British Columbia has become the second province in Canada to make it official policy to hold transgender prisoners in facilities based on gender identity as opposed to physical attributes.
As the Straight reported on November 4, B.C. Corrections permitted the first transfer of such an inmate in September.
That individual is named Bianca Sawyer, a transgender woman who was born with the physical characteristics of a man and who was previously known as Jaris Lovado. Sawyer was originally held at Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre, a prison for men, and was transferred to Alouette Correctional Centre, a provincial prison for women located in Maple Ridge.
Interviewed for that story, 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 told the Straight on October 28. “We have had our first person placed based on gender-identity, and it seems to have worked out very well.”
As of November 15, that policy is officially down on paper.
The changes concern section 9.17 of the B.C. Ministry of Justice Adult Custody Policy, according to a copy of the revised document obtained by the Straight.
It previously stated that 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”.
The revised section 9.17 states that an inmate who identifies as transgender will be involved in the decision process that dictates whether they are held in a facility designed for males or one for females.
“Transgender inmates are placed in a correctional centre according to their self-identified gender or housing preference, unless there are overriding health and/or safety concerns which cannot be resolved,” it reads. “Those concerns are clearly articulated to the inmate. Consultation occurs with the medical director and/or the director, mental health services.”
The document adds that a transfer is not required.
“The inmate is involved in the decision-making process,” it continues. “It is recognized that not all transgender inmates want to be housed according to their self-identified gender.”
B.C. Corrections’ revised policies cover a number of other areas concerning the care and security of transgender inmates.
For example, they state transgender inmates should be given “preferred institutional clothing and underclothing”, that they should be provided with personal items that may be required “to express their gender identity”, and that accommodations should be made to allow for transgender inmates to use the washroom and shower in private.
In a letter to the Straight, Sawyer described what the policy change meant for her.
“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.”
The changes at B.C. Corrections follow the Ontario government implementing similar reforms in January 2015.
Jen Metcalfe is a lawyer with West Coast Prison Justice Society who helped push for Sawyer’s transfer. She described the revised procedures made public today as an example the rest of the country should follow.
“The policy may be the best example of any jurisdiction in Canada and the world for the accommodation of transgender prisoners,” Metcalfe wrote in an email to the Straight. “B.C. transgender prisoners are now protected by policy from being put at risk of sexual harassment and assault, and are now afforded the dignity and equality that all people deserve.”
In a separate email, Adrienne Smith, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, similarly applauded the change in regulations. However, they emphasized discrimination against transgender people remains “endemic”, not just inside prisons but throughout society overall.
“The new corrections policy addresses a historical wrong of prisons misgendering trans inmates by housing them in way that exposes them to harm,” Smith wrote. “B.C. is catching up to other provinces with this prison policy. But that the real solution will be to address the root social and economic reasons why so many trans people end up being sent to jail in the first place.”