Corrections Needs Trans Transparency

By Hannah Gabriel

Trans woman Jade Follett is currently imprisoned in Rimutaka Mens Prison near Wellington. She requested to be transferred to the nearby Arohata Womens Prison over two months ago. Queer activist group No Pride in Prisons recently announced that they will be holding a hunger strike until Jade’s transfer request is accepted. Corrections responded by saying that they only received Jade’s application to transfer in the last couple of days.

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Members of No Pride In Prisons

Corrections policy is that prisoners are kept in the prison that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate. Birth certificates are incredibly difficult to change – an application must be made to the Family Court and the Court must be satisfied that the applicant has “undergone such medical treatment as is usually regarded by medical experts as desirable to enable persons of the genetic and physical conformation of the applicant at birth to acquire a physical conformation that accords with the gender identity of a person of the nominated sex”.

This has been interpreted by the Family Court to mean that only people who have had full gender reassignment surgery or people who have been on hormone replacement therapy for upwards of 30 years are eligible to have their birth certificates changed. Other identification, such as passports and drivers licences, only require a statutory declaration from the person that they identify as the gender that they wish their identification to reflect.

As there are only two government funded gender reassignment surgeries per year and it is otherwise out of the price range of most trans people, and not all trans people want surgery, this is an incredibly difficult requirement to meet. Although records are scarce, it is likely that only a very small percentage of the trans population changes their birth certificates, as it is difficult and changing other identification is much simpler and is used more often.

Because initial prison placement is tied to birth certificate identification most, if not all, trans people in prison will initially be placed in the wrong prison. At this stage, prisoners can request a transfer. Whether or not a person is transferred is entirely at the discretion of Corrections. It means there are potentially many trans prisoners whose gender has not been accepted by Corrections and who are therefore stuck in the wrong prison.

Since No Pride in Prisons found out about Jade’s situation, there have been multiple attempts, including from JustSpeak, to get information from Corrections about how they look after trans and intersex prisoners in general. Very simple information was asked for, such as:

  1. How many trans prisoners are there in New Zealand at any time?

  2. How many of those prisoners are being kept in a prison that aligns with their gender?

  3. How many prisoners have requested to be moved on the basis of gender, and how many of those requests have been approved/denied?

  4. What are the conditions of trans prisoners incarceration? – This was asked because there are concerns that trans prisoners, especially those being housed in the wrong prison, are being kept in segregation for very extended periods of time. Segregation for safety is a valid concern, but long periods of segregation is inhumane and in some circumstances amounts to torture.

Corrections responded to all requests by saying that information on trans prisoners is not held centrally and that it would take too long for someone to go through all the individual prisoner files to find the relevant information. This means that there is no way for the information to become publicly available, as individual prisons are not able to be separately OIA’d. It is unacceptable for Corrections to not have knowledge of its own prisoners.

Trans people are one of the most discriminated against groups in our society, and in an environment as violent as prison it is important that evidence based measures are put in place to protect trans people against violence. If Corrections holds no information on its trans population that shows that they are making no effort to find out how trans people are treated and remedy any concerns. Because no information is held, we can’t know if trans people are being kept in segregation, in the wrong prison, if they have mental health issues, if they are self-harming or if they are more likely than other prisoners to be involved in prisoner-on-prisoner assaults.

Corrections cannot continue to say that it does not know what is happening. Corrections has the ability to find this information and do something about this issue and the public, especially the trans community, has a right to know about what is happening.

We would love to hear from any trans people who have recently been in prison and who would be interested in speaking to us about their experiences. If Corrections continues to refuse to address this issue systemically, then JustSpeak would like to conduct interviews with trans prisoners and former prisoners to build up an evidence base of what is really happening, so that we can take that to Corrections and to MPs and demand action.