On the Detention of Trans People

(This article has been updated with information newly disclosed in a report by Global News — Mercedes, 24April14)

“… in a way that is not inconsistent with one’s gender identity.”

Remember that phrase.  It’s going to simplify something that might otherwise seem like a complicated issue.

So this British comedian walks into Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

Some of you have heard this one before…

The treatment of trans people (particularly trans women) in detention facilities, in the correctional system and in border security has come under re-examination recently, following the story of 25-year old Avery Edison.  The British comedian had overstayed her student visa during a previous visit to Canada, and so upon her return, she was detained by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).  That would all be unremarkable, if not for the fact that she is trans… which means that CBSA did not feel they had a space to accommodate her, and instead sent her to spend the night in a mens’ prison.

This led to a backlash against CBSA (and to a degree also Correctional Services Canada, which has a similar policy to CBSA and which provided the prison facility).  By evening, it was being reported that Avery was being moved to the Vanier Centre for Women.  She has since returned to the U.K. (and has talked about the experience on a few occasions).

But although Edison’s situation has been resolved, her experience leaves unanswered questions about how trans people are handled in correctional and detention systems.  And since her situation, two other incidents have brought the issue back to media attention.

A Human Rights Law Point of Note

Human rights law with regard to trans people is still in a state of flux.  In the discussion about Avery’s situation, people pointed to Toby’s Act, a trans human rights law that had been passed in the Province of Ontario, and claimed that the detention was a violation of that law.  But even though Edison’s detention happened in Toronto, Toby’s Act does not apply.  The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) — like Correctional Services Canada (CSC) and the RCMP — is a federal agency, and therefore subject to federal legislation.

On the other hand, Randall Garrison’s federal trans human rights bill, C-279 — which passed in Parliament and is awaiting approval by the Senate — would apply… but it hasn’t received Royal Assent as of yet.  A similar but more comprehensive bill (Bill Siksay’s C-389) passed in the previous Parliament, but died before receiving Senate approval, when an election was called.  C-279 would apply to federal institutions, while most peoples’ employment, housing and access-to-service situations remain provincial in jurisdiction.  And to be fair, even if Bill C-279 had been given Royal Assent, it would still likely take CBSA, CSC and other federal agencies some time to bring their policies in line to be consistent with it.

However, they have had since at least 2011 to realize that there would eventually need to be a policy change, and have not done anything (including other previous issues at the border alone, in 2013).  A trans human rights law will inevitably pass, whether in this session or in the next Parliament.  The time to plan for and begin that change is now.

Housing of Trans Inmates and Detainees

Correctional and detention facilities currently house trans people (and people who were born with intersex medical conditions) according to the configuration of their genitalia — if you have a penis, you’re housed with males, and if you have a vagina, you’re housed with females.   This policy is also accompanied by a lot of gender essentialism, invalidation, misgendering and antagonism, both from hostile staff and from other detainees or inmates.  And although some will minimize this as inconsequential or as mere expressions of free speech, the lived experience of it is in fact one of deliberate and sustained hostility and dehumanization.

This housing policy can create a cyclical problem in which trans people are housed contrary to their gender identities because of their genitalia, but are also then denied access to medical care like genital reassignment surgery (GRS), which would (by extension) be a crucial step toward obtaining more appropriate housing.  In the U.S., a 14-year-long series of lawsuits pertaining to access to medical services continues, following the appeal of the most recent verdict in Michelle Kosilek’s favour.

In Canada, a human rights complaint had resolved the issue in trans peoples’ favour in 2001, but a 2010 directive from the Harper government instructed CSC to stop funding GRS surgeries, anyway.  The post-2001 policy is still on CSC’s website, but the actual practice under the Harper government has been to ignore the policy and deny GRS, which the government insists is not essential (contrary to the medical consensus).  The Conservative government does so via a distortion of the “real life test” (RLE, better known as “real life experience”) recommended by the WPATH Standards of Care (SoC).  The SoC requires living as ones identified gender for one year in the community, and the government considers that RLE suspended when a person is incarcerated (contrary to WPATH’s intent).  This “suspension” of the RLE also opens up the possibility of ignoring an inmate’s attempt to transition, or denying things like hormone therapy, although it’s not certain if this is occurring.  Prisoners’ Legal Services, based in B.C., is fighting to change CSC’s interpretation of the RLE.

