Amicus Curiae: Hungry for human rights – the strike for Jade Follett

Eugenia Woo, Leading Contributor

A few weeks ago, there was a hunger strike held by the queer and trans prison abolitionist group, No Pride In Prisons, in order to have Jade Follett transferred from Rimutaka Prison to a women’s facility. Jade Follett is a transgender woman who had requested multiple times this year to be transferred to a facility appropriate for her gender. The movement was referred to in the media as #strikeforjade, and was created both in response to Jade Follett’s treatment and the current policies regarding trans prisoners in New Zealand.

The Department of Corrections innovated a new transgender prisoner policy in February this year which has acted as a guide for how trans prisoners are dealt with in terms of being placed into the appropriate facilities for them. However at first glance the process seems to be a long one. Under the policy, if a prisoner has had a change of gender recorded on their birth certificate, then they are assigned to a facility based on that documentation. However, not many transgender people are able to access services to make that change; it is a costly process that involves receiving a declaration from the Family Courts in order to be successful.

Once the Family Court receives an application to change one’s gender on their birth certificate, the Court then has the discretion to pass on the application to anyone else that it thinks will be interested in or affected by granting such a declaration. In cases where the trans individual may not have made family members aware of their choice for safety reasons, it is easy to see how engaging in this process may be daunting at best and dangerous at worst. With the first port of call for Corrections regarding a trans inmate’s status being their birth certificate, the policy arguably alienates trans prisoners who have not had the ability to change their gender on those documents to accurately reflect how they identify and live their lives.

Corrections’ policy for trans prisoners also includes measures allowing for prisoners to apply to the Chief Executive of the department for placement in a facility of their gender identification, but this would take place only after offenders have already entered the prison system. This was the case for Jade Follett, who spent months in a men’s facility awaiting sentencing despite sending requests to Corrections to have her transferred to a more appropriate facility. A study conducted by the University of California, Irvine found that trans women were 13 times more likely than other prisoners to be sexually assaulted in men’s prisons. Additionally, requests made by No Pride In Prisons and other concerned advocacy groups to Corrections on the issue of Jade’s situation as well as statistics on trans prisoners had previously been extended or ignored by the Department. Concern for Jade amongst relative silence from Corrections on her circumstances and those of other trans prisoners is what prompted No Pride In Prisons to go on their hunger strike last week.

On the 26th of August, the director of Rimutaka confirmed in a press release that Jade’s request for a transfer had just been released, despite Jade having written to No Pride In Prisons in late July in which she said she had requested to be moved prior to that correspondence. In a recent letter after the hunger strike, however, the Minister of Corrections Sam Lotu-liga wrote to Jan Logie MP of the Green Party and stated that Jade’s first request was received earlier on in the year and then subsequently misplaced when a Principal Corrections Officer went on leave and the matter did not appear to have been forwarded to prison management for appropriate action. This correspondence with Jan Logie took place shortly after Corrections approved Jade’s transfer request, which was approximately during the fifth hour of the hunger strike. It outlined the current policy regarding the treatment of transgender prisoners, and also noted that since the policy changes, six applications including Jade’s had been made to Corrections regarding alternative placements. There was also mention of how trans prisoners who have not had their birth certificate corrected are able to also apply, as Jade did, for placement “in accordance with their nominated gender”.

With the lack of information readily available, especially in terms of statistics being gathered on trans prisoners and their experience within prison and the criminal justice system, the concerns of the trans community regarding their treatment is understandable and natural. The success of the hunger strike that was carried out for Jade shows that Corrections has the ability to have similar requests accommodated, but there remains the issue of translating that into outcomes that are more accessible for trans people in the prison and criminal justice systems.

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