SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association)- In what’s being called the most comprehensive policy of its kind in Canada, inmates in Ontario will be assessed and housed based on their gender identity — not their anatomy.
Under the new policy, inmates will be placed in facilities that take into account their own gender identity and preferences. They will also be referred to as their chosen name and pronouns (such as he, her or the gender-neutral ze), be able to retain prosthesis used for gender expression and have a choice in the gender of staff performing searches.
Previously, transgender or otherwise non-gender conforming inmates were assessed on their “primary sexual characteristic,” which typically boiled down to their genitalia. Those who had not had sex reassignment surgery were often misgendered by staff and placed in facilities that did not match their gender.
The new policy was created after consultation with law enforcement, corrections staff and transgender advocates, a move that Susan Gapka called “groundbreaking.”
“It sets out a set of suggested practices and guidelines to recognize trans people for their lived identity; whereas, previously they had been decided based on appearances, which we know is not a good way to identify people,” said Gapka, an activist and founder of the Trans Lobby Group.
“It will set a precedent for other provinces to be guided by and to follow.”
In other provinces, a patchwork of either nonexistant or outdated policies have determined how transgender inmates are housed. Yasir Naqvi, Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services, said Ontario’s new guidelines are among the most progressive in North America.
According to the ministry, there were 25 inmates that identified as transgender in Ontario facilities in 2014. The minister said the assessment changes have already been implemented and further training is being developed for staff.
Transgender inmates are more likely to experience violence, sexual assault and discrimination in correctional facilities than those who are cisgender (meaning, someone whose assigned gender matches their identity). These inmates are often placed in segregation for their protection — a method associated with severe mental health consequences.
Naqvi said the new policy will aim to integrate transgender inmates with the general prison population, but that doesn’t rule out the use of solitary confinement. Kyle Kirkup, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in LGBT issues, said this is still an area of concern.
“It still will be very much up to the discretion of individual corrections officers, which is a weakness of the policy,” said Kirkup.
He also said it doesn’t address the underlying factors that land transgender people in prison, such as sex-work legislation, social isolation and poverty.
“We know from the research that all those factors tend to produce higher levels of criminalization,” said Kirkup.
The new policy comes as both the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and the Canadian Human Rights Commission review complaints filed by Avery Edison, a transgender woman who was placed in a men’s facility in Milton, Ont. last February.
Edison had travelled to Toronto but was detained after overstaying a student visa on her last trip to Canada. The U.K. comedian, who had a passport identifying her as female, was taken to a men’s facility because she hadn’t undergone sexual reassignment surgery. Edison said she was misgendered by border services staff and told she could be kept in solitary.
After public outcry, Edison was transferred to a woman’s facility.
“This is not news to us, people who have these experiences, but it may be news to people who are from outside our community,” said Gapka.
“It’s really important to gain that acceptance and that social inclusion from the advancements we made as we carry it forward for the younger generation.”