Eighteen months on, the Department of Corrections has yet to produce the Transgender Action Plan that would ensure the safety of trans prisoners. The Auckland Pride Board did not allow the Department to march in the February 2017 Parade due to this lack of action. Ms Lexie Matheson, acting co-chair of the Auckland Pride Board says the ongoing delay “is of concern”.
Corrections were allowed to march in the February 2016 parade as the result of their promise in late 2015 to produce the Plan. At that parade, prison abolitionist group People Against Prisons Aotearoa, (PAPA) brought the parade to a temporary halt, protesting the perceived mistreatment of transgender prisoners. PAPA spokesperson Emilie Rakete says that as a queer woman, seeing no plan appear after eighteen months is “disappointing”.
Some male-to-female trans prisoners are still being double-bunked with male prisoners, which in the past has led to the trans prisoner being harmed. Neil Beales, Chief Custodial Officer for the Department, states that since February 2014 transgender inmates, including those pre- and mid-gender-transition, have been able to apply to be placed in a prison where they identify with the gender of the prisoners managed in that prison. However Ms. Matheson says that it can take months for a prisoner’s application for facility reassignment to be processed. “Nothing has been done” to formally change the policy on double-bunking, says Ms. Matheson.
The Department claims that transgender prisoners are accommodated in single cells and may only share cells with other transgender prisoners who have the same sex assigned at birth, and have consented to share a cell. Corrections reports there are around 12 to 20 trans prisoners nationwide.
A second issue is the continuing practice of isolating trans prisoners for up to twenty-three hours per day. The United Nations has categorised this treatment as “torture”. Last October, four members of PAPA were arrested while they protested at a Corrections facility in Hamilton over the isolation of a transgender woman prisoner at Spring Hill facility in the Waikato. The Department has justified this policy, saying the woman was isolated “for her own safety”.
Media spokesperson for PAPA Emilie Rakete, labelled the Department’s actions “transphobic” and expressed serious concerns that the woman would harm herself if the isolation continued. Ms Rakete says that this practice “absolutely is still occurring” and that there has so far been no legislative change to safeguard against it.
No Evidence of More Rainbow Staff in Prisons
PAPA spokesperson Emilie Rakete says that as far as her prisoner advocacy group is concerned, more gay staff will make little difference to the situation. “Maori prison guards do not make prison less racist. Gay prison guards do not make prison any less traumatic for rainbow prisoners”, she says.
The Department began a major staff recruitment drive in March 2016 to deal with a mounting prison population now numbering over 10,000. The drive has so far added more than 850 new personnel.
Pride Has The Door Open
Pride co-chair Lexie Matheson is herself a transgender woman. A formidable and well-known figure in the Auckland rainbow community, she says that her experience of treatment by the police has been “appalling to say the least”. “My commitment to bringing about change with both the NZ Police and the Department of Corrections has been deeply personal”, she says. “What we want is for Corrections practice to mirror policies. The policies are OK, the practice much less so. I guess staff who step out of line in this area should be held accountable.” She looks forward to the completion of the Action Plan by the Department, saying “Pride has the door open.”