Transgender Prisoners – Corrections making rules faster than it can follow them

By   /   October 9, 2015  /   6 Comments

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The ability to access medical treatment for trans people on the inside, or the outside is fraught with problems. For many, the only way to gain access is through the sexual health clinics of major hospitals. Even then, many are turned away and are told to access the minimum three month counselling privately, at their own expense.

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Recent breaches by prisons of Corrections rules relating to transgender prisoners indicate there is still systemic prejudice within the embattled organisation.

With mechanisms in place to ensure that even “undocumented” transgender prisoners can go to the prison that matches their gender, it should be easy to avoid the horror of the prison rape of trans women by men. But despite the window-dressing legislation change from more than a year ago, continued efforts to block bids for trans equality are evident from this Government.

Recently there have been celebrations regarding the second anniversary of marriage equality in New Zealand. The question was posed: How far have we come?

After missing her appointment with Probation, the Judge was not impressed when she appeared in court for sentencing on a charge of shoplifting. Increasing the incentive for her to comply next time, he made it a term of her bail that she attends at Probation the next day. A hand around her upper arm guided her through the door in to the cells while she waited for her bail bond to be prepared.

Ushered quickly into a cell, her eyes slowly grew accustomed to the dark. In the corner was a large man who, used to the dark, had already assessed and commodified her. He got to his feet and knocked her to the ground with a heavy open-hand blow to the temple. As she lay on the floor of the cell he removed his tee-shirt so she could see his gang affiliations. His trousers, minus their belt, fell easily. He grabbed her by the back of the hair and pulled her forward. She knew not to resist. She knew she was lucky to get off this light. She knew the drill. It was all over in a couple of minutes, for him at least.

A few short years ago the then Minister of Corrections thought she’d cured the problem of trans prisoners by stating there were only three in New Zealand’s prisons.

Following Corrections’ own self-serving guidelines and regulations, the advice she received was based on a strict “physical conformity” test. Simply put, only those who’d had gender reassignment surgery to their genitals were recognised.

Meanwhile, what is believed to be a prison population of up to 30 trans prisoners languished in prisons that did not match their gender. The trans women in particular are almost universally the subject of sexual abuse and other violence. These were the people who hadn’t had expensive genital surgery, only available overseas. As prisoners, usually with records, their prospects of earning the money for surgery are slim at best, even if they are able to get a visa to travel.

For many it doesn’t matter so much; having lost every last shred of self-esteem, the downward spiral drift for her became an engulfing vortex.

Even in the USA, it’s recognised that denying trans people treatment while in prison is cruel and unusual punishment. But that didn’t stop New Zealand Corrections refusing her access to treatment once she was under its care. With policy specifically excluding the care she evidently needed, she felt she had no hope. Even on “segs” where she was supposed to be safe, she locked her cell from the inside 23 hours a day, wondering how she could get away, but realising that in her small provincial world where no one recognised her identity, she’d just be trading one prison for another.

Yes, outside was little better. Despite her clearly feminine presentation, no one respected this. Even her doctor completely ignored her evident need for, at least, someone to talk to. He gripped his Viagra pen and remembered the Pfizzer conference in Hawaii. Ah, those were the days. He prescribed her anti-depressants and warned her not to drink, even though he knew she drank until it didn’t hurt.

The ability to access medical treatment for trans people on the inside, or the outside is fraught with problems. For many, the only way to gain access is through the sexual health clinics of major hospitals. Even then, many are turned away and are told to access the minimum three month counselling privately, at their own expense.

That inhumane treatment of trans patients comes as no surprise to trans people. In a punitive society like New Zealand, we got recognised in the Sentencing Act, but are still seen as “controversial” – too much so for inclusion in the Human Rights Act.

The fight for rights hit the streets at Stonewall and alliances with homosexuals were formed, but half a century down the track, they’re celebrating with Pride. The lack of traction trans people have within the rainbow community, let alone the broader one is seen by many as nothing to be proud of.

Even though Corrections might have changed its regulations and policies, trans women are still housed with men and while legally they have a right to treatment, they’re being offered access to a service which doesn’t exist.

While trans women fought shoulder to shoulder with homosexuals for rainbow rights, there are many who see trans issues as having been thrown under the bus by a broader rainbow community blinded by its own fabulosity.

Two years on after marriage equality there is much to be happy about and much to celebrate.

Meanwhile a woman protests for her imprisoned comrade. There is no pride when this is being done to our community. But it’s not our community now. It’s pomp and pageantry – a celebration. Her arm is broken as she is assaulted by organisers and security. “Fucking tranny’s raining on our parade, darling,” they cry. No one is charged. Nothing is done.

How far have we come? Not very far it seems.

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About the author

Kelly Ellis

Contributor

A staunch human rights advocate and barrister, she ran on the Labour ticket in that electorate in 2014. When not working or politicking she plays with old cars and motorbikes, sails, fishes, cooks or hides out on her boat.

6 Comments

  1. Brody says:

    So what exactly is the solution here by the way. Genuinely curious cause I get mixed answers. Should a trans prisoners get to choose which gender they are housed with, or put into the gender they have chosen without a choice?

    • Lara says:

      I would have thought it’s rather obvious.

      Trans people should be housed with the gender they present as.

      The gender they consistently try to tell us they are!

      Which is not the gender they were assigned at birth.

      • Brody says:

        Ok thank you, that it what I thought too. I was talking with someone the other day and they were arguing that women that transition into men shouldn’t be forced into men’s prisons, which seemed to be an inconsistent position.

        • Lara says:

          I think the problem there is that we quite rightly view mens prisons as very dangerous places, where inmates are beaten and raped by other inmates often.

          They need to be safer.

          Doing time should mean doing time. Not being beaten and raped repeatedly throughout that time.

          But I don’t think middle NZ gives a shit about prisoners. And the threat of rape in a mens prison is treated as a joke and as a threat at the same time.

          And Serco sure is not helping. Its making things much much worse.

          Its truly disgusting how we incarcerate people and leave them to such a fate, and then later let them out and expect them to somehow make a good life with little or no support. And then we tut tut when they reoffend. Its inhumane and it doesn’t work. They’re not rehabilitated. That would need empathy and support, and they don’t seem to get much of that.

  2. S says:

    As a gay male who smokes cannabis for medicinal reasons now, as well as recreational use, I’m often terrified by the thought that I could get busted and go to jail. I’m almost certain I’d get raped the fuck out of. Through someone I know I heard an account of someone working in health who attended a prison call out to deal with someones wounds. This 24 year old was in for minor crimes, probably being raped the woman felt, and was very concerned that “they are gonna get me” and stating that he was going to kill himself that night. He wept into her lap about it. When she approached a guard about getting this guy out of there, she was basically told to mind her own business.

    He was later transferred. But it sounds like things got pretty bad before they got any better for that guy. As someone committing what I think we can all acknowledge is a minor crime, if a crime at all (it shouldn’t be lol), every day…I worry about how I would fare in a system clearly broken by ignorance and the total denial of governmental responsibility to ensure a healthy, happy society. The situation we currently face, I would say, has literally made me sick to my stomach… hence why I use cannabis. It’s the only thing I have found that can stop the diarrhea and the medical system is another broken down old joke, which makes it incredibly hard to get access to meaningful mental health services for your depression. It’s easier to access pills, months after which have still left you with gastrointestinal turmoil and the only thing that you’ve found helps it is outlawed and could see you behind bars being raped and probably beaten??

    How is it not obvious to this government that these systems are failing people?

  3. Heather tanguay says:

    Everyone who ever they are, have three right to be safe in New Zealand prisons
    There are no ifs or buts