The Pro Bono Team’s research on the rights of transgender prisoners, in conjunction with Kelly Ellis, has sparked wide attention in the media. The final report concludes that the current policies of the New Zealand Department of Corrections are discriminatory and place transgender prisoners at risk of sexual assault and rape. The policies fail to recognise the inherent dignity of transgender persons, are not authorised by legislation and are contrary to New Zealand’s domestic and international human rights instruments. The report recommends recognising that gender identity cannot be determined solely from a surgery-based approach. Provisions similar to those in UK legislation should be adopted stating that transgender prisoners need not have initiated medical treatment to receive protection and recognition of their gender identity as well as provision of the same quality of care (such as counselling and hormone treatment) that prisoners diagnosed with gender dysphoria would expect to receive through the public health service.
Media attention kicked off with Mani Dunlop, of Radio NZ, covering the issues surrounding transgender prisoners, and summarising the main points and recommendations of Pro Bono’s report. Kelly Ellis discussed the particular vulnerabilities of transwomen prisoners placed in men’s prisons, stating that for these prisoners, it is not a question of if sexual assault in prison will occur, but when. Additionally, Suraya Dewing, who is doing her masters’ thesis on transgender prisoners, called the corrections policy a “gross breach of human rights.”
GayNZ has also released several articles reporting on developments. Their article “Days of ‘turning a blind eye’ on prisoners over” highlights Kelly Ellis’s response to the report. Ellis was unsurprised by the findings of Pro Bono’s report and felt that the report would send a message to the government about transgender prisoners that can no longer be ignored. Ellis also expressed the opinion that there should not be many major issues with placing transgender prisoners in prisons of their identified gender. Accompanying this is the article “Transgender prison policy is being reviewed” about corrections Minister Anne Tolley’s views on the issue. She now admits that changes need to be made to the classification of gender in prisons and feels that “this is a complicated issue.” Finally, the article “The Transgender Prisoners’ Debate” undertook greater analysis of Pro Bono’s report, referring to it as “impressive, if horrifying”. The article expressed the hope that the government will consider the overseas perspectives examined in the report and “act to make the necessary amendment to transsexual prisoner management and safety policies that are so urgently needed.”
The Green Party has also responded to Pro Bono’s report, calling it “damning”. Jan Logie commented on the government’s responsibility to ensure safety of all prisoners, and criticised Tolley’s previous responses to transgender prisoners’ issues. She said that Pro Bono’s “report gives us more information, and it shows that our concerns are founded. We need urgent action to protect transgender prisoners.” TV3 and The New Zealand Herald have also reported on the Green party’s involvement in this issue and the role of Pro Bono’s report in it.
The result of all of this? The Corrections Minister is now admitting that this is a “live” issue, which needs addressing. This, along with the media attention and overwhelmingly positive feedback EJP has received in relation to the report, is a reminder of the importance of positive change to enable greater accessibility to justice for all.
The Equal Justice Project, and, specifically, the Pro Bono team, were encouraged by the publicity this issue has received. The Green Party’s quick response to the report has been promising in showing government support for the cause. Pro Bono is hopeful that the Green Party will continue to pressure the Minister of Corrections for a serious commitment in regards to changing the current policies.
EJP hopes that, following the media and governmental attention this report has sparked, reform will take place soon be able to take place. Pro Bono managers Shelley Deng and Gayathiri Ganeshan are “hopeful that the Minister and the Department of Corrections will prioritise the safety and welfare of transgender prisoners…no person deserves to be a victim of violence due to administrative deficiencies, likewise, discrimination towards any person is unacceptable – especially when this discrimination is a denial of medical treatment.” Shelley and Gayathiri further feel that “this is a New Zealand wide issue; it is also a basic human decency issue. The state has a positive duty to protect the safety of all people — at the heart of our report is the belief that every person deserves to be treated with dignity.“ They are glad to note that it was clear that from the journalists they spoke to that the ideas of respect and basic decency resonated with many people.
This was an important reminder that government policies, while having wide-reaching effects, also affect (and can hurt) real people, and will continue to do so until policy change occurs. Shelley and Gayathiri “sincerely hope that those more skilled and with better resources than us continue their advocacy around this important issue.”