Of course, there are two larger issues outside of this vicious circle.  The first is that “trans” covers a diversity of people.  Trans can signify a biological transition from one’s birth sex to their identified sex (which treads into medical territory, and refers to the people most commonly thought of), or a need to live between genders or independent of gender somehow (mostly through various modes of gender expression, but also sometimes involving some medical transition) — or some combination of those two characteristics.  [NB: the reason I use “trans” terminology, in fact, is to demonstrate that I’m referring to a diversity of people who are not easily defined under a single label]  For trans people who need surgery, there is often an anxiety and dysphoria that can make it a substantial and urgent need — but not all trans people experience that dysphoria or require surgery.

That leads to the second larger issue — that a person shouldn’t have to undergo major surgery/ies in order to be entitled to the same human rights and dignity as their peers.

And everyday practice does not always align with policy, for that matter. In American prisons, there have been cases where housing was sometimes not even determined by genitalia or identification documents — even though those are the policies — but by a subjective visual assessment of a person’s gender.  And sometimes, they have been completely wrong.  It has certainly led to trans women being housed with men even if they have had genital reassignment surgery.  Canadian prisons may have a better track record in this regard (although Avery Edison had a female gender marker on her ID), but it really depends on the employees empowered to make judgment calls.  We’ll return to that point.

Identity Documents

Part of what discourages institutions like CBSA and CSC from addressing trans accommodations is the fact that identity documents further confuse the issue.

Most provinces have policies requiring surgery and a doctor’s examination of genitals before gender markers can be updated — something that brings up human rights issues, especially when one considers that a genital reassignment surgery requirement is also a form of sterilization, essentially barring trans people from future procreation.  If that sounds like stretching to you, it’s worth remembering that at one time, some countries consciously codified this into their laws.

This surgery requirement creates hardships, however.  As not everyone medically transitions and/or proceeds to surgery, this results in incongruent identification.  For those who do transition medically, the process is at minimum a year (recommended by the current medical standards of care set by WPATH), but more often takes several, especially when there are barriers in accessing medical care, financial issues and other challenges.  During this time, incongruent identification opens people up to disenfranchisement, discrimination and even violence.

For this reason, some provinces have been revising their policies.  This is an important step to allowing trans people to participate in society, but in the interim, it also creates a situation in which identity documents are inconsistent from province to province.

In terms of border security, they’re even less consistent from country to country.  Some provinces (and some U.S. states) do not allow trans people to change the gender marker on their identification ever (regardless of surgical status).  A few nations are now starting to include the option of third gender markers (such as “X” for “not specified”).

And even when policies of accommodation exist, sometimes the steps to get there are amazingly inscrutable — witness this handy flow chart spanning three pages, outlining the steps a trans person needs to go through to obtain a gender-congruent passport, in Canada.

Consequently, identification documents can’t — at this point in time, at least — provide any definitive guidance on how trans people should be housed in correctional or detention situations.

(Trigger warning: there is some general discussion about rape and the fear of potential rape situations below)

“… in a way that is not inconsistent with one’s gender identity.”

Entities like CBSA and CSC are often afraid to look at changing their policies on trans people because it seems too daunting a task — and the complexities of identification certainly reinforce this impression.  Often, the idea of housing a woman who has a penis with other women also brings up the spectre of rape in womens’ institutions, and so correctional systems can be loath to considering change.

It is unreasonable to assume that women who have penises are automatically potential sex predators.  On the other hand, it is also unreasonable to require that all women with penises be accommodated in general female populations.  What’s missing is context, and a reasonable assessment of the risk that any individual (because predators exist in any characteristic population, even among cis women) poses to others.  A woman with a history of violence is justifiably going to be viewed differently from one who overstayed her visa.  An individual’s history must absolutely be taken into account.  Accommodation as one’s identified gender is an ideal situation, but violence, predation and other factors in detained individuals’ histories certainly has to be considered.

