Transgender prisoner: ‘New policy, new hope’

New policy allows transgender people to transition behind bars

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The voice behind a new policy allowing transgender people to transition while in Michigan prisons said the change has already improved her mental health.

Jami Naturalite, an inmate at Macomb Correctional Facility, was born Daniel James Miskowski.

“I never fit in with the boys and then, because of my anatomy, I never fit in with the girls,” Naturalite told 24 Hour News 8 over the phone.

She has been in men’s prisons on and off for 31 years.

“From 1986 until March 2005, I’ve probably been raped over a thousand times because I was in multiple-occupancy housing,” Naturalite said.

Naturalite was diagnosed with gender dysphoria — by definition, a conflict between a person’s assigned sex and the gender with which they identify — in 2005. Around that time, she was moved to a single cell. But other problems remained.

“I used to think of suicide or self-castration several times a day. Well, with the new policy there comes new hope that those types of thoughts go away,” Naturalite said. “I was going to kill myself Dec. 31, 2016, unless something happened.”

Naturalite’s fight for a revised policy started last year when she wrote a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and asked for information regarding the case of Ashley Diamond v. Brian Owens. That 2015 case challenged a policy in Georgia that prevented transgender people from getting treatment to transition and eventually led to the rules being changed.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Estelle v. Gamble that prison officials are obligated under the Eighth Amendment to provide prisoners with adequate medical care. Citing that case, attorneys in Diamond V. Owens argued that refusing transgender prisoners treatment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. They said that according to the American Psychiatric Association, if people with gender dysphoria don’t get treatment, they may be more likely to have mental disorders or take their own lives.

“I had been contacted by a couple of inmates who were not able to receive what is deemed to be medically necessary care, they had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria,” said Jay Kaplan, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan. “One inmate I was working with, she was in such distress that she ended up self-castrating herself.”

After hearing from Naturalite, the SPLC and ACLU contacted the Michigan Department of Corrections on her behalf in October 2016, triggering a collaboration that led to the new policy.

“What’s wonderful about it is it basically has the prison system following its responsibility under the law to meet the serious medical needs of inmates,” Kaplan said.

Under the new guidelines, which took effect June 26, transgender inmates can get hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. MDOC’s general fund pays for treatments, which means the money comes from taxpayers.

When asked why taxpayers should pay for transgender inmates’ transitions, Naturalite responded, “You have to think of it as if it was your child or your daughter, your son or something like that.”

“People aren’t going to understand transgender,” she continued. “They think it’s just like we wanted to be born this way. Trust me, if I could trade shoes with anybody, I would.”

She said she is happy with the policy change.

“I’m elated,” she said. “I’m elated for, like I say, for humanity.”

Naturalite started hormone therapy on May 8, the same day the revised policy was signed. She said the hormones are helping — she has noticed a change in her thinking patterns and moods and is more at ease.

The MDOC said the policy isn’t set in stone and there is room for revision if needed.