Crouched in her cell, Ophelia De'lonta hoped three green disposable razors from the prison commissary would give her what the Virginia Department of Corrections would not—a sex change. She’s tried herself many times, but failed to get rid of "that thing" between her legs. De'lonta filed a federal lawsuit last week claiming the state has failed its duty to provide adequate medical care because it won't treat her gender identity disorder with the operation. Prisons not only have to provide adequate medical care, they must also protect inmates from themselves. But correctional officials and lawmakers balk at using taxpayer money for operations that can cost up to $20,000.
Some physical changes have taken place. Hormones won under a court order have caused her to develop noticeable breasts, another successful court order requires all prison workers to refer to her as a woman. But De'lonta snapped in October—using knowledge gained from mail-order anatomy books, De'lonta cut on and off for three hours before she passed out. It took 21 stitches and an expensive airlift to repair the damage. De'lonta’s castration attempts begin at age 12, and by 17, she was robbing banks with the hopes of getting enough money to have a sex change. By 18, she was in prison, sentenced to more than 70 years for robbery, drugs, weapons and other charges. If she loses her lawsuit, the 50-year-old says she will continue to try self-surgery—acknowledging another attempt could kill her. "That's a possibility," she says. "But at the end I would have peace." (Read more inmates stories.)