Suicide raising concerns for transgender inmate
BOSTON -- The apparent prison suicide of a cross-dressing dermatologist has exposed weaknesses in the state's ability to prevent inmates from killing themselves, according to lawyers for a transgender convicted killer who has been waiting for years for a judge to rule on a request to have a sex-change operation.
Michelle Kosilek, who has said she feels distressed "every waking moment" as a woman trapped inside a man's body, is housed in the same prison where Dr. Richard Sharpe was found hanging by a bed sheet from the top bunk last week. Sharpe was serving a life sentence in the prison in Norfolk for killing his wife in 2000.
Frances Cohen, one of Kosilek's lawyers, said Tuesday that she is concerned Sharpe found a way to commit suicide inside his cell.
"The Department of Correction has consistently taken the position that they have in place adequate suicide prevention policies, and the Sharpe case shows that that may not be the case," Cohen said.
Kosilek is suing the DOC in federal court, seeking to force prison officials to arrange her sex-reassignment surgery. A trial began in May 2006, but Judge Mark Wolf has yet to issue his ruling.
Kosilek testified at the trial that she suffered from depression and had twice tried to commit suicide.
She also sent a handwritten letter to Wolf in October, saying, "no one but me truly knows the depth of my despair."
"This pain is intimately destructive," Kosilek wrote.
Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Correction, declined to comment on Kosilek's letter or on her lawyers' complaints that prison officials aren't doing enough to prevent inmate suicide.
"It's in litigation so we have no comment," Wiffin said.
The DOC and the Norfolk District Attorney's Office are investigating Sharpe's death. But Wiffin said last week that foul play is not suspected.
Kosilek -- formerly Robert -- was sentenced to life for murdering his wife in 1990. Kosilek legally changed her name to Michelle in 1993 and has been living as a woman in the all-male prison.
She first sued the prison system in 2000, saying its refusal to allow her to have sex-change surgery violates the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The department has strenuously fought Kosilek's request for surgery, saying it would create insurmountable security problems and make Kosilek a target for sexual assault.
In 2002, Wolf ruled that prison officials had failed to adequately treat Kosilek's gender identity disorder, but stopped short of ordering the state to allow the surgery. Wolf found that the DOC had not violated Kosilek's constitutional rights because she did not prove that the correction commissioner had shown "deliberate indifference" to Kosilek's her needs.
Kosilek, now 59, sued again in 2005, saying the hormone treatments, laser hair removal and psychotherapy she has received since Wolf's earlier ruling were not enough to relieve her anxiety.
Wolf has heard hundreds of hours of testimony from witnesses, including at least 10 medical specialists.
Several experts who testified for Kosilek and doctors retained by the DOC's health provider said they believe the surgery is medically necessary for Kosilek. But other experts hired by the DOC said Kosilek does not need the surgery.
The case is being closely watched across the country by advocates for other inmates who want to undergo a sex change. Kosilek's lawsuit has outraged some Massachusetts lawmakers who say taxpayers should not have to pay for a convicted killer to have surgery that most private insurers reject as elective.
Cohen said Kosilek has been despondent while awaiting Wolf's ruling on the surgery.
"I think it is a long time, and it is definitely causing Michelle a lot of pain and anguish," Cohen said. "It's an important issue and we're confident the court will deal with it appropriately."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)