27 Nov 2020

Guards called me 'it', 'homo', discussed my genitals - trans prisoner

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From HERE WE ARE, 9:00 am on 27 November 2020

A transgender woman says guards humiliated her during strip searches and she was raped by an inmate at Paremoremo prison. The Corrections department says it's committed to change. Is it working hard and fast enough for those behind bars?

Warning: this article contains discussion of sexual violence and other content that may be distressing.

Anahera* spent the past 12 weeks in a cell on her own trying to adjust to life in prison. Now she's being led into a small segregation unit where she'll bunk with someone else. There's music blasting from all corners and men working out everywhere - it's easy to spot the gang members.

'Oh, my god,' she thinks to herself.

It's 2012, Mt Eden prison is run by private company Serco and trans prisoners are housed according to the gender they were assigned at birth.

It's Anahera's first time behind the wire. Those first months in remand are really difficult.

"The first night I was in double bunking, I nearly got raped." Anahera asked to be moved but was told there was nowhere else for her to go.

"I was just scared, scared of my cellmate."

After months in limbo she's sent to Auckland Prison, more commonly known as Paremoremo or 'Pare'.

"In Pare I was raped twice. Once in 2015, I think, and the other was the year after. Different guys. One was in the room, the other was in the shower. After I was raped in the shower, they bought in shower curtains for me - actually they brought in shower curtains for all of the showers - before that it was just a little door, kind of like a rugby locker room."

The Department of Corrections say they take safety seriously and have no record of Anahera reporting any attacks, but she says the second time she was raped she told the acting principal corrections officer (PCO). 

"And her words to me, because I'll never forget this, was, 'What do you expect? You're in a men's prison. If you don't like it, go to the women's.' So I actually had to go back into the unit with the person who done it. And then when I complained, they wanted to move me out. Because they saw me as the problem." She spent the next two weeks in isolation.

Corrections describes prisons as "microcosms of society, reflecting the tensions surrounding the acceptance and exclusion of others". 

So what's prison life like when, on the outside, your community experiences mental distress, sexual abuse and discrimination at rates far higher than the general population?

***

Anahera was raised in a city that sits on the water's edge, by her grandmother who came from the East. "In her iwi, women are allowed to speak, women have different roles. So as a child, having her whakaaro around gender was very different from the place that I was brought up."

Where Anahera's from, women are told not to speak on the marae, they don't occupy seats in the wharenui. At her grandmother's tangi, she sat with the other wāhine on the floor next to her coffin. "I was told, 'Get up, you're a man', so I sat on the chair and then I went to speak and they said, 'Hey, don't speak', you know, 'cos I look like this".

Pre-colonisation, traditional Māori society accepted gender beyond the rigid definition Pākehā would come to impose.

"My gender identity is, I think, located or couched within my cultural identity, they're intertwined... I'm a person, I'm Māori first and foremost, and then my gender kind of weaves through that. But within my own Māori world, there are difficulties there, especially in terms of speech in a traditional Māori context. Do I stand to whaikōrero, because I'm a fluent speaker? Or do I stand to karanga? Where's my standing within my world?"

Anahera sits on a grey L-shaped couch in her one bedroom inner-city apartment, the view behind her stretches out to the sea. Her hair, in a plait to one side, falls over her shoulder and brushes against her skin. She crosses her legs, revealing tino rangatiratanga socks.

Anahera's hands are those of a weaver, she took to the art just as her grandmother did, and her great grandmother before that. Finely woven kete are pinned to the walls of her living room, tracing her maternal line.

In prison she taught weaving, te reo, kapa haka and literacy to over 100 men, all while completing a Bachelor of Arts, then a Masters. Now that she's out, she's enrolled to do a PhD. 

***

Corrections says at any one time there are between 30 and 40 openly trans people in prison. On 30 July 2020, there were 35. All but three were housed in a prison that didn't align with their gender.

Since 2014, the housing of trans inmates has worked on a self determination model, meaning the prisoners themselves can apply in writing for a review of their placement, unless they're doing time for a serious sexual violence offence against someone of the same gender, or have served time for this within the last seven years. Applying for a transfer doesn't come without barriers however, and the policy isn't necessarily working as it should. Earlier this year a trans woman spent three weeks in full isolation while Corrections decided whether she would be moved. 

