Prisoner’s Sex Change Surgery Delay May Still Leave Taxpayers Footing the Bill

Steve Yeater/AP Photo
Steve Yeater/AP Photo

$100,000. That’s the prison’s estimated cost of the sex change operation California inmate Michelle-Lael Norsworthy demanded and was scheduled to receive in July before a Thursday court order delayed the first ever prison-paid procedure of its kind in California. But even if he’s released on parole, the taxpayers could still have the privilege of picking up the tab under Medi-Cal, says one bay area legal director.

A stay of the surgery was issued pursuant to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s objection on the grounds that “no treating physician has determined that sex-reassignment surgery is medically necessary for Norsworthy,” the Orange County Register reported. Spokesperson Deborah Hoffman expressed approval of the stay and that it will “allow the 9th Circuit to review the merits of this appeal.”

Norsworthy was convicted of murder in 1987, according to the Register. The inmate argued for the surgery on the basis that it is critical for his mental health.

Born Jeffrey Bryan Norsworthy in 1964 in Detroit, he began taking female hormones and wearing women’s clothing in 1999 after he obtained a gender identity disorder diagnosis. This was 12 years into his prison sentence.

In 2012 Norsworthy discovered a case in which a Massachusetts judge ordered the state to pay for an inmate’s sex change surgery, reported the Register. Though the Massachusetts case was later overturned, Norsworthy still fought to force California to fund his surgery.

It was in April of this year that Norsworthy achieved his goal, as San Francisco Judge Jon Tigar granted him the surgery at the cost of the state and as soon as possible, arguing that Norsworthy was constitutionally entitled to the sex change operation.

Tigar’s ruling referenced the only other time a state has granted a sex change operation. The Register pegged the reference to a Texas case in which the inmate first castrated himself and the state was forced to complete the transformation.

Thursday Norsworthy received a parole hearing, the result of which was a recommendation that he be released on parole pending review from the full parole board and Governor Jerry Brown.

During the hearing, Senior Orange County Deputy District Attorney Ray Armstrong noted Norsworthy’s lack of remorse over his crime. Armstrong brought up Norsworthy’s 16 prison violations for fights, threats, and possession of contraband through 2009, the Register reported.

But even if Norsworthy is released, state and federal taxpayers may still have the pleasure of covering his body-altering surgery. Medi-Cal, California’s state run health insurance system, could possibly pick up where the prison system left off, says Ilona Turner, legislative director of the Oakland Transgender Law Center.

Norsworthy’s divorcing parents abandoned him as an infant, sending him to live with a grandmother. When he was 10, his mother returned and whisked him away to California, based on court records cited in the Register. Those records say he dropped out of school by age 16 and relocated to Hollywood.

It was about five years later that Norsworthy would get into a drunken bar fight, remove a rifle from his truck, fire a warning shot, then shoot a man multiple times in a struggle over the firearm, according to a report of the incident. The victim, 26-year-old Franklin Gordon Liefer, would become a quadriplegic following the incident, then die six weeks later.

Follow Michelle Moons on Twitter @MichelleDiana


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