Saturday, December 27, 2008

Reasons Legal Equality Matters

I'm ashamed to say that the following story is taking place here in Canada: Transsexual Quebec inmate sentenced to serve time in male prison [TRIGGER WARNING: The crimes involved in the inmate's are not pretty]

A court-appointed lawyer who assisted Veilleux at her trial says tensions boiled over at the women's facility because while Veilleux is legally a woman, she still has male sexual organs.

At least one of female detainee didn't appreciate sharing space with Veilleux, said lawyer Andre Boissonneault. "Legally she is a woman but she hasn't had her operation, so she's partly a man," Boissonneault said.

Okay, I can understand that Ms. Veilleux has not yet had surgery, fair enough. However, Corrections Canada blew it in their handling of Ms. Veilleux:

Boissonneault said provincial jail officials went to great lengths to accommodate Veilleux, including keeping other inmates behind bars while she bathed and changed.

"Then she was sentenced to 40-months in prison and instead of sending her to a prison for women, they sent her to a prison for men," Boissonneault said.

Mistake 1: Punishing other prisoners for her presence. Locking the rest of the population up while Veilleux showers or changes is a mistake - a huge one. That's a recipe for creating tensions, no doubt about it. It also affirms the commonly held assumption that a transsexual gender is somehow "less valid" than that of others.

Mistake 2: Placing Ms. Veilleux in a Men's prison. I'm sorry, but that is wrong on so many levels it's not funny; worse, it actually places Ms. Veilleux in personal danger.

Mistake 3: Did the prison that Ms. Veilleux was held in take any steps to educate the other prisoners? They are as much a part of the story here as Ms. Veilleux. From what has been described, I suspect that they did not take such steps, or worse they only took a bare minimum approach. (The actions taken by the prison (Mistake 1) suggest to me that they may not even have done that much, but that is purely speculation)

Granted, Prisons are not nice places, nor are they expected to be. That said, someone who has transitioned (is living full time in gender, and has undertaken steps such as legal name change) and is now living as a woman is guaranteed to be a target when housed in a men's-only institution.

Now, the first piece of advice to anyone who is planning to transition is pretty simple - Don't do anything stupid that gets you tossed in jail. However, reality is that transfolk are like the rest of the population, and some will inevitably do things that are illegal, and some do wind up in prison.

For prisons and the legal system, this situation means that there is a need to find ways to accommodate transsexuals who are incarcerated. Filing people based on what's between their legs doesn't work in this case, and can result in horrific situations. We don't incarcerate people to denigrate them, and we certainly don't do so to put them in situations where they will be raped repeatedly at the hands of others (last I checked, rape is crime in its own right - even when it occurs in a prison).

Unfortunately, what we have here is currently a situation involving a prisoner in a legally ambiguous state, and the bureaucracy running the prisons isn't responding to the situation constructively.


ml johnstone said...

I spent a week in a womens jail in Quebec. For unpaid parking tickets.I was operating a daycare and kept the car close by in case it was needed by one of us. Often parents were a little late, and so, the tickets piled up.
While in there I got to experience what its like to do time. There was a trans in there. She had been in for some time I think. She seemed to be very well integrated within the inmate hierarchy that develops there.
None of the women had any overt complaints. She showed me her wedding pictures. She still had her male anatomy, she said, but, it was not an issue.
So... they should have transferred to another cell block, this woman who complained.

MgS said...

Was this a provincially run facility or federal? The problem here seems to be stemming from Corrections Canada not having any coherent policy with respect to the handling of transsexual inmates.

I suspect that Quebec (which has much more liberal laws regarding transgender people) runs the provincial prisons somewhat differently.