Before 2014, trans prisoners were housed according to their gender assigned at birth. The option to move wasn't available unless they'd undergone full gender affirmation surgery - something that came, at the time, with a 50-year waitlist. It was a policy that overlooked the nuances of trans identities, turning a blind eye to the inaccessibilty of healthcare and failing to recognise that not all trans people desire a physical change.

When Corrections implemented the new policy, Anahera was already two years into her sentence.

"I chose to stay in the men's prison. By that time, I was comfortable, I was working, I was running classes, doing literacy, reo classes, weaving, so I was fine."

***

For the entirety of her eight-year sentence, Anahera says she was in protective segregation, or 'segs', away from the "mainstream" prison population. She says there was also a year when she was completely separated from everyone else, though Corrections disputes this. "For me it was like being in isolation, because you're locked up by yourself at night. Then during the day you only get an hour in the yard. So you have the hour by yourself... I actually found that quite difficult." 

Separated by solid brick walls, Anahera says she'd yell over to the men in the yard next door, and they'd yell back. They were curious. Who was this woman on the other side of the wall?

"But being isolated, you know, constantly, and told that you're different - so you cannot mix with the general population - it did take its toll on me. It made me actually start thinking again, 'What's wrong with me?' You know, 'Why can't I just be normal?' Those types of thoughts start going through your head."

"It made me actually start thinking again, 'What's wrong with me?' You know, 'Why can't I just be normal?' Those types of thoughts start going through your head."

Corrections policy notes that segregating trans prisoners, even if for their own protection, can restrict their access to rehabilitation and reintegration activities, and deny them the ability to interact with others. Many trans prisoners report feeling isolated and misunderstood. 

"I did miss... Just human interaction, really," Anahera says.

She's experienced depression for most of her life, but she first accessed mental healthcare in prison. Once a week she'd see a counsellor through ACC, and she started on antidepressants.

"It was awesome doing counselling and actually talking about my past and all the other stuff that happened to me, because I was dealing with the issue, not just putting a bandaid over, not just taking medication."

But at times the counsellor wasn't allowed in, or they'd be cut off halfway through a session - just as Anahera was talking about sensitive issues like being abused, she says. Formerly a heavy drinker and drug user, it is only through counselling that she's come to realise why she self-medicated so much. Now that she's out, she's fought to continue sessions.

***

"To me these prisoners are males, I've seen 'it' in action, heard 'it', and seen the manly behaviour."

These are the words of a prison officer who is two years into the job - one of 46 custodial staff to share feedback four months after Corrections implemented its Transgender Policy.

"Yeah, I used to get called 'it', referred to as 'it' quite a bit by some of the officers, not all of them." Anahera's voice cracks. Despite all of the physical and sexual violence she was subjected to in prison, it was the words and the labels that were the hardest to deal with.

"It made me feel not even human, less than human, you know? To be called 'it'...To me, it was verbal abuse, it was emotional abuse. To have it recognised as that was difficult. You know, I put [it] on my complaint form, follow the process, and then just get told to 'harden up'."

Anahera's experiences mimic those of trans prisoners who also shared feedback for the policy review. "In this unit, staff call me faggot, ugly and 'it'. 'It' is dehumanising - I am an object", a trans woman in a women's prison said. "They call me by my male name over the loudspeaker, which singles me out as [trans] in a women's prison," said another.

The Trangender Policy came into force in March 2018, two years after the Corrections' executive leadership team approved an action plan to "improve the department's response to, and management of, trans people in prison".

But the internal review found that four months later, only 62 percent of 49 custodial staff interviewed had completed training in the form of an e-package. Half of all staff interviewed felt training would not or had not helped them in any way. Some of them (nine officers) found the training had given them new awareness about the value of accepting and respecting difference in others when working with trans prisoners. "I never thought about it from their angle. I used to think they were sick. Now I'm more accepting", one officer said after completing the course.

