acts. “Prison officials will not escape liability for deliberate indifference ….” the judge wrote.

In response to such issues, a divided Washington Legislature in 2022 passed House Bill 1956 which now bars public disclosure of certain “sensitive records” of current and former state inmates to guard their “dignity and safety.”

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