Transgendered Inmate Is the Right’s Worst Nightmare

Gender reassignment surgery for prisoners underlines the high price of keeping criminals locked up.

There’s a story in the news this week that’s like a perfect storm of things that push the culture-war buttons of conservative Americans. Michelle Kosilek, who is transgendered and formerly named Robert Kosilek was convicted of the murder of his wife in 1990 and is serving a life sentence. Kosilek has been fighting in court for years to receive gender-reassignment surgery courtesy of the state. Following a more than decade-long legal battle, a judge last week ordered the state to perform the surgery, on cruel-and-unusual-punishment grounds.

This case is like the sum of all right-wing fears. Not only is it the soft-on-crime coddling of a convicted murderer, but it involves non-traditional sexual practices. And on top of that, the surgery would be done with taxpayer money.

It’s the sort of thing seemingly designed to make Bill O’Reilly’s head explode. Check out the comments on any newspaper story about this case—the only thing that would draw more outrage, I’d imagine, is if Kosilek were Muslim, or an illegal immigrant.

My argument isn’t necessarily that I’m in favor of or against the ruling. I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not especially familiar with the statutes, precedents and legal doctrines at play in this particular case.

On the one hand, a convicted wife-killer may not be the most ideal example for the case for transgender rights. On the other, I’ve heard it argued that state-mandated sex changes are irresponsible at a time when the government is running trillion-dollar budget deficits. Yeah, I’m not so sure avoiding the low five-figure cost of such a surgery would make much of a dent in the deficit.

Whenever someone argues that “I don’t want my tax money paying for THAT,” my response is usually that everyone who pays taxes pays for things of which they personally disapprove. Pacifists pay for wars and drone strikes. Stoners pay for drug enforcement. America’s biggest racists end up paying for federal affirmative-action programs, while taxpayer money from Eagles fans goes to pay for the Steelers stadium. In a society in which there’s a government that provides any services at all, that’s just the way it goes.

My other response is: What if Kosilek doesn’t get the surgery? She’s still going to spend the rest of her life in prison, at a pretty exorbitant taxpayer cost.

A sort of unspoken social compact was reached at some point in the early Clinton years: We as a society are going to put more people in prison for longer periods of time, and in exchange for that, there’s going to be less crime. And yes, despite the terrible carnage we’ve seen in Philadelphia and in other cities in recent years, there is considerably less crime now than there was 25 years ago.

The upside is, of course, less crime, while the downside is that a lot of people—especially nonviolent drug offenders—are behind bars for much longer than they probably should be, and rehabilitation is less of a goal than ever. In judging by the virtual absence of any crime discussion at either national political convention this year, it appears both political parties are happy with this arrangement and have little interest in changing it.

Another part of this, one that’s all but invisible in political discourse, is that with more and more people in prison, taxpayers are paying to clothe, feed and house tens of thousands of prisoners, not to mention pay for their health care.

And the cost of doing that, even in one prison, so dwarfs the cost of one prisoner’s gender reassignment surgery—however controversial—that it’s all but statistically insignificant.