But, "from a broader perspective, the review found an overall lack of knowledge regarding the new transgender policy reflected in people's attitudes and lack of awareness about the needs of transgender people themselves".

Late last year, another internal review raised concerns about incorrect use of trans prisoners' names and pronouns by Corrections officers and barriers to accessing gender affirming items from the canteen.

Alarmingly, it also found two of eight trans prisoners spoken to had been double bunked with cisgender inmates, a flagrant and potentially dangerous breach of Corrections policy. 

Double bunking is controversial for a reason; in the United Kingdom, prison homicides and sexual assaults disproportionately involve cellmates, and a California study found trans women housed in men's prisons are at high risk of sexual abuse. It is unclear if the New Zealand prisoners who were double bunked were women or men. It's also unclear whether or not they were housed with prisoners of the same gender.

Responding to Anahera's accusations of emotional abuse by guards, the department says it doesn't tolerate behaviour that makes inmates feel unsafe or vilified.

"We do acknowledge that collectively as an organisation, there is more we need to learn across the board to fully support every individual in our care," a statement attributed to Chief custodial officer Neil Beales said. "Our staff come from all walks of life and with varied backgrounds, and some staff may not necessarily have first hand knowledge or experience with the challenges and complexities involved with transgender individuals including those who are still transitioning. 

"However, we are committed as an organisation to change this, and to create greater awareness and understanding across our whole organisation to ensure we recognise and respect an individual and who they are."

Yet, more than 18 months after the first internal review was completed, no changes to the policy have been made. The department says it "is currently developing a training package for staff specifically aimed at strengthening their understanding and application of the policy" that it aims to have available by the end of this year. It's also working towards having 'rainbow champions' who support their colleagues in the management of trans prisoners.

***

With the 2018 change in policy, trans prisoners were able to choose the gender of the guard that strip searched and patted them down.

"Prior to that... it was just males, because we were treated as male. So if you're in a male prison, you're treated as a male," Anahera says.

But does a change in policy reflect a change in attitude? 

Anahera says a lot of the female officers in particular had issues with the new policy. The internal review reflects this, with 22 percent of the custodial staff interviewed objecting to strip searching or patting down trans prisoners.

Anahera recalls "several instances" where the Corrections officers strip searching her made comments about her body, or called her 'queer', 'gay', 'a homo'. " They will say that while you're undressing; 'Oh, look at this homo.' 'Who's gonna strip this thing?'.

"There was another incident where a female officer had told a group of prisoners about my genitalia, you know, down there, because she had strip searched me. And I just overheard them talking, her telling them, and I thought, 'What the hell', and I actually broke down, because I was sick of it by that time, you know. Like, this is after the policy had come out."

The internal review reports similar experiences. "Instead of just two staff, there were four or five watching and being nosey... I felt violated," one trans woman said. Another described how she felt after being strip searched by a guard not of her preferred gender: "Never said anything later, they'd never believe me. There's a vulnerability about being a prisoner, you're fighting a losing battle. But it's not ok for anyone to feel like this." 

"There's a vulnerability about being a prisoner, you're fighting a losing battle. But it's not ok for anyone to feel like this." 

After overhearing prison officers discussing her genitals, Anahera reported it to the person in charge of her unit. 'What do you expect,' was their response, she says. "I sat there thinking, respect, just basic respect".

Before she got out of prison, Anahera did notice a shift in the attitudes of some of the officers -  particularly the newer ones who she felt were there to help people change. So did other prisoners quoted in the review.

Still, Anahera says Corrections has a long way to go.

The department acknowledges this, saying it's committed to making improvements across the board. 

***

It's been almost a year and a half since Lydia*, who is currently serving time in a North Island prison, told Corrections she was trans. She recently saw a nurse because she's keen to start taking hormones. But her advocate, Dani Pickering of People Against Prisons Aotearoa, says that was a total non-start; the nurse told Lydia she didn't need hormones and discharged her.

"Waiting months for that appointment only to be turned around and dismissed was just, it really stung. What Corrections just seems to fail to understand is how important trans healthcare is to trans people and how specific those needs are."

