Grave risks for female prisoners

Grave risks for female prisoners

Warning: this blog contains content that may be particularly distressing to survivors of sexual assault.

A women’s rights advocacy group, Canadian Women’s Sex-Based Rights, is speaking up on behalf of biologically female inmates incarcerated at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women, a female prison in Abbotsford, British Columbia. The group held a protest in front of the facility last week, demanding that biological male inmates be removed from women’s prisons.

In particular, they argue that the policy of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to allow “convicted male criminals to be transferred to women’s prisons if they self-identify as transgender” is putting biological female inmates at risk.

The CSC’s policy was changed in 2017; prior to this, any male inmate requesting to be transferred to a women’s prison was required to have undergone gender reassignment surgery.

According to the group, there are currently 5 males claiming to be transgender out of a total of 92 inmates at the Institution. The group claims that the current policy prioritises “gender self-identification theory” over and above women’s rights to safety.

Former inmate Alia Pierini spoke up at the protest about her grave concerns for the safety of women and the unwillingness of current inmates to speak up on this issue: 

“[Corrections Canada] let men basically rule the prison … women are scared to speak up because they think their paroles are going to get denied. I’m sick and tired of the men, the rapists getting support over the women.”

Of particular concern is the case of 39-year-old inmate Tara Desousa (Adam Laboucan), who has self-identified as transgender, and is now incarcerated in the facility alongside biological women. Desousa is in prison for raping a three-month-old infant boy who needed reconstructive surgery following the horrific injuries he suffered at the hands of Desousa.

This policy of allowing prisoners to decide which prison they will be incarcerated in is also followed in Australia, in NSW, Victoria, ACT and Tasmania, which all have a ‘self-identification policy’.

As we have argued before, whilst all efforts should be made to ensure the safety of all prisoners, and in particular to ensure that no prisoners are subject to physical or sexual violence in prison (or indeed anywhere else), the issue of housing trans women in female prisons poses particular and, in some cases, grave risks to the safety of biologically female prisoners. Policymakers, in attempting to make things safer for transgender inmates, have inadvertently made things more dangerous for women.

There are very good reasons that male and female prisoners have historically been incarcerated in separate facilities. The physical differences in strength between males and females naturally places females at an increased disadvantage, especially when housed in confined spaces. In addition, women have particular needs when it comes to their care, owing to their biology.

As stated in a report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare about the health and welfare of women in Australian prisons:

“Female prisoners can have different health and wellbeing needs from male prisoners. For example, women in prison are more likely to have a history of physical and sexual abuse than men; are more likely to have mental health problems; and experience drug and alcohol dependence at higher rates than men.

“Women may also enter prison with reproductive health needs, including while pregnant, and may therefore require access to female-specific health care.”

In addition, in some circumstances, “children are allowed to stay with their mothers in prison until a certain age. In Australia, this varies, but is generally the age when they would start attending school”.

Placing violent male offenders, some with a history of sexual assault or child sexual abuse, in close promiximity with women and their children is gravely unjust.

This is yet another issue where the clash of trans rights with those of women’s rights leaves women worse off, and in some cases, places them in grave danger for their safety and their lives.

The policy of the CSC must be reconsidered urgently to protect female inmates whose safety is being severely compromised. We also call on Australian jurisdictions that employ this ‘self-identification’ policy to reconsider their policies and provide safe prisons for women, men, and trans identified persons, but in such a way that the safety of biological women is not compromised.