Unusual punishment

Cruel treatment often awaits trans prisoners

W hen I wrote about my fear of being arrested (“‘Don’t get arrested,’” Commentary, October 21), I found it extremely difficult to even think about what it would mean if I went to prison. Prisons are a central part of the state’s policy of gendering its people against their will.

Jails usually don’t recognize transsexual people’s gender identities. In the U.S., only New York State and the District of Columbia respect binary-identified trans inmates’ gender identities by allowing them placement in sex-segregated facilities that respect their identities. Of course, there’s no room anywhere for people who aren’t binary-identified. Instead, in the absence of contrary guidelines, prison staff tend to separate inmates based on their genitalia. Invasive methods, such as strip searches, are often the means of determining genitalia. This doesn’t just happen in the U.S. – on October 15, the National Post (“Sex changes for inmates a touchy new therapy”) reported that a B.C. prison official frisked a transwoman to determine her sex.

This policy of segregating inmates based on sex organs essentially treats prisoners as their genitals, rather than as human beings. Furthermore, it places trans inmates in a position where fellow inmates can harass or assault them.

In fact, because of this policy, trans inmates are under particularly high risk for sexual assault. For example, in California in 2007, a trans woman’s cellmate raped her in a male prison. In the court case following the assault, a criminologist testified that 59 per cent of California’s transgender inmates had been sexually assaulted, as compared with 4 per cent of the general population.

These instances in California are part of a far-reaching phenomenon. On June 23, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) recognized this, writing, “Male-to-female transgender individuals are at special risk. Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, testified before the Commission that one of his transgender clients was deliberately placed in a cell with a convicted sex offender to be raped. The assaults continued for more than 24 hours, and her injuries were so severe that she had to be hospitalized.”

Two other factors make prisons even worse. First, many trans inmates may fear reporting sexual assault because prison staff may blame them for causing the trouble, either because of the “blame the victim” attitude commonly found in sexual assault cases or because they believe that trans people choose to be trans. Second, as Erin O’Callaghan noted last week (“Pen pals for prisoners,” Mind & Body, November 3), prisons are also places where STIs, such as HIV or Hepatitis C, often spread, which, when coupled with transgender inmates’ higher risks for sexual assault, increases the risk of transmission. But other inmates aren’t the only danger – the prison staff themselves often harass trans inmates. For example, they may call trans inmates “Mr.” or “Ms.” or assign them clothing based on assigned sex rather than gender identity. Even worse, they may see trans inmates as potential (sexual) entertainment, just as other inmates do. For example, the NPREC also reported a case of a male prison official in D.C. forcing a transwoman to perform fellatio on him.

Prison systems also tend to further punish trans inmates by denying them medical treatment, such as sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) or hormone-replacement therapy (HRT). Prison officials argue that these procedures aren’t medically necessary, and that the public shouldn’t be funding “elective procedures.”

Fortunately, Correctional Services Canada has a policy respecting the need for hormone replacement therapy, and a federal court ruled that banning SRS for trans inmates was discriminatory in 2003 (though Canada still hasn’t come down in favour of respecting non-binary identities).

However, in the U.S., various levels of government often agree with prison officials that procedures like SRS and HRT should not be available. For example, Wisconsin enacted a law banning hormone replacement therapy for trans inmates, which – thankfully – is currently facing a court challenge.

Such attitudes are abhorrent. For some of us, these medical procedures are very clearly medically necessary. Before I went on HRT, I was chronically depressed and beginning to have suicidal thoughts. After I went on it, I started to become a functional human being. So to hear someone say that this isn’t medically necessary is just like spitting in my face. SRS is likewise medically necessary for some trans people.

Ultimately, the entire system of gendering inmates needs to go, including sex-segregated prisons. That’s the only way to treat people who aren’t binary-identified as equal human beings. For now, though, simply ensuring the health and safety of trans people would be an immense improvement.