Bianca Sawyer was overjoyed when she entered the Alouette Correctional Centre, a provincial prison for women located in Maple Ridge.
“For three days my face hurt from smiling,” she wrote in a letter to the Straight.
Born Jaris Lovado, Sawyer is the first transgender individual that B.C. Corrections has allowed to be transferred to a facility of the gender she identifies as, rather than one selected on the basis of physical attributes.
“I am the first pre-op male-to-female transgender to be transferred from a male B.C. provincial jail to a female once,” she writes. “B.C. Corrections is calling it ground breaking.”
According to section 9.17 of the B.C. Ministry of Justice Adult Custody Policy, an inmate is not permitted such a transfer until they have progressed in treatment to step four of six outlined in that document. Step four is described as “surgical removal of sex organs”.
Sawyer’s transfer marks a departure from that policy.
In a telephone interview, B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton described the move as part of formal changes in rules and procedures.
“The written policy is still under development, but you can see the application of the policy is already underway,” she said. “We have had our first person placed based on gender-identity, and it seems to have worked out very well.”
Anton stressed she could not speak about any specific individual on account of privacy legislation, but did confirm Alouette Correctional Centre as the facility that received the transfer.
She said staff are now working out the details and revising exactly how the policy will appear on paper.
In addition to allowing inmates to reside in facilities that match their gender identities, Anton said B.C. Corrections will also improve transgender individuals’ access to medical treatment, and provide enhanced training to staff for how they should accommodate transgender inmates.
“Corrections staff will be trained to deal with individual situations as they come along,” she said.
The changes at B.C. Corrections follow the Ontario government implementing similar reforms in January 2015. Anton said a review of those developments was conducted as part of the process her ministry has undertaken.
According to Sawyer’s letter, the transfer occurred on September 30.
“When I was called for transfer I was ecstatic to say the least,” she wrote. “A calming euphoria of appreciation and thanks washed over me.”
To understand why Sawyer was so happy upon arriving at Alouette Correctional Centre, one has to understand from where she came.
She was transferred from Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre, a prison for men.
“Imagine being female in a male population,” she wrote. “Imagine this...name calling, sexual harassment and bullying would be a constant threat? What about the very real possibility of sexual abuse? No doubt that a population of sexually deprived men wanted to do things to me, a truly scary situation.”
She goes on to recount having to urinate in front of male inmates, being strip-searched by male guards, and regularly receiving verbal abuse that focused on her gender from both inmates and staff.
“I stayed awake all night crying,” Sawyer writes about one day when she was repeatedly frisked by a male guard.
Sawyer lobbied for the transfer with the assistance of West Coast Prison Justice Society (WCPJ), a group based in Burnaby that provides legal aid to prisoners across Canada.
In a telephone interview, WCPJ lawyer Jen Metcalfe said the risks faced by this group of prisoners has always been extreme.
“The problem with holding transgender women in men’s prisons is that they are at a huge risk for violence, sexual assault, and harassment,” she explained. “Most of our transgender clients say that they are verbally harassed by other prisoners, sometimes guards….Our federal transgender clients, I have had a few reports that they’ve been raped or physically assaulted.”
Metcalfe told the Straight it’s impossible to say how many people reside in B.C. Corrections facilities who might be eligible for facility transfers like the one Sawyer was granted. She acknowledged it is very likely a small number. But Metcalfe stressed the significance of each case given the circumstances of extreme vulnerability transgender prisoners face when housed among inmates of a gender different from their own.
“It’s just cruel,” she said. “I think it’s time for policy reform.”