And yet, the solution is far easier than one might expect.  Housing trans people “in a way that is not inconsistent with their gender identity” allows for situation-relative options, while still providing dignity for trans people and safety for all concerned.  Accommodations for a trans woman might be a female facility, a trans- or LGBT-focused facility, short-term isolation or semi-isolation, or some other alternative.  No one solution fits all — for example, a trans-focused wing might still deny people access to programs that are available to other inmates and which they would otherwise qualify for — so a final decision is inevitably context-dependent.  Individual histories and risk assessments can be taken into account.  Individuals can be moved according to the varying levels of risk they both pose and are potentially subject to from other inmates (the latter seems to often be forgotten when discussing housing of trans people).  And yet a trans woman’s identity as a woman can still be respected.

One’s gender identity can be determined through a combination of factors, starting with a person’s own self-identification, and verified through supporting information, such as the individual’s gender expression, their identification (if updated), the name that they are currently using (i.e. if found on a piece of mail or correspondence on their cell phone), a letter from their doctor, or other supporting information.  There should be some flexibility, because hard-specifying particular forms of verification can be problematic: for example, not everyone can afford to update their legal identity information; also, requiring a letter from a doctor can create an institutional barrier to being accorded one’s human rights.

An individual’s own wishes should also be taken into account.   For example, some trans men are uncomfortable with the idea of being housed with males in detention and correctional systems.  And some trans people do not identify as either gender.

Although there may not be a hard-and-fast rule for every situation, housing trans people “in a way that is not inconsistent with their gender identity” provides a respectable base from which to start, within the context of nearly any given situation.

It’s More Than Housing

It’s absolutely crucial that staff receive training on professional communication with and treatment of transgender and gender nonconforming inmates.  They also need to be aware of intersex conditions enough to respect individuals who may not identify as trans, but still not neatly fit into binary housing defined by physical sex.

Police forces have begun to revise their policies surrounding strip searches of trans people, so that they’re searched by a person of their identified gender, or else they can opt for a “split search,” with one male and one female officer.  This is because strip searches of trans women by male officers has historically resulted in abuse, and resulted in a 2006 ruling asserting trans peoples’ right to dignity.

Correctional and border security institutions need to adopt similar policies, and to also ban gratuitous searches or physical examinations of transgender inmates and those with intersex conditions solely for determining their genital status.  If the need for a genital examination arises outside of a necessary strip search scenario, it should be conducted by medical professionals, with the understanding that the option to be examined by a medical professional of ones identified gender should still apply.

Rape and Torture Were Not the Penalty

People who are incarcerated in the correctional system are usually not given a lot of sympathy, and people detained by border and immigration services have been increasingly seen with the same kind of negativity (or at best, ambivalence).  It’s important to remember that regardless of what a person has done, they’re still entitled to due process and the same rights and dignity of others in the correctional system.  We certainly don’t sentence people to prison rape, for example.  As soon as a person is targeted for specifically additional treatment because of who they are, that quickly becomes cruel and unusual punishment.  And it’s important for social movements to care about all of those within their constituencies — even those who make mistakes.

In the case of trans people in detention situations or worse, that cruel and unusual punishment starts with constant hostility and antagonism pertaining to their gender identities.  Pronouns and names become weapons, and that is simply the start.  Trans women housed in male facilities also become very obvious targets for potential rape.  This is significant, and it can be argued that by consciously and deliberately housing trans women with men, the Canadian government may in fact be institutionally sanctioning that rape.

Institutions usually try to reduce this risk of rape by keeping trans people in administrative segregation — a nicer way of saying “solitary confinement.”  This removes social interaction almost entirely, it is psychologically devastating, and the United Nations asserts that over 15 consecutive days of solitary confinement classifies as torture.  For trans women, solitary confinement is sometimes the full length of their incarceration.

Avery Edison’s story and those that have followed reveal not only a problem with housing by CBSA and CSC, but also a severe education issue among staff in both the border and correctional systems. Both can be remedied… it’s just a question of whether institutions want to do so.

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