Report on the EJP Symposium: The Rights of Transgender People in Prison

Eugenia Woo, Communications Co-Manager

The rights of transgender people in prison is considered a controversial issue in New Zealand. Transgender prisoners are entitled to a range of legal rights and protections under legislation, though recent allegations of discrimination and abuse have put the system under the spotlight. From the efforts of No Pride In Prisons to facilitate Jade Follett’s transfer to a women’s prison, to the pro-bono work carried out by Kelly Ellis across New Zealand, one thing is clear - there is a dissonance in the prison system when it comes to the practice of upholding and safeguarding the rights of transgender prisoners.

In the wake of multiple allegations against Corrections officers abusing transgender prisoners, the EJP Access team put together a Symposium on this topic. Access Co-Managers Linda Lim and Maree Cassaidy and their volunteers arranged for Ti Lamusse (No Pride in Prisons representative, Kelly Ellis (barrister and advocate for transgender rights), and Lexie Matheson (lecturer at Auckland University of Technology) to speak at the resulting panel discussion. While the Access team endeavoured to keep the panel as balanced as possible in terms of viewpoints, Corrections did not reach a suitable agreement with EJP on the topic of sending a speaker to represent their perspective. As per EJP practice, a research paper on the topic was compiled and disseminated to all panelists and made available to members of the public.

The symposium began with a reading of the statement given by Corrections to EJP in lieu of attending the symposium. This statement covered a variety of issues identified by EJP as concerns for transgender prisoners, and attempted to address most of those concerns as best as a run-of-the-mill press release can. A particular point stood out to the speakers and the crowd - Corrections directly refuted allegations that rape is a systemic issue in New Zealand prisons. The panelists then introduced themselves and gave the audience some background information about their involvement with the issue of transgender prisoners and their rights. Lexie Matheson spoke extensively on the necessary invention of groups such as NPIP and the importance of their work to transgender advocacy. She also spoke about this year’s Pride Parade, her history in advocacy, and the very real dangers being faced by transgender inmates that have systematically been ignored.

Ti Lamusse opened with a statement about the work done by NPIP and also briefly about their own advocacy work and their study at the University of Auckland. Since NPIP is an organisation that supports the abolition of prisons entirely, Lamusse’s stance bears strong similarities to its ethos, though they did mention exploring processes that bridge the gap between our current systems and eradicating incarceration. Kelly Ellis then led her introduction by responding to Corrections’ statement. She acknowledged the work that EJP has done, and specifically mentioned the report on transgender issues that the organisation contributed to in 2014 as instrumental to Corrections’ decision to change its policies.

All speakers were in agreement about the fact that transgender people are specifically being singled out in prisons for punitive treatment. Ellis was clear that in her 25 years as a criminal barrister working with transgender prisoners, she had not heard of a single transgender prisoner who had not been sexually assaulted in some way during their incarceration. The mood was somber after that, and appropriately so. Matheson spoke at length about the procedures that transgender prisoners have to subject themselves to if they wish to make a complaint, and reminded everyone that “if complaints are made by prisoners against police staff, then the police are essentially allowed to investigate themselves” - it is part of prison-mandated procedure.

While the topic of Corrections staff became heated, the speakers also chimed in on the topic of the Auckland Pride Parade, which some said was symbolic of others ignoring the injustices being done to transgender individuals. Matheson and Lamusse were adamant that Corrections should not be allowed to march in uniform. While most of the panel was insistent that Corrections had no right to march at all, Matheson made the concession that “they could march as individuals, but not as uniformed representatives of an institution that is actively resisting change”. It was made very clear by all speakers that the Pride Parade was, and will be, an event that does not speak for all of the LGBTQIA community unless something changes.

When asked about the material experience of transgender prisoners in New Zealand, the speakers were in agreement that it was an experience of “systemic sexual violence”. The statement issued by Corrections was referred to by both Lamusse and Matheson, and it was expressed that Corrections was wrong in saying that rape is not an issue in prison; they felt that Corrections’ policies directly contribute to sexual violence. Lamusse pointed the audience towards the Corrections Act 2004, which mandates that strip searching is compulsory for all prisoners, and spoke of the invasive and unacceptable violation that this procedure subjects transgender inmates to.

Following some questions about how prison inmates are sorted into prisons, Lamusse reminded us that when a person is taken to prison, they are taken to the prison that matches the gender on their birth certificate. For a lot of transgender people, the process of getting a sex change on one’s birth certificate is lengthy and pricey, and therefore inaccessible. Ellis also mentioned that staff are supposed to “identify” transgender prisoners and make applications on their behalf for transfers to the appropriate facility, but that such action had not been taken. The speakers also spoke about their personal issues and experiences with gender, and it was clear that for a transgender individual coming out in prison, the process would be particularly difficult.

The speakers provided a comprehensive critique of Corrections’ policies, and all were in agreement that change would be a long time coming, mainly because of the lack of a receptive attitude to the plight of transgender people expressed both in prisons and in society. Matheson spoke passionately about the importance of allies and supporters such as EJP for the initiatives and the work of groups against the current prison system. The consensus was that when policy solutions for transgender prisoners are considered, that would not be the only incarcerated group to consider - racist policing practices and New Zealand’s racist penal system would have to be dealt with before successful reform for transgender inmates would be possible.

There were clearly many different layers to achieving a system that would uphold and protect the rights of transgender individuals, and it was heartening to hear suggestions from the speakers about the way forward for Corrections and for the country. We hope that the symposium presented the complex considerations necessary in discussing a topic like this in a sensitive and meaningful way.

The Equal Justice Project would like to thank everyone who took the time to attend the symposium. We also extend a thank you to our speakers and their invigorating participation in the panel discussion. To all the organisations and outlets who provided coverage of the event, we thank you for your support.

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