Corrections Continues to Fail Transgender Prisoners – And Breaches the Official Information Act

“We are sensitive to the needs of transgender prisoners including the issues surrounding their placement and safety.”

That’s the line we got in every single press release from Corrections about transgender inmates this year. During the hunger strike for Jade Follett, who was being held in Rimutaka, a men’s facility, despite her request for a transfer, that’s what they said (along with denying the existence of her transfer request, considering they lost it). When news broke of a trans woman being assaulted and raped in Wiri, another men’s facility, that’s what they said. If someone confirms the rumours that the prisoner who committed suicide in Mt Eden was trans, that’ll be what they say (as an aside, if anyone has information about this, please get in touch with either myself or No Pride in Prisons). They’ve fallen back on this line over and over again in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

Corrections has never responded satisfactorily to activists and advocates and their demands for better, safer treatment of trans people in prisons. They have not responded satisfactorily to No Pride in Prisons’ attempts to hold them accountable. They did not take responsibility for the rape in Wiri, a direct result of their policy around trans placement and their double-bunking policy. They have not taken any steps to improve their placement policy beyond the Minister of Corrections, Sam Lotu-Iiga, stating that the policy was “fairly new” and that if it kept failing he’d look at changing it.

When the news broke that Jade Follett had been transferred, we kept pushing for more. I was explicit in my interviews with press that this transfer wasn’t the whole issue and that policy around initial placement needed to be addressed, including around remand facilities. It isn’t clear in the Corrections Prison Manual whether trans prisoners are placed in the correct remand facility or whether they’re eligible for transfer while awaiting sentencing, but we know both Jade Follett and Daytona Haenga more recently were in men’s remand facilities – Haenga ended up in protective segregation while in remand.

Corrections also need to address their transfer policy around serious sexual assault – currently a trans prisoner cannot be transferred to the correct and safer facility if they have been convicted of a serious sexual assault against their gender. Anecdotal evidence seems to point to the fact that trans people can be convicted of ‘serious sexual assault’ for not disclosing their trans status before a sexual interaction. Regardless of the details of the conviction, however, deliberately exposing trans women to a 13x higher rate of sexual abuse is torture, and at the very least surely counts as “disproportionately severe” in the eyes of the law. Either way, Corrections’ policy around this is abhorrent and needs to be repealed.

Back in June and July a group of us submitted a range of Official Information Act requests to Corrections asking for information about trans and intersex prisoners and their conditions. Specifically, we asked about how many transgender prisoners there were and where they were being held. Corrections refused to answer, stating “we cannot readily extract statistics about numbers of current and former transgender prisoners from our records,” that they would “be required to manually review a large number of files” to get that information, and that was not “an appropriate use of our publicly funded resources”. Today, Deputy National Commissioner Rachel Leota told Radio NZ that there were 20 transgender prisoners in Corrections facilities.

Where did this data come from? Did they suddenly decide, now that there’s more public focus on these issues, that extracting this data was an appropriate use of public funds? Are our lives and safety only worthwhile when there’s public outcry? Did Corrections take Sophie Buchanan’s advice and find someone to call up the manager of each facility to get an estimate (and respond to RNZ but not the long-overdue OIA request?)

This is just another example of Corrections showing a complete disregard for incarcerated trans people and the advocates trying to improve things.

It’s time for Minister Lotu-Iiga to take action and do something, instead of waiting for Corrections policy to continue to fail trans prisoners with horrific results. It’s time for placement policy to be changed. It’s time for some kind of process, before placement into remand, identifying the needs of trans prisoners and where they need to be for their safety. It’s time to get rid of the frankly torturous serious sexual assault part of the transfer policy.

It’s time for Corrections to take responsibility for the harm they have caused and continue to cause, and to admit that they are not, in fact, “sensitive to the needs of transgender prisoners including the issues surrounding their placement and safety.”

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