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Selection of prison based on gender identity a victory, but alternatives to incarceration still needed, says advocate

Warning: This story contains disturbing references to a Trans person’s experience in prison and suicide

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – A new Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) policy means that Transgender women can now be sent to women’s prisons while Transgender men will serve their time in a men’s prison, if that is their preference. Under the old policy inmates were sent to the federal institution that “matched” their genitals, not their gender identity.

Photo Daniel Arauz / Flickr

The official change follows a CSC decision in early 2017 to assess each request for a transfer by a Transgender inmate on a case-by-case basis, while they reviewed the policy.

“We are overjoyed that CSC is making so many positive changes that recognize the human rights of Trans people in the correctional system,” said Jennifer Metcalfe, Executive Director, Prisoners’ Legal Services in a joint press release with CSC and the Human Rights Commission.

In 2015 Metcalfe, a lawyer with the West Coast Prison Justice Society, filed a human rights complaint claiming that CSC failed to accommodate transgender prisoners, including where they were housed.

In the complaint the Prison Justice Society says that Transgender women in men’s facilities specifically were at increased risk of, and in constant fear of, sexual assault. In their 2016-17 Annual Report federal Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger wrote that “the experience and impact, both physical and emotional, of the lack of recognition of gender identity and gender expression seems beyond comprehension.” Zinger cited the case of a particular Transgender inmate whose treatment by staff and inmates led to depression, a suicide attempt, and to them trying to perform surgery on their genitals.

“All of the complaints had systemic issues as part of them, but we weren’t able to get systemic remedies through individual complaints,” said Metcalfe. “So that’s why we decided to file a representative complaint that was only seeking systemic remedies.”

Transphobic culture in CSC prisons still needs to be addressed

This past summer the Montréal-based Prisoner Correspondence Project – which provides pen pals and resources to LGBTQIA2S+ prisoners – started a petition to change the CSC policy that has garnered nearly 5,000 signatures.

Rene Callahan-St John, a member of the Project’s organizing collective, views the change as a victory, but says there is much to do.

“I am still concerned that if a Trans person gets put into another institution that the staff there might not be trained on how to respectfully interact with a Transgender person,” said Callahan-St John. Other inmates also may not know interact with a Transgender person, added Callahan-St John.

“I feel like there’s a transphobic culture within CSC prisons and that as a whole needs to be addressed,” says Callahan-St John.

The policy itself states that CSC “will continue to provide education and awareness to staff and offenders and work to ensure that the health, safety and dignity of everyone is respected at all times.”

But training isn’t mandatory, Callahan-St John points out.

“So that leaves Trans people still very vulnerable to be working with people who have a lot of power over them who aren’t equipped at all to interact respectfully with a Trans person,” says Callahan-St John. “It still feels very scary.”

In October of 2017 the Nova Scotia Advocate reported about transphobic comments made by a staff person at Truro’s Nova Institution for Women to the Chronicle Herald.

Metcalfe hopes to work with CSC and the Human Rights Commission (HRC) to ensure that “Trans prisoners are treated with dignity and respect and that their safety concerns will be addressed in prison.” The West Coast Prison Justice Society will be tracking the policy’s implementation, Metcalfe adds.

Pronouns, Bathrooms, and Privacy

The suite of changes announced January 31 also include: using the Transgender person’s “preferred” name and pronoun in oral and written communication; only sharing information about a Transgender prisoner’s gender identity with those directly involved in their care; accomodations in regards to showers and toilets; and the choice of a male or female staff person to frisk, strip search, do urine testing, or surveille the inmate.

Transgender inmates will also be allowed to buy authorized clothes and other personal items from either the men’s or women’s catalogue “if there are no safety, health or security concerns.”

The West Coast Prison Justice Society Human Rights complaint states that “not being able to wear make-up, bras, or to access shaving items can cause great stress and depression for transgender women.”

Together with several of their Transgender members incarcerated in federal prisons The Prisoner Correspondence Project has drafted a list of minimum requirements for CSC including providing access to clothing and personal items, via one non-gender-specific catalogue, regardless of gender.

Callahan-St John knows of a Trans woman in a men’s facility denied a wig due to concerns that she would use it to conceal her identity. A second woman told the Project that the makeup she had saved up for was destroyed by prison guards, only later to have her clothing from the women’s catalogue destroyed by inmates in the laundry facility.  

While some of the Project’s asks have been addressed by the recent changes, there are still some big ones left. These include ending involuntary segregation and making it easier for community groups to visit inmates.

“A huge problem for Trans people who are incarcerated is that they are severely isolated. They don’t have other Trans people who are in the prison and there may not be Trans friendly staff,” says Callahan-St John. This leaves people vulnerable to depression and anxiety, adds Callahan-St John.

Maintaining ties with community is key to rehabilitation once they leave prison, Callahan-St John says.

Number one on the Project’s list though is working on ways to “redress harm and repair damage that reduce our reliance on cages and punishment” and investing in social programs that keep people out of prisons.

“What we see as a priority is prioritizing alternatives to incarceration for Trans people because federal prisons are not safe for Trans people,” says Callahan-St John.

See also: Staff person’s harmful comments about Trans inmate remain unaddressed

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