By David Ingram
(Reuters) - The Obama administration on Friday weighed in on the side of a transgender Georgia prison inmate who is suing the state over prison officials' refusal to provide treatment such as hormone therapy.
Lawyers with the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division said in papers filed in a federal court in Macon, Georgia, that the refusal of adequate treatment for a recognized mental illness amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Courts across the United States have wrestled with the question of what treatment prisons must provide to transgender inmates. On Thursday, a federal judge ruled that California must provide sex reassignment surgery to a transgender inmate.
Chinyere Ezie, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center who represents the Georgia inmate, said the Justice Department brief appeared to be the first of its kind on behalf of the U.S. government.
The Georgia inmate, Ashley Diamond, 36, lived as a woman and took hormones before going to prison for burglary and other charges in 2012. Her lawyers said in court papers that her physical and mental health were at risk without treatment, and that prison officials have placed her in unsafe facilities with violent men.
Justice Department lawyers agreed that the prison system had been indifferent to Diamond's condition. They wrote that the end of her hormone therapy had caused her to suffer from loss of breast mass she had developed, physical pain and muscle spasms.
The needs of inmates, including transgender inmates, must be provided for on an individual basis, something Georgia has failed to do, according to the Justice Department.
"Prison officials have the obligation to assess and treat gender dysphoria just as they would any other medical or mental health condition," Vanita Gupta, the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The state's lawyers have said they will file a motion by April 10 to dismiss Diamond's lawsuit.
The case is Ashley Diamond v. Commissioner Brian Owens, et al, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, No. 5:15-cv-50.
(Reporting by David Ingram in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)