In their role as an advocate, Pickering exchanges letters with Lydia, and they talk on the phone. Pickering has helped her learn about her rights while she's behind bars and this includes being entitled to the same standard of healthcare as any other person. 

Within the last few weeks, Lydia has finally been able to see a GP, and she's now on the pathway to receiving the gender affirming healthcare she needs. 

Gender affirming care can be life saving - significantly improving the mental health and wellbeing of trans and non-binary people. As the Human Rights Commission 2020 Prism report notes, Corrections is funded to provide primary healthcare to the same standard as a person would receive in the community. 

Yet back in 2007, the Commission found the reality for prisoners was that unless hormones had been prescribed prior to sentencing, they weren't able to start them. Now, there appears to be no hard and fast rule for people, like Lydia, who haven't been on hormones before going into prison. The medical officer, a contracted GP, makes a decision on a case-by-case basis. 

Corrections chief custodial officer Neil Beales says normally, prisoners are referred to a DHB specialist before starting on hormones. So just as it is for trans people on the outside, prisoners' ability to access gender affirming healthcare could be placed in the hands of a GP with no training, expertise or interest in the area, or they may find themselves waiting months to visit a publicly funded specialist doctor through the local district health board.

READ MORE: High costs, long waits: Trans healthcare barriers across NZ remain

For some trans people, prison may be the first time they've had access to a medical professional. For others, particularly older trans people, proving they were previously prescribed hormones isn't as straightforward as it sounds.

In around 2013, it took Anahera a year of exchanging letters with her district health board just to get medical records that proved she was on hormones before entering prison. And, just like Lydia, a nurse refused to let her have them.

"She just said no, you can't get your hormones... Because I didn't look female to her, so, 'How can you be trans?'"

Withdrawal of hormone treatment can be associated with harmful physical and mental side effects.

But Anahera is tenacious - she's used to fighting for her rights. She called a mental health advocacy group and they organised a meeting with prison officials - doors opened after that.

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Photo: Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho / Unsplash / RNZ

***

Just as it is for those on the outside, finding information and people to support you when you're a trans person in prison can be empowering.

When Lydia first came to understand her identity, she wrote to the Prisoner Correspondence Network, run by People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA), asking to be connected to a trans person or someone who would be a good ally. That's how she and Dani Pickering came to be penpals.

"I've sent in a lot of transitioning materials, which I found played a big part in her trans education, which is really good. Know Your Rights type materials... The specific transgender policies that Corrections have internally as well as the Corrections Act, stuff that speaks specifically to trans people, stationery, all the way down to pictures of Spyro the dragon," Pickering says.

"I guess the focus of our work is less about prisoners' sentencing and convictions and that kind of stuff and more about making sure that we're mitigating the negligence and the proactive mistreatment that they experienced from Corrections. And oftentimes that negligence is also around really basic needs, that Corrections of course fails to address with alarming regularity."

Beales says Corrections is deeply concerned by Pickering's suggestion of proactive mistreatment. "Every individual we manage deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, and we will actively respond to any information we receive that someone is being treated contrary to this."

Anahera didn't have an advocate in prison, but just like Lydia, she'd write to PAPA and they'd send her back resources. She even offered to translate things into te reo Māori for them, and wrote a pamphlet on the process of a name change by deed poll, to help others do the same. 

"But I noticed there was something missing and that was a rainbow group that worked with people inside... And I thought 'why?' There's so many of us in here."

Back when Anahera was on remand, a group for trans prisoners was something that did exist. It was run by Gemmah Huriwai (Ngāti Porou), who herself spent three years in prison in the early 1990s. Huriwai remembered how the officers treated her some 20 years earlier and the impact it had on her mental state. When she was inside, there was no support for trans people. "I thought 'I'm gonna do something about this'." Huriwai ran the group once a week from 1993 until she couldn't sustain it financially anymore in the early 2010s.

She says finding a community inside prison is really important and she wanted to let the girls inside know they were being heard.

"You know what? A few of them told me that coming to group was like a night out. I went, 'Really?' And they said, 'Yeah'... Because it was like a safe place and they could be who they want, say what they want and not worry about anything.

"I was tickled pink when they said that."

