FOX19 - A Cincinnati transgender woman lived out a real-life "Orange is the New Black" while incarcerated in an Ohio prison.
Whitney Lee sued the state when prison officials abruptly stopped her hormone therapy.
How to manage transgender inmates is a controversy playing out in prisons across the country, as the issue takes center stage in the courts.
"I've been living my life as a female since I was 18 years old," said Whitney Lee.
Lee said she was born a boy named Antione, but by the time she was 10, she knew she was meant to be a woman.
She began estrogen hormone therapy in 1999 for gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder.
"My name was Laquita at first," she said. "Everybody just started calling me Whitney and I am diva, so I just stuck with it."
While serving a three-year sentence on forgery and theft charges, in February 2012 the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction stopped her hormone treatment. She said the effects were devastating, both physically and emotionally.
"My facial hairs started growing, I went from a C cup to B cup, my voice got deep, my arms got muscular," she recalled. "I went on suicide watch, it was really hard to deal with."
"What do you do with a woman really in a men's facility?" asked David Singleton, an attorney with the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice & Policy Center. Singleton said that is the question prisons across the country are dealing with. Singleton filed a federal lawsuit to force the state to resume Lee's hormone treatment. He argued the hormones were medically necessary, not a waste of taxpayer dollars.
"I think it was an overreaction on the prison's part and it was wrong, just wrong," he said.
"A diabetic still needs their insulin when they go to prison, do they still serve their insulin?" said Lee.
Lee's story mirrors Sophia's, a character on the Netflix series, "Orange is the New Black."
Sophia is a transgender inmate played by transgender actress Laverne Cox. And Cox, the first ever openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy, was recently featured on the cover of Time magazine. She also spoke about transgender issues to a sold-out crowd of hundreds earlier this month at Northern Kentucky University.
Several states have faced lawsuits alleging correctional facilities failed to protect transgender prisoners from violence. Inmates in other states have also filed lawsuits like Lee's regarding access to drug treatment, with mixed results.
"You've got to take individuals as they are, provide for their medical needs," Singleton said. "I don't think this is an issue that's going away. Ultimately, I think what the state (Ohio) is concerned about is what are we going to do when someone asks for (sex) reassignment surgery."
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction declined FOX19NOW's request for an interview. They would not address Lee's case, writing the department does not comment on matters involving pending litigation. The department did however tell us there are currently 35 inmates in Ohio prisons who self-identify as transgender. The department began collecting data on transgender inmates in September.
In an email an ODRC official wrote:
All DRC inmates are assessed to determine their risk of sexual victimization or abusiveness upon admission, transfer, at the initiation and conclusion of investigations into substantiated or unsubstantiated allegations, during a referral due to mental health concerns and/or referrals due to concerns of substantial imminent risk of sexual abuse. The assessments for transgender inmates are conducted by a Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Accommodation Strategy Team which includes medical and mental health professionals. The team meets with the transgender inmate to discuss his/her issues and concerns. Once assessed, the team develops a PREA accommodation strategy with the goal of keeping the inmate safe. Examples of an accommodation could be placing the inmate in a bunk close to the officer station, allowing the inmate to shower alone or providing them with a job that has direct supervision. Institution staff then utilize this strategy to monitor and manage their housing, bed, work, education and program assignments. If the inmate is new to the institution, they will see a staff member again within 30 days to evaluate the strategy. Transgender inmates are not placed in dedicated facilities, units, or wings solely on the basis of such identification. An inmate can contact a staff member any time they feel that their safety may be in jeopardy.
The issue of hormone therapy for transgender inmates is handled on a case by case basis, according to the email.
"I'm convinced the reason they discontinued her is because they didn't want to have more of this precedent, giving transgender prisoners hormone therapy," Singleton said. " I think the state does take seriously the prison rape elimination act (PREA) and is very serious about keeping folks safe from sexual violence, but what happened to Whitney should not have happened. I think ODRC needs to come to the table with a comprehensive plan on how to deal with transgender prisoners on how provide for their medical needs, we're happy to be part of that conversation."
Court records show the state argued Whitney did not meet the criteria for gender identity disorder and cited other cases where courts upheld a prison's decision not to give the medication. Ultimately, the judge re-instated Whitney's hormones, after more than two years without them.
Now out of prison, Whitney said while she recognizes her lifestyle may make some people uncomfortable, it's her life to live.
"I'm Whitney, this is who I'm going to be and this is the life I'm going to live every day."