Corrections Department sues to force treatment of transgender inmate

The Department of Corrections is determined to keep Shawn Shannon Quinnones alive.

On Wednesday, the DOC filed suit in Centre County court for an injunction allowing Benner state prison personnel to forcibly provide medical services to Quinnones, 40, an inmate who has decided to stop eating. On Friday, Judge Pamela A. Ruest upheld her temporary injunction after a hearing in which Quinnones testified that her hunger strike was a protest of her treatment at the prison as a transgendered individual.

“No, I do not want to die,” Quinnones told the court via videoconferencing from Benner. Instead, she painted the 40-plus meals she had refused since June 24 as a cry for help. She told a story of being the only male-to-female preoperative transgender person in her housing area, despite requesting to be moved to another portion of the prison where other transgendered individuals were housed.

The DOC told a different story, one of a difficult inmate who creates problems for other people when she doesn’t get her way. Among Quinnones’s past charges are counts of assault by a prisoner and aggravated assault by a prisoner. She was found guilty at trial of those charges in 2008.

According to court documents, Quinnones first refused food on June 24, although she did have some liquids that day. Prison officials said in their filing that Quinnones did eat one meal on or around July 6, but since that time, she has also refused to drink any liquids.

The prison claims that Quinnones weighed 204 pounds on May 5. As of July 8, her weight was down to 168 pounds.

Quinnones, who suffers from asthma and hypertension and is HIV-positive, also has refused diagnostic testing and assessments, and all medications, including HIV medications Kaletra and Isentress, lactulose, asthma medications Ventolin and Alvesco, aspirin and diuretic hydrochlorothiazide.

“It is my professional medical opinion as Mr. Quinnones’ treating physician that, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, Mr. Quinnones is in imminent danger of the loss of life or other irreparable harm unless he begins to take regular nutrition,” said Andrew Dancha, Benner’s medical director, in an affidavit submitted to the court.

But Quinnones insists this was the only way to bring attention to transgender treatment at Benner.

“I am left to my own devices to survive on my own,” she said, telling the court of frequent advances and assaults by other prisoners. “My body is mine.”

Public defender David Crowley said it was not an issue of safety, but an issue of basic rights.

“Clearly, even an inmate has a right to protection of freedom of speech,” he said.

DOC attorney Timothy Holmes agreed, but said that those rights have to be weighed against the duties of the prison staff tasked with keeping inmates safe, even from themselves.

“The Department of Corrections is tasked with providing care, custody and control (of) the inmates,” spokeswoman Susan Bensinger said. “The ‘care’ part refers, in part, to providing treatment to ensure the well-being of both physical and mental health.”

The court agreed, but Ruest was not dismissive of Quinnones’ testimony.

“Hopefully some people have heard your message,” she said.