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State Agrees To One Inmate's Sex Reassignment Surgery - But Not Another's

Calif. Dept. of Corrections & Rehabilitation

Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif.

Calif. Dept. of Corrections & Rehabilitation

Update at 5:30pm Wednesday (AP): California has paroled a transgender inmate one day before a federal appeals court was to hear her request for the state to pay for her sex reassignment surgery.

 State corrections officials say Michelle-Lael Norsworthy was released at 8 a.m. Wednesday from Mule Creek State Prison, a men's facility east of Sacramento. She will be supervised on parole in San Francisco.

 Gov. Jerry Brown allowed her parole last week when he took no action on a Board of Parole Hearings' recommendation that Norsworthy be freed 30 years after she fatally shot a man in a Fullerton bar.

The state says her release ends her attempt to have the state-funded sex reassignment surgery.

 The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals took her appeal under consideration after canceling Thursday's oral arguments.

Original Story: California will soon become the first state to provide sex-reassignment surgery for a transgender prison inmate. But the state hopes to avoid paying for the surgery in a second case by granting that inmate parole – just days before a scheduled court hearing this week.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation wants to decide whether to approve sex reassignment surgery on a case-by-case basis. Dr. Marc Stern with the University of Washington agrees. He's a former medical director for the Washington state prison system who now consults with the federal government on health care issues in jails and prisons.

“You can’t practice medicine through the legal system,“ Stern says. “You practice medicine by having good evidence, by having caring physicians, and by having patients with conditions that you can treat appropriately.”

But Stern says transgender inmates should be given sex reassignment surgery when medically necessary.

“Are we providing adequate access to health care for our citizens?“ he says. “If not, that’s what we should be fixing. Not saying, well, let’s not provide necessary medical care to prisoners because we can’t afford to give adequate health care to the rest of the population.”

CDCR insists it’s not setting a precedent by agreeing to provide sex-reassignment surgery for one inmate, Shiloh Heavenly Quine. A court approved the state's settlement with Quine on Tuesday.

And CDCR is asking a federal appeals court to rule the case of another inmate, Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, moot – because Norsworthy was recently granted parole. That would allow CDCR to avoid paying for her surgery – and dodge what could become a legal precedent.

CDCR says Norsworthy will be released on parole by the end of the week. A federal appeals court hearing in her case is scheduled for Thursday.

Correction: Our original story said the state will avoid paying for the second inmate's surgery if a federal appeals court lets California's parole grant to that inmate stand. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says the federal courts do not have the power to reverse the parole grant to Michelle-Lael Norsworthy - that power only lies with the governor. CDCR is now asking the court to dismiss Norsworthy's case as moot, because she has been granted parole. The appeals court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Thursday. We regret the error.

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio