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A trans woman's story of prison abuse

Fri 5 Jul 2013 In: True Stories View at Wayback View at NDHA

A transsexual woman has shared horrific accounts of the physical and sexual abuse she has suffered in custody. Read what she shares, and you’ll understand why campaigners are desperately urging Corrections to change its policy housing trans prisoners based on the sex on their birth certificate. “I feel that I am a woman. I have felt like this since my earliest memory,” Tanya* explains. “I have often been perceived as female and during my life I have tried very hard to escape this by being ultra-masculine at times and doing things like bodybuilding.” She has now been living ‘fulltime’ as a female for more than a decade. “Although this was a formal transition, the reality is I was always seen as female or queer before that. Accepting myself as female has been the biggest challenge in my life. Now that I have accepted that, I believe I can build a brighter future. Indeed I feel a lot more hopeful these days but do appreciate I have a long way to go.” Tanya was first raped when she was 12. She says after that her life went downhill and she became withdrawn and involved myself in petty crime and drugs. “Inevitably this led me into custody. I was first raped in a police cell when I was 17 … the man was a gang member and was very dirty. When the rape finished there was blood everywhere and the police came and took me into another cell.” Despite wanting to complain, and there being surveillance cameras in the cell, Tanya says police weren’t interested. When she was bailed she went straight to a doctor and was given antibiotics. “I was staying in a hostel at the time. I felt there was nothing I could do. I pushed the ‘off button’ to my emotions and just blocked it all out.” During her most recent stint in custody, just a matter of months ago, Tanya was put into a cell to wait while a bail bond was prepared. She was not segregated. “A gang member was put in a cell with me and I was raped. I didn’t cry out because I was frightened. He had a t-shirt over the top of his gang colours. The appearance of the gang insignia was enough to frighten me into submission. He came from a gang which has a terrible reputation for retribution. He told me to take my pants down and pushed his penis into my mouth where he quickly ejaculated.” Tanya was released with a new bail bond a short time afterwards. When she saw her Probation officer later in the day and told him what had happened, she said she didn’t want to make a complaint because she was afraid of the repercussions. “I don’t want to run. I’m sick of running. I’m tired. The consequences of complaining are very frightening. There is no benefit in complaining. It will just make my life more difficult, particularly at a time when a prison term could be imposed.” Tanya didn’t go to a doctor, as she just wanted to go home. When she told her landlord and landlady they urged her to make a complaint, but she felt she couldn’t, “especially because of my troubled background and the certain violence that I would face if I go to prison.” She has also been physically assaulted in prison, while in segregation, by a prisoner who was in charge of serving food. “He was giving short rations to me and two other trans women in the unit. I do not know his motivation but he was trying to bully us in other ways as well to have sex with him. I spoke up against him and had my knee, shoulder and hip injured. My knee was later reconstructed by a surgeon, but I still have difficulties with it. My hip is causing me increasing difficulty, as is my shoulder.” Tanya says her life has been blighted by drug use, but she has turned over a new leaf and cleaned up. In an affidavit asking for a reduction in her sentence, she said she had no doubt she would be raped if sent to a men’s prison again. “Were I to ‘narc’ I would face worse consequences. I am very fearful of attack in prison. This is based on my own experience.” Stating she understood she was a repeat offender with a long history, Tanya said she wanted that history to end. Auckland University’s Equal Justice Project has just carried out a report into the issue, where it concluded the rights of trans prisoners are being ignored and Corrections policy is contrary to international obligations. It comes on the back of years of assertions from lawyers, trans rights advocates, opposition MPs, the Human Rights Commission and the Ombudsman that the Government must change the policy. Some of their statements: The Department of Corrections policy does not adequately reflect the expectation that transgender people are treated with dignity – Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem. “Trans people should have the same right to dignity and respect as others, but given the difficulties of having a body that is different from their gender identity, there needs to be recognition that this will require more effort on the part of the prison service for trans people than for others,” - Cherise Witehira, Agender. “Assaults, especially sexual assaults on transgender prisoners whose sexual reassignment is not complete, are commonplace and predictable. These compound the risk of self-harm, to which these people are already vulnerable. It is incumbent that Corrections revisits their policy in order to treat these prisoners humanely. Harm to these prisoners will be the responsibility of the Corrections Department if they do not,” - Labour MP Maryan Street. “This is a very serious human rights issue. Gender identity is a very significant issue, and is difficult to fully explain to people whose gender identity is the same as their birth gender,” - trans activist and lobbyist Allyson Hamblett. “For the State to knowingly put any person in its care into danger is inexcusable. There are solutions available and we need to make changes to keep trans people safe from violence in New Zealand, including when they are in the State’s custody,” - Green MP Jan Logie. “This [policy] is not consistent with their human dignity and places them at severe risk of sexual violence and consequent risk to their health through the contraction of HIV/ AIDS,” - Rainbow Wellington. “It is both unjust and dangerous for transgender inmates to be put at such high risk of sexual and physical assault in prison, simply because Corrections cannot move with the times and recognise the significance of gender identity,” - former Labour MP Charles Chauvel. "This is a human rights issue at a base level; the policy is transphobic and places transgender people at severe risk of violence in prisons. It illustrates on-going institutional oppression of people on the grounds of sexual and gender identity. There are also wider implications; the Department's stance is a recipe for ensuring that sexual health issues, including HIV, remain underground in prisons and are virtually impossible to address," - Shaun Robinson from the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. Progress! Corrections Minister Anne Tolley has confirmed the policy to house transgender prisoners based on the sex on their birth certificate is being reviewed. “Corrections has a duty of care to prisoners and works very hard to maintain the dignity of prisoners, while also ensuring their safety,” she says in a statement. “This is a complicated issue, and Corrections is currently looking at its policies around the care of transgender prisoners.”   [*Name changed]     Jacqui Stanford - 5th July 2013

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Friday, 5th July 2013 - 11:39am

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