A prison board Thursday approved parole for an inmate who recently won a federal court order for state-paid gender reassignment surgery, even as a federal appeals court issued its own order postponing the operation.
Michelle Lael-Norsworthy, 51, was convicted of second-degree murder in 1987 and is serving a sentence of life with possibility of parole at Mule Creek State Prison for men. Born Jeffrey Bryan Norsworthy, she has undergone hormone therapy for 15 years to the extent, her lawyers argue, of damaging her liver and risking other medical complications.
In April, a federal judge in San Francisco ordered the corrections department to provide Norsworthy with a sex change, contending the state had failed to meet her "serious medical need."
California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris is challenging the order in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal, on behalf of the state corrections department, arguing that drug therapy and prison counseling made surgery medically unnecessary.
In seeking a stay to postpone surgery while the case is litigated, the attorney general's office said the only urgency was the potential for Norsworthy to be paroled, which would make her case moot.
The state also argued that it would face security problems in determining where to house a gender-reassigned inmate, though the state system already has at least one prisoner who changed from male to female. That inmate is housed at a women's prison. The state told the court it has had to move her several times because of threats and assaults.
California corrections officials said a parole board meeting Thursday at Mule Creek State Prison, a facility for men near Ione, deemed Norsworthy eligible for release. This was her sixth time before the board. She had most recently been denied parole in 2013.
The state Board of Parole Hearings now has four months to review the grant. Gov. Jerry Brown will have 30 days after that to revoke the decision or allow it to go through, making release possible in October.
At the same time Thursday, a federal appeals panel granted the state's request to postpone the reassignment surgery and set a hearing for August on the state's appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Jon Tigar's ruling.
Norsworthy's attorneys at the Transgender Law Center said they were "thrilled" with her parole grant, noting that if the procedure is not performed in prison, Norsworthy will have access to government-paid "gender-affirming" surgery under Medi-Cal.
By court order, California has included gender reassignment surgery in state health plans since 2001.
The office that oversees prison medical services would not comment directly on Norsworthy's case, citing patient privacy laws. However, spokeswoman Joyce Hayhoe said, "current regulations only prohibit performing procedures that are not medically necessary."
California has 385 state prisoners who are receiving hormone drugs for gender dysphoria, Hayhoe said.