***

It's not just the prison system which can be challenging for trans people - discrimination occurs in the courts too, former lawyer Kelly Ellis says. A lawyer that understands the compounding factors that may have led to a person's arrest can be as important as having an advocate behind bars.

Ellis had at least one trans client on her books at all times during the 28 years she practiced, and she acted for most of them pro bono.

But it wasn't just her clients who dealt with discrimination in the courts.

"The most unpleasant part of practicing law was the lawyers' common room. And I only found that after I began living as a trans woman.

"While there are a lot of tremendously good lawyers out there, there is also a lot of prejudice. Ill will against trans people is certainly common - common everywhere in the legal profession."

She remembers the story of a trans client who was raped in jail and who was paroled because it seemed to be an easy way to get her off the prison books.

"She got out, stole a car and tried to drive it onto a concrete wall in [a] failed suicide bid and went straight back to jail. I was trying to get her parole [again] and I talked with her previous lawyer... The lack of caring and the lack of understanding and the lack of empathy that I experienced was jaw dropping, even for a hardened old criminal barrister like me.

"So there was somebody who absolutely got a terribly raw deal. And I cannot help but think that maybe if she'd had a little bit more of an empathetic lawyer, who might have been able to steer her in better directions, then maybe the outcomes for her wouldn't have been so bad."

Another client went before a judge who recognised the difficulties trans people faced in prison and handed down a sentence of home detention. Repeatedly the case was adjourned as the court waited for an appropriate address to be provided. On the final day of sentencing the woman's father turned up in his Salvation Army uniform, and Ellis thought he was there to help. He wasn't.

"The result was that even though she would have got home detention, the thing is she needed to have a home first. She had been utterly rejected by her family. And you know, despite the best efforts of her lawyer and incredibly supportive judge who was prepared to go out on a limb... What's the point in all that fight if you haven't got a bloody home? So off to jail she went.

"I'm not a great believer in the prison system by any stretch of the imagination... I'm not trying to excuse some of the bad things that some of my trans clients have got up to, but it seems that desperate living situations often result in terrible violence. Bad things seem to occur more often where people's living situations are desperate and precarious than they do in the middle-class homes of lawyers.

"There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that being rejected by your family for starters is a tremendously hard thing, that leads to all sorts of issues with feelings of self-worth and self-esteem that feeds into alcohol and other substance abuse that leads into desperation..."

When they are released from prison, Ellis says trans people suffer discrimination over and above what's experienced by any other person coming out of jail.

***

Lydia's still got some time to go before she's released, but she's now at a point where she's trying to solve many of the issues she's facing herself, Pickering says. She's empowered - something she'll need on the outside.

Three days after Anahera was released, the country went into Covid-19 lockdown. It was a cruel twist of fate for someone who had only just got their freedom back.

Now on parole, she speaks of her surprise at the respect shown to her by her probation officers - far from what she knew in prison over the past eight years. "They've always referred to me by [the correct] pronouns, even though they weren't asked to. I found the attitude a lot different to the officers. Even using my name, my legal name... they've done that without me asking."

But settling into life on the outside comes with its own set of challenges and new gatekeepers. Anahera's still navigating a healthcare system that's not designed with her in mind, still having to educate medical practitioners and fight for what she needs. On a recent trip to the GP she was told she shouldn't change her body - it's what God gave her. She laughs it off. "I don't really care what people think anymore and that's been from my experiences in prison."

As she sits in her home, uplifted by the knowledge of her tūpuna wahine, Anahera acknowledges her past while looking ahead to a future of new understandings.

*

*Names and some details have been changed

**Trans and non-binary are used in this article as umbrella terms for people whose gender/gender expression is different to their sex assigned at birth, while acknowledging that these are Pākehā terms that cannot fully describe the meaning of genders that come from other languages or cultures.

Where to get help:

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

1737 - Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

OUTline: 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463) every evening, 6pm to 9pm.

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz
 

This story is part of Here We Are, an RNZ series about transgender mental health. You can read, hear and view more stories at rnz.co.nz/here-we-are.

Here We Are was made with the help of the Mental Health Foundation and Like Minds, Like Mine