Transgender inmates in British Columbia will now be placed and managed according to their gender identities with the implementation of a new policy that advocates are calling among the best in the world.
The policy announced by the provincial government this week replaces one that, among other things, placed transgender inmates according to their birth sex rather than the gender with which they identify unless they had undergone sexual reassignment surgery. It makes British Columbia the second province, after Ontario, to adopt such a policy for all its correctional facilities.
Prisoners' rights and LGBTQ advocates had said the old policy put transgender inmates at risk of sexual harassment and assault and violated their human rights.
The policy change was prompted by inmate Bianca Sawyer, who contacted Prisoners' Legal Services (PLS) while imprisoned at Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre in September. Ms. Sawyer, who was born Jaris Lovado and identifies as transgender, said in an interview that she had been in and out of men's corrections facilities for more than a decade – for crimes ranging from robberies to breaches of probation – and experienced countless indignities such as using a toilet in front of a male inmate and being strip-searched by male staff.
When she overheard officers making lewd jokes about her, she had finally had enough.
"A group of, like, eight or nine officers were joking about how it would feel to get oral sex from me, and running their hands through my short hair [and making] jokes about me growing breasts," she said. "I was really upset. That night, I was like, 'I don't belong here.'"
PLS contacted BC Corrections and a new policy was drafted. In an interview, PLS executive director Jennifer Metcalfe praised the leadership at BC Corrections and heralded the new policy as the best example of any jurisdiction in the world.
"You can imagine what it would be like to be a woman living in a men's prison: You might be forced to double-bunk with a man, you might be at risk of sexual violence … you would be living in fear on a daily basis," she said.
"Having your gender affirmed by being able to live in a women's prison is very important just on a basic human rights level."
Ms. Sawyer was moved to Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, B.C.
Under the new policy, exceptions can be made if there are "overriding health and/or safety concerns which cannot be resolved." Transgender inmates who are housed according to their birth sex are not required to share a cell.
In January, Ontario's Correctional Services Minister announced that transgender inmates would be treated according to their gender identities rather than physical traits.
A policy on the Correctional Service Canada website says inmates in federal prisons with gender dysphoria will be referred to a psychiatrist and can be considered for hormone therapy or surgery. However, it says inmates will be placed according to their biological sex.
"Pre-operative male to female offenders with gender dysphoria will be held in men's institutions and pre-operative female to male offenders with gender dysphoria will be held in women's institutions," the policy says.
Among other updates to British Columbia's policy, transgender inmates will have individual and private access to the shower and toilet; be referred to by their preferred names and gender pronouns; and be permitted personal effects to express their gender. (such as certain institutional clothing and canteen items).
In an interview, B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said Ms. Sawyer is the first inmate in British Columbia affected by the new policy. She did not know if any other moves are planned. The Ministry of Justice does not track the number of inmates who identify as transgender.
Ontario had 25 inmates in 2014 who self-identified as transgender, according to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
Adrienne Smith, a health and drug policy lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, is pleased that the new policy addresses a historical wrong that exposed transgender people to harm. However, much is still to be done to address why transgender people are disproportionately in the criminal justice system, the lawyer said.
"It's time that there is explicit protection for trans people in provincial and federal human rights codes and that the Criminal Code is amended so that hate crimes can be more easily prosecuted. Trans people disproportionately face violence and commonplace discrimination in housing, employment."