New policy To Grant Rights to Transgender Ontario Prisoners

The transgender Community in Ontario has won another small battle for equality and human rights.

On Jan. 26 Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services, Yasir Naqvi, made an announcement in Toronto regarding a new policy for how transgender prisoners will be housed in Ontario. The policy states that Ontario prisoners will now be housed based on how they self-identify rather than by their sexual characteristics.

Bryonie Baxter, executive director for the Elizabeth Frye Society in Ottawa said she believes that this “innovative policy” is a positive step for trans prisoners and for human rights in Ontario. “It sends a signal that in Ontario we take human rights abuses against transgendered people seriously,” she said.

Changes include integrating trans prisoners into the general population. Trans prisoners will be referred to by the gender pronoun of their choice. (A trans woman will no longer be identified as “he” or “him”.) Trans prisoners will be allowed to keep prosthetic devices which they feel is necessary in properly expressing themselves. The prisoners will have the right to choose whether frisk searches are conducted by a male or female guard.

Naqvi said at the press conference that he believes that the policy is “the most comprehensive policy in Canada for respecting the human rights-related needs of Trans individuals in correctional institutions.”

The policy is currently the only one of its kind in Canada. It affects prisoners of provincial correctional institutions serving two years or less. "No other jurisdiction in Canada has such a policy. In fact, one of the things that I'll be doing is sending a copy of our policy to all other my colleagues across the country," Naqvi said.

Correctional Service Canada’s policy is to house trans prisoners based on how they self-identify only after having undergone gender reassignment surgery. Its website explains that pre-operative male to female offenders will be held in men's institutions and pre-operative female to male offenders will be held in women's institutions.

Correctional Service Canada’s website states that this condition may not even exist. “Where there are reasonable grounds to believe that such a condition exists, a referral by the institutional psychiatrist shall be made to a psychiatrist... if and when available, for an assessment and possible diagnosis of gender identity disorder.”

This policy will go into effect in March 2015. Also in March a comprehensive training program for correctional staff on how to deal with these new procedures begins.

The policy follows an amendment made to the Ontario Human Rights Code. The code previously stated that all Ontarians have the right to be free from discrimination and harassment because of sexual orientation. In 2012, Bill 33 (also called Toby’s Bill) was passed to include the terms ‘Gender Identity’ or ‘Gender Expression’.

Baxter said that she has seen “all manner of human rights abuses” for trans prisoners. Baxter tells of one trans woman who was held overnight in a cell with two male sex-offenders. The woman was “greatly at risk”, not to mention the impact on her “psychological health as well as her safety,” Baxter said. The Elizabeth Frye Society lodged a complaint with the ministry and to the press.

There are numerous stories of abuse and humiliation of trans prisoners, but an unlikely person may have had a hand in causing a policy change. She is not from Ontario. She is not even Canadian. In 2014 a UK comedienne travelling home was detained at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. She was held at a correctional facility for 20 hours because of an expired visa. Avery Edison was held at Milton’s Maplehurst Correctional Complex for men. Her passport stated that she was a woman. After her release, Edison lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. It was Edison’s experience that caused a flurry of media attention both here and abroad.

Baxter said she praises the current minister of community safety and correctional services’ decision. “This minister has certainly taken steps... He has done more than the ministers before him. I applaud his integrity,” she said. She also said she believes that trans people have a long way to go before they are truly accepted by society.

Stacey Jennifer Love is co-ordinator for TRANSforum, a Quinte support group. She is a Pride Belleville committee member. Love, a trans woman, agreed with Baxter, but also believes society’s perceptions have come a long way from when she was growing up in the early 1970s.

Love tells of a time when she was 14. She was arrested and detained just for wearing a dress. She said she was subsequently beaten by the police. She was eventually let go without being charged. 

“That’s how the attitudes have changed,” Love said. She believes that the policy is a positive step to how all trans people, prisoners or not, are viewed and treated. “From where it’s come since I was a kid to where it is now, if it just keeps going this way, I’ll be happy,” she said.

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