Corrections in Transition

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Commit the crime, do the time – it’s a given! But what about transgender people in our prison systems who continue to pay the lifetime price of invalidation? It is enough to be incarcerated, but to be held within a premises intended for a gender you don’t fit is punishment additional and unfair. Elijah Michel wondered how our trans prisoners are faring, and what the Department of Corrections is doing to ensure ethical care for gender diverse inmates.

41-year-old trans woman Jenny* (a pseudonym) is serving a lengthy sentence in a men’s prison in the South Island. She came out transgender in 2002 and has yet to receive a diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria (required before being able to start HRT). It’s a lonely existence. “I’ve had to keep things close to my chest for my own safety,” she shares. “Most of [transwomen in men’s prisons] get hit on for sexual favours.” Jenny says she has been raped six times while in prison because she is transgender.

No Pride in Prisons representative Emmy Rakete shares her concerns: “Our main concern is that these prisoners will be at risk of violence, sexual and otherwise. Every study conducted on trans women in men’s prisons shows they are subject to sexual violence at 13 times the rate of the general prison population.”

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When asked what the ideal would be in the current justice system, Rakete responds “I think…those people themselves know best where they should be. I have friends who have whanau in prison who they want to stay near, even if that means being a woman in a men’s prison. Other people would rather be in a prison with people the same gender as them. People need to be able to go where they feel they will be safest – with the proviso that, of course, no prison can ever be truly safe.”

Corrections Officer Jason Dinnington-Curle has seen positive changes over the 9 years he has worked in the system: “There is a greater acceptance of LGBTI people as employees of Corrections, which in turn has enabled us to extend greater understanding to LGBTI prisoners.”

He admits prisoners are placed according to the gender on their birth certificate, however “[any] prisoner who believes their placement is incorrect is able to apply to the Chief Executive for review… and a range of factors are considered to ensure that no prisoner will be placed at risk.” He adds, “I do know of prisoners who view themselves as female asking to transfer back into a men’s prison because they feel safer there.”

In regards to complaints by inmates, Dinnington-Curle says, “Corrections takes allegations of mistreatment very seriously. Allegations of assault are referred to Police.”

Racheal McGonigal, trans advocate and supporter of Police and Prisons staff being included in Rainbow Community events, says “Corrections in the last two years have made changes to the handling of trans prisoners, clearly showing a willingness to improve.”

Dinnington-Curle agrees: “Corrections has come a long way and by our own admission have a way to go but change in the right direction always takes time and I feel we as a department have made huge strides. I think staff would benefit from more training about LGBTI and transgender people in particular.”

The Department of Corrections (and any such organisation) is made up of individuals – some are transphobic and need re-educating; some are nonplussed and therefore teachable; and some – those who can create a difference from the inside – are GLBTIQ, and therefore our brothers and sisters. Here’s hoping we can all march together in next year’s Pride Parade as one.

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