We, as a community, have fought hard for the respect that all people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation deserve. We have celebrated each and every step towards equal rights and we are very aware that we still have a ways to go to wipe out discrimination.
The transgender prison community, in fact, is where discrimination is highly prolific and yet it is one area where things remain stagnant. Transgender inmates are continually fighting an uphill battle as the state fails to ensure their safety and dignity.
Those who have lost the right to certain freedoms are unjustly denied their human rights. As a result the transgender prison community is left to believe that those in power, both within the institution and parliament, carry an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude.
The New Zealand trans* prison population is predominantly, if not exclusively made up of women.
Under current corrections policy prisoners are housed in a prison according to their genitalia unless they have undergone full sex reassignment surgery leaving transgender inmates vulnerable and susceptible to abuse.
Although the most pressing issue, this is far from the only one faced by transgender inmates.
Inside prison they are denied their dignity, forced to wear a uniform that doesn’t match their gender identity and referred to by their birth name, not their chosen name. During strip searches they are not given the choice as to the sex of the staff member who carries out the search. Those who had begun hormone treatment prior to detention are often denied the right to continue, those who had not yet begun treatment are refused the right to start.
Gemmah Huriwai is a woman who knows all too well the hardships faced by transgender women in New Zealand prisons. Huriwai, who spent time in prison from 1989 to 1991, now volunteers her time to work with transgender women currently in the system.
Having faced prison discrimination first hand, Huriwai makes her priority to offer these women some much-needed support. She says that although she may not be able to bring about policy change, the work she does is just as important to the inmates.
“I get all of the girls from around the prison and we have a cup of tea, a biscuit and catch up with each other. I think that’s the best kind of support I can offer them is themselves, together, because they aren’t in the same units and they come from different security levels,” she says.
The corrections department has acknowledged her dedication, however her work is hindered by a lack of funding.
While in prison, Huriwai was referred to by her birth name and forced to wear the mens’ uniform and ‘y’ fronts, a degrading experience she says. She was also initially denied the hormone treatment that she had been on for a number of years prior to her detention and says it was only after persistently fighting for that right that it was granted.
Ex-inmate Eringa Hoto spent 12 years in prison and was refused access to the hormone treatment she had begun prior to sentencing. She says she took up bodybuilding as a way to protect herself.
Hoto has been sexually assaulted twice while in custody, first at the age of 17. She says that even though staff had video evidence nothing was done about the vicious attack.
The second assault took place only a matter of months ago while she was awaiting bail. Hoto says she is usually segregated when in custody but was made to share a cell with a gang member who in turn attacked her.
“I deserve more then just a simple sorry, this has happened to me twice. I was supposed to be in their care and twice I ended up being raped,” she says.
“They need to treat us with more respect. We need to have laws that protect us.”
In February last year Green MP Jan Logie raised this issue with the Minister of Corrections Anne Tolley following the release of a report by the Chief Ombudsman criticising the housing of transgender inmates.
The report stated: “Transgender prisoners are particularly vulnerable to abuse and/or sexual assault, in part because of the general policy of housing them according to their birth gender, regardless of their current appearance or gender identity. A Health Centre Manager said, ‘abuse (of transgender prisoners) goes unrecorded in male prisons.’”
During question time, Logie asked: “Does she agree with the finding of the Chief Ombudsman that ‘transgender prisoners are particularly vulnerable to abuse and/or sexual assault’?”
The Minister replied: “Yes to verbal abuse, as are many prisoners, but no to sexual assault. All prisoners are assessed for safety and security on a case-by-case basis,” and went on to say that she is advised that only five out of a total of 8500 prisoners identify as transgender.
Logie then asked: “In light of the Ombudsman’s report that says ‘abuse (of transgender prisoners) goes unrecorded in male prisons’, what actions will you take to ensure transgender prisoners’ safety?”
To which Tolley replied: “My understanding is that the Ombudsman spoke to only one transgender prisoner and I am advised that there is no evidence of widespread sexual assault.”
Not only does Minister Tolley appear to lack any understanding or concern, but she ignorantly refuses to accept the immediacy of these issues.
Huriwai says she is astounded that the officials are unaware of the prevalence of transgender inmates in New Zealand and says: “they are sadly misinformed; in Mt Eden alone there is more then five.”
Clearly this highlights the need for transgender prisoner-specific research to be undertaken and Logie agrees, saying: “I think a comprehensive paper scoping all the issues from arrest to release would be helpful.”
“There are some fantastic examples of progressive policies that have been developed overseas that we could learn from and in many cases easily adopt,” she points out.
The Human Rights Commission is also on board with Logie, stating that: “International good practice increasingly focuses on enabling trans* prisoners to request where they are housed and for these decisions to be made on a principled case-by-case basis.”
“Some countries require trans* people who have had their birth certificate changed to have the option of being detained accordingly. For example, the 2011 United Kingdom policy states: “in most cases, prisoners must be located according to their gender as recognised under UK law.”
There is no dispute that this is a complex issue, which extends far beyond which prison transgender inmates are housed in.
We as a community need to bring this issue to the frontline and urge that something be done. Our amazingly fierce advocates such as Jan Logie need our support now more than ever.
“The Corrections Dept. and Minister denied the problem in 2012. Sadly it does look as if change will require a concerted push with community support,” she says.
“It’s not often I agree with American politicians, but I do agree with Vice President Joe Biden’s statement last year that transgender discrimination is ‘the civil rights issue of our time’ and it is a priority for me.”
“I am currently exploring a few options on how to progress this further – watch this space.”
| Sarah Murphy