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Trans ex-prisoner advocates for inmate rights

by David-Elijah Nahmod

Michelle-Lael Norsworthy spoke to students at the<br>University of San Francisco March 21. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Michelle-Lael Norsworthy spoke to students at the
University of San Francisco March 21. Photo: Kelly Sullivan  

After spending over two decades in prison in California where she dealt with sexual assault, as well as other forms of violence, and fought for the right to transition, Michelle-Lael Norsworthy knows a great deal about how transgender inmates are treated.

Norsworthy, 53, is a transsexual woman who was convicted of second-degree murder after she shot a man in self-defense outside of a bar in 1985.

"They went outside and surrounded my car," Norsworthy recalled in a recent interview. "What was I supposed to do? Many people did not understand why I was incarcerated at all."

The man she shot actually died in the hospital six weeks later after a nurse forgot to administer a dose of anti-clotting medication, Norsworthy said. That error cost a man his life and cost Norsworthy her freedom, she said.

"I'm a lifetime parolee," Norsworthy told Bay Area Reporter. "I cannot get my life back."

Last month, she spoke to a sociology class at the University of San Francisco.

In the interview, Norsworthy said that she transitioned while incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison, a male prison facility near Sacramento. She received gender counseling, hormone treatments, and women's clothing while at Mule Creek, though the state declined to provide gender reassignment surgery. Norsworthy filed suit, and eventually settled her case against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Medicare has since provided her surgery.

She was released from prison in August 2015.

"I fought for gender change, name change, gender marker change, and for the law to change," she said.

While Norsworthy retains some bitterness over the decades of life spent in prison, she is proving herself to be a formidable force for other transgender prison inmates. To that end she's focused on starting a nonprofit, Joan's House, which she hopes will soon provide transitional housing and support to transgender people, regardless of their transition status.

She speaks eloquently of the rights of prisoners, which include health care and safety from violence.

"I've had nearly 30 years of watching men kill each other over card games," she said. "Trans people are targeted daily. Trans prisoners get the extremes â€" those who hate you and target you for violence, or those who 'love' you â€" then there's danger of sexual assault."

Norsworthy refers to the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution regarding health care rights for transgender inmates. The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail or fines, as well as a ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."

"Trans health care must be taken seriously by the Department of Corrections," she said. "It also concerns me that trans prisoners are put on display while strip-searched. We should be isolated when stripped â€" I don't know if that's changed."

Norsworthy encouraged other transgender people to take the initiative and advocate for themselves regarding their rights.

"It's great that people want to march," she said. "But the only way to make change is to haul your ass to court."

For more info on Joan's House:



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