A California inmate who is seeking sex reassignment surgery at taxpayers' expense faces a painful irony: If she wins freedom from a parole board, she would no longer be eligible for the prison-funded operation she says is crucial to her emotional health.
State officials say 51-year-old Michelle-Lael Norsworthy has postponed her parole hearing several times with the hope of having the surgery. They are citing the delays as they appeal a judge's order that she undergo the procedure as soon as possible.
Norsworthy is set for a parole hearing Thursday after four delays in six months. Her surgery is set for July 1 unless delayed by the appeals court.
The state contends the hearing could lead to her release and end her lawsuit seeking the procedure.
"The only factor that seemed to show any type of urgency for Ms. Norsworthy's request was her scheduled parole hearing, which she postponed and might have led to her release, rendering her constitutional claims moot," the state said in its appeal.
Attorneys for Norsworthy say she was not responsible for the hearing delays and, if paroled, she would be eligible for Medi-Cal, which covers medically necessary sex reassignment surgeries.
The "suggestion that she has purposely delayed her parole hearings for some sort of medical advantage is offensive, has no basis in fact, and makes no sense since Michelle, upon release, would much more easily be able to receive the care the state insists on denying her," Ilona Turner, legal director of the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, said in an emailed statement.
A number of inmates have recognized the advantage of having major medical procedures while in prison, said Frank Zimring, a University of California, Berkeley law professor who has studied California prisons for more than 30 years.
"It is precisely the sort of ironic set of incentives and disincentives that are created by the patchwork nature of medical coverage that we have," Zimring said. "In the general society, the care that is provided is considerably less generous."
Estimates of the cost for the surgery and related treatment have ranged as high as $100,000, though Norsworthy's attorneys say that is exaggerated.
The thought of being unable to complete the transformation causes "excruciating pain and frustration," resulting in sleeplessness, cold sweats, hypervigilance, panic attacks and mood swings, Norsworthy said in court documents.
Norsworthy is being held at Mule Creek State Prison, a men's prison in Ione, near Sacramento. Prison records still refer to her by her birth name of Jeffrey Bryan Norsworthy.
Her attorneys say she has suffered distress and anxiety since adolescence of as a result of gender dysphoria but only realized she needed sex reassignment surgery while she was in prison. She was diagnosed with gender identity disorder in 1999 and began taking female hormones.
She began asking the corrections department for the surgery in 2012 after learning a judge for the first time had ordered Massachusetts to provide an inmate with the procedure. However, that decision was overturned on appeal in December, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene.