As the new web series Orange is the New Black brings focus to transgender women in prison through a character played by transgender actress Laverne Cox, real life transgender inmates are calling for the prison system to provide the healthcare and safety they need. Ophelia De'lonta, a transgender woman of color incarcerated in a men's prison in Virginia, is one such inmate. After gaining access to hormone therapy through a 2004 court order, De'lonta filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections for refusing her access to medically necessary gender-confirming surgery, and for alleged sexual abuse by a former corrections officer.
While De'lonta's case for gender-confirming surgery goes on with the support of a state-hired endocrinologist who deems the procedure medically necessary, and a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that affirmed her right to sue, her allegations of abuse by Correctional Officer Sarah Pruitt were recently dismissed after two days of testimony before an all white jury, according to Virignia media. Pruitt's attorney, A. Pierre Jackson, suggested that De'lonta's abuse allegations were "dramatic" and that she "exaggerates" in an attempt to gain money for surgery.
Attorney Jackson's statements and the jury's notably swift decision are particularly troubling given the growing knowledge of how trans women, and trans people in general, are treated in the prison system. According the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 15% of respondents reported sexual abuse by a staff member or another inmate while in prison – a number that jumped to 38% among Black trans women. In a report on treatment of trans and intersex people in New York State men's prisons, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project shares three years' worth of personal accounts from their clients who experienced pervasive instances of harassment and assault by Correctional Officers, along with a lack of accountability for these instances.
Aside from the seeming disregard for realities facing trans inmates, though, is how Attorney Jackson's statements conform to stereotypes that portray trans women as unstable deceivers with ulterior motives. This and other stereotypes are heightened in instances where transgender people face, or have faced, criminal charges, and GLAAD has created a specific resource for media professionals reporting on such stories.
Ophelia De'lonta has 30 days to file a notice with the court if she decides to appeal the verdict of this case. In the meantime, GLAAD urges the media to utilize the research on violence against trans people in prison to provide the context in which De'lonta, as a transgender women of color, brings these accusations.