HELENA — A convicted rapist who claims he should have been born a woman wants the state to pay for laser hair removal, hormones and counseling as part of the transition from male to female.
Other states have provided such medical care and a federal judge recently ordered the Massachusetts prison system to pay for an expensive operation that will transform a convicted murderer from a man into a woman.
What Ronny Edward Darnell's lawsuit, filed last year in federal court, will mean for Oklahoma is unclear.
Jerry Massie, spokesman for the state Corrections Department, said the agency has provided similar treatments to inmates in the past, but a handwritten note from a psychologist working at the Helena prison where Darnell is being held shows the prisoner was denied treatment.
“If the inmate had been receiving this kind of treatment on the outside … if it was medically indicated … we would provide treatment,” Massie said. “I believe we've done that in the past.”
Darnell, 44, claims to have gender identity disorder, which is characterized by an overwhelming sense by those afflicted that they would be happier if they were the opposite sex.
In his suit, the inmate claims that his constitutional rights are being violated by the state prison system. He says that by not providing him with hormone treatments, laser hair removal, counseling and assisting him with a name change, the Corrections Department is subjecting him to cruel and unusual punishment.
Darnell, who was convicted in 2005 of repeatedly raping a 13-year-old girl in 1997, is not seeking money and doesn't mention any surgical procedures in his handwritten suit.
He does, however, request to be seen by a “transgender specialist.”
“They are denying me any kind of medical treatment at all for my serious medical need,” Darnell wrote in the suit. “I am a female not a male. I was just born in the wrong body.”
The inmate wrote that being denied hormone treatment “has changed me in ways I do not like.”
“It has deepened my voice to sound like a man,” Darnell wrote. “It puts me into a great depression and gives me anxiety attacks on a daily basis.”
Darnell's lawsuit is pending in federal court. He has no lawyer.
Treatment was denied
Darnell, who claims he wants to change his name to Phoebe Halliwell, tried to seek treatment from a psychologist working at the James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena last year, but his request was denied.
James Smash, a Corrections Department psychologist, explained the reason for the denial in a handwritten note dated April 24, 2012, court records show.
“No one is being treated in DOC for this, as far as I know,” Smash wrote in response to the inmate's requests for treatment. “I have given you my answer. Please do not ask me about this again.”
Smash did advise Darnell in the note that the inmate could go up the administrative chain.
The inmate did just that, although it apparently got him nowhere.
In a grievance form filed in May 2012, Darnell requested a transfer to Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington, claiming he was being discriminated against by “officers, inmates and staff members” at the Helena prison.
“There's no one here like me to associate with, but at (Joseph Harp) there are at least four other inmates that are,” Darnell wrote in the grievance. “There I can get the medical care that I need for my serious medical need.”
The inmate's request for a transfer to the Lexington prison went unfulfilled. It was made official in a brief letter signed by Janet Dowling, who was deputy warden at James Crabtree Correctional Center on June 1, 2012.
“Medical has not recommended a transfer and I have no administrative reason to request such a transfer,” Dowling wrote in a typewritten letter to Darnell. “Request denied.”
Massie, who said he was unable to contact the department's chief medical officer on Thursday, would not comment on whether Darnell was receiving any kind of treatment related to gender identity disorder before becoming a state inmate.
Inmate was a transient
Darnell's past is hard to pin down.
When he was brought back to Oklahoma to face sodomy and rape charges in early 2005, it was through a stroke of good fortune.
The inmate's DNA had been matched using a nationwide database, prompting the Ohio Attorney General's office to call Kay County prosecutors in late 2004.
Former Kay County District Attorney Mark Gibson, now a prosecutor in Garvin County, described Darnell as a drifter who abducted a 13-year-old Newkirk girl on March 17, 1997.
Court records show that Darnell tricked the girl into his car by asking for directions. Once the girl was under his control, the convict drove the teenager to four different locations, in rural areas, and raped the girl three separate times.
“I remember we had some suspects at the time,” Gibson said in 2005. “But as we started to weed through them, we started to realize we were probably dealing with some transient traveler who would be impossible to find.”
The girl reported the crime and investigators collected biological evidence, which would sit in storage until the call came from authorities in Ohio — nearly a decade later.
Darnell pleaded guilty to two counts of rape and one count of forcible sodomy in December 2005, drawing a 50-year prison sentence.
At the time, Gibson said the effect on Newkirk, a small town of about 2,300 people in northwestern Oklahoma, was palpable.
“That truly was the death of innocence for a small town,” Gibson told The Oklahoman in 2005. “And that's a shame. In a small town, no one expects to have to lock their doors or live without trust.”
When contacted on Thursday, Gibson said, as he recalls it, Darnell wasn't receiving hormone therapy nor did he claim to be afflicted with gender identity disorder.
“I can tell you without question … that never came up,” the prosecutor said. “I would remember that. It sounds totally bogus.”
Other states provide treatment
Whether Darnell was receiving treatment before entering prison may not matter — if the court looks to rulings in similar cases.
In July 2007, a federal judge in Idaho ordered the state to provide hormone therapy to a male inmate who described himself as a woman trapped in a man's body.
Jennifer Spencer, who entered prison in 2000 as Randall Gammett, legally changed her name after she was already behind bars.
It wasn't until 2003 that Spencer sought treatment from the Idaho prison system, although state doctors claimed she wasn't afflicted with gender identity disorder and didn't need the hormones.
In April 2010, a federal judge in Wisconsin struck down a state law that prohibited the use of taxpayer money to pay for inmates' hormone therapy. The decision was upheld a little over a year by a federal appeals court judge.
More recently, a federal judge in Massachusetts ordered the state's prison system to pay for gender reassignment operation for convicted murderer Michelle Kosilek, a decision the state has appealed.
It is thought to be the first time a judge has ordered the surgery as a remedy to gender identity disorder.
Kosilek was born a man but has been taking female hormones and living as a woman in an all-male prison. Kosilek was convicted of the 1990 killing of the woman she wed while living as a man.
U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf said the surgery, which can cost up to $20,000, is the only way to treat the inmate's “serious medical need.”
CONTRIBUTING: THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS