First Vt. inmate to receive gender-affirming surgery

Published: Aug. 18, 2022 at 6:39 PM EDT
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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - In what is believed to be a first for Vermont, an incarcerated person is set to receive gender-affirming surgery. It’s a procedure that helps people to transition to their self-identified gender and can include facial surgery, top surgery, or bottom surgery. Dom Amato spoke with Robin Baughman about what transition surgery means to her and how the Vermont Department of Corrections is working on transitioning its protocols for transgender inmates.

Robin Baughman has lived inside the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, Vermont’s prison for women, for about two years. She says she was moved there in December of 2020 after being imprisoned with men for more than two decades. Now, despite her incarceration, the transgender woman says she’s trying to end the stigma around her gender identity, and she’s breaking barriers along the way.

“Trying to hide who I was for so long, I think, was responsible for a lot of my life’s problems,” Baughman said. The transgender woman from Ohio has been in prison since 2001. She was arrested before she began publicly identifying as a woman. “I am incarcerated for murder,” she said

“I’m saddened and I regret and I’m very remorseful and I hate how everything occurred,” Baughman said.

Baughman was convicted of killing her mother in Barton in 2001. Police say 51-year-old Susan Kautz was shot in the head and was found in a shallow grave behind her home.

Reporter Dom Amato: How has your life changed since then?

Robin Baughman: It’s changed drastically. I’m an entirely different person.

As young as eight-years-old, Baughman says she felt like she was born in the wrong body. She says she felt like she had to hide her identity, fearing she would be bullied or beaten. But she says living in secret eventually led to living in a prison cell. “I couldn’t process problems back then. I couldn’t move past certain things. I just didn’t have a grasp on life,” Baughman said.

While at out-of-state men’s facilities, Baughman says staff didn’t know how to address her transition needs and that she had been raped multiple times by inmates while trying to hide her identity. She says she finally decided enough was enough. “As I opened up, I started to embrace who I was. I started to love who I was. I mean, I hated myself for so long,” Baughman said.

She says there were ups and downs with staff, including pronoun misusage and peers who didn’t accept her. “The ridicule and all of that that goes along with it can be difficult to deal with,” she said.

Baughman eventually got transferred to the women’s prison in South Burlington. The DOC protocol to relocate is not an easy process to navigate and includes extensive paperwork and interviews.

“We want to make sure we’re getting it right,” said Vt. Corrections Commissioner Nick Deml. He says the department created a directive on Gender Identification, Care and Custody in 2015. It affirms the department has zero tolerance for discrimination and includes protocols for housing trans people. “We focus on the needs of the individual, the safety for that individual, the safety for the population more broadly.”

But Deml says the directive isn’t perfect. Right now, he says 19 out of 1,300 inmates identify as transgender. All identity as women but only five are housed at the women’s facility. The other 14 are at in-state male facilities.

Deml says they review all individuals who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming on a case-by-case basis. He says that placement status is reviewed every six months but that placement can be reviewed at any time if a request is made. “Trying to figure out the best balance for safety, wellness, health care for all the individuals in our system is really challenging, so this area introduces some new variables in our process that we need to adjust to and be really responsive to,” he said.

Baughman says it’s been a slow process having DOC adjust care for trans people. She says she didn’t start receiving hormone medication treatments until 2018 and that the steps to surgery have been a series of interviews and appointments that were all hampered by the pandemic. “The process has been very taxing, mentally,” she said.

“That pathway can be agonizingly long and frustrating for a lot of folks,” said Dr. Scott Strenio, the Vermont DOC’s medical director. He says trans health care has evolved in the last 10 years inside -- and outside -- of Vermont prisons. Inside, they have implemented the community standard of care, offering the same medical treatments as people get outside of prison. That now includes treatment for “gender dysphoria,” the psychiatric diagnosis for a person who describes a sense of unease because of a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity. “That’s a medical condition that needs to be treated like any other medical condition.”

Baughman says she’s met the complicated criteria for the operations. Her procedure which could cost up to range from $100,000, will be covered by taxpayers, as are all health care costs for incarcerated individuals.

“To make myself more complete as a person, I need the surgeries. It’s not really a question of wanting -- it’s a necessity for me,” Baughman said.

Dr. Strenio says leaving any medical condition untreated could lead to the possibility of re-incarceration. “Our goal is to ensure that they can transition and be released into the community, be successful, be healthy,” he said.

For Baughman, it’s a new start. “It’s like my middle name -- Robin Dawn -- the dawn of a new era,” she said. And an opportunity to inspire others struggling with their identity. “I hope that my story might touch anyone out there that’s questioning whether or not to come out of hiding. Or, just be who you are, just be yourself.”

Baughman says as humans we do wrong, then we do better. The now 46-year-old plans to stay in Vermont and live a productive life when she is released. The earliest she could be released is 2034.