May, 2014 / Author:

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Transgender prisoners – particularly women – often face harsh situations in Canada’s jails. Without documentation or not having fully completed their transformations, offenders may face difficult questions when entering the prison system, not the least of which is what their gender is. By Larkin Schmiedl Those who are non-operative or pre-operative are, by standard practice, sent to the prison that matches their sexed genitalia, said a spokesperson for Manitoba Justice. This is done regardless of how long they have lived as a self-proclaimed member of the opposite sex.

A famous 2001 Canadian case saw Synthia Kavanagh, a 41-year-old trans woman who had begun hormone therapy and lived as female since she was a teen, placed in a men’s prison and given restricted hormone therapy. This resulted in a reversal of the physical changes hormones had provided her. After her requests for gender-reassignment surgery (GRS) were repeatedly denied, Kavanagh attempted to slice off her penis out of desperation.

Kavanagh filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and eventually won her case in 2001. She received surgery at a cost of $14,000 and was then moved to a women’s prison. This followed several years in segregation after alleged sexual assault and harassment at the hands of male inmates. Kavanagh’s case illustrates all too well some of the hardships trans women face in Canada’s prison system.

They’re mixed in with the general population, and they’re assigned based on whatever sex organs they still have.

The case in Manitoba

In Manitoba, the Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity in the provision of services. The Commission’s website states, “Systemic discrimination is a form of discrimination that is often not intended. It takes place when a policy or practice that seems neutral has a greater negative effect on some people based on their protected characteristic.” Failure to reasonably accommodate a special need that is based on a protected characteristic is also prohibited in Manitoba. The Code has special status over all other laws in the Province of Manitoba. Factors like self-identification, gender on official ID and any file history about past placements is taken into consideration before placing a transgendered prisoner, said the spokesperson for Manitoba Justice. “Placements also consider the individual’s health and safety and any security concerns that could result. As I understand it, a transgender inmate in a correctional facility would likely be placed in an area with either a smaller population of inmates (i.e. not a dorm-style arrangement), or in other areas better suited to protect his or her safety.” The spokesperson said Manitoba Corrections has effectively managed trans offenders in the past and isn’t aware of any significant incidents. Of a total inmate population of around 2,600, they estimate that there may be four to six transgender inmates in the provincial system at any time. The spokesperson said trans inmates have access to hormones if they have been taking them before coming in. The official was unable to say whether any pre-operative trans women have ever been placed in a women’s prison in Manitoba. Manitoba Corrections does not have policies specific to transgender inmates. The case for transgender inmates the same across Canada In addition to provincial facilities, there are three federal penitentiaries in Manitoba. Correctional Service Canada’s regional communications manager for the Prairies, Jeff Campbell said in an e-mail interview, “Pre-operative male to female offenders with gender identity disorder shall be held in men’s institutions and pre-operative female to male offenders with gender identity disorder shall be held in women’s institutions.” For all placement decisions, individual assessments are done to ensure those offenders diagnosed with gender identity disorder (GID) have their needs for safety and privacy accommodated, Campbell said. This means that without the operation, an offender would be placed in a prison that corresponds with their physical sex, but possibly not with their emotional and psychological well-being. In order for an inmate to be diagnosed with GID and access trans-specific medical care, they must see a psychiatrist who is a recognized expert in the area. This mirrors the process many trans people outside prison must follow to access healthcare. The process for inmates happens if and when such a psychiatrist is available, according to Correctional Service Canada policy. The policy states inmates with GID diagnosis are the ones who can initiate or continue hormone therapy. The policy also says, “Sex reassignment surgery shall be considered during incarceration only when: a recognized gender identity specialist has confirmed that the offender has satisfied the real-life test.” The real-life test refers to living full-time as one’s identified gender for a year in order to qualify for surgery. For inmates, the real-life test must have been completed prior to incarceration. If they are eligible for surgery, Correctional Service Canada foots the bill. This policy amendment was enacted following Kavanagh’s human rights victory. >>

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We’re looking to bring in speakers and stuff from related organizations that have been successful in doing diversity training with their staff

Dealing with misidentification One source OutWords spoke to has seen some of the effects of these policies on the ground. In a telephone interview, an employee of federal corrections described some of the ways trans women are treated in male penitentiaries and how some of them cope. “They’re mixed in with the general population, and they’re assigned based on whatever sex organs socially, it’s an added struggle for them. I think it’s kind of shameful.” The source described the situation as psychologically damaging and quite bad. “But I don’t know what the other solution is either.” Prisonjustice.ca, an activist organization for trans prisoners, notes the connection between criminal activity, poverty and the isolation and socially, it’s an added struggle for them. I think it’s kind of shameful.” The source described the situation as psychologically damaging and quite bad. “But I don’t know what the other solution is either.” Prisonjustice.ca, an activist organization for trans prisoners, notes the connection between criminal activity, poverty and the isolation and justice personnel with the information necessary to respond appropriately to trans people in the criminal justice system. It suggests a case-by-case approach to placing trans prisoners. “In some cases, it may be appropriate to place a prisoner according to their identity (e.g., placing a trans woman in a women’s facility). In some locations, it may be possible for trans prisoners to be housed together in a special unit. In some instances, a trans prisoner may request placement in general population or protective custody… There needs to be a framework to guide the assessment.” Australia’s model is a three-tiered policy that prioritizes prisoner safety. First, it is asked which facility would be safest for the prisoner. Then, the prisoner’s general appearance and what gender they live as are considered. The last consideration is physiology and genital status. An international academic study that looked at transsexuals within prison systems in North America, Europe and Australia found that only 29 of 64 correctional institutions said they would maintain existing hormone therapy if it had been prescribed prior to imprisonment. Sixty-two of 64 facilities said all inmates must wear the clothing appropriate to the institution regardless of the inmate’s gender identity. And only 40 per cent of correctional services had policies addressing issues like hormone treatment.


–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

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