Last week, we published a blog post highlighting the hunger strike in protest of the way in which the Department of Corrections mishandled the transfer request put in by transgender prisoner Jade Follett from Rimutaka Prison to a women’s facility. Shortly after the conclusion of the campaign, EJP leading contributor Eugenia Woo was able to sit down with Jennifer Shields of No Pride in Prisons, a prison-abolitionist advocacy group responsible for organising the strike. In the interests of fairness, we reached out to the Department of Corrections and provided them a full transcript of the interview, inviting their response to any claims made in the interview by Ms Shields. We have included those responses in italics throughout the interview.
Eugenia Woo: Hi, Jennifer. Could you tell me about your role at No Pride in Prisons, or a bit more about the goal of the organisation and what you have done recently?
Jennifer Shields: We’re all pretty equal, there’s no formal structure or anything [in the organisation]. I just took on the role of spokeswoman for the strike in the media lead-up. We’re a queer and trans prison abolitionist group who believe that the way our prison system is set up in this country is fundamentally flawed and racist and queerphobic and needs to be disestablished. In the process of that, we want to keep queer and trans prisoners as safe as possible for as long as prisons still exist.
Could you walk us through with what happened recently with #strikeforjade and the climate leading up to that?
One of our other members, Emilie, had been in touch with Jade Follett for a few months now. Jade was convicted last month. She’s been in prison since December of last year, and was convicted of stabbing a man who was harassing her and stalking her, and ended up coming up to her house. She got sent to prison on charges of injury with intent, while he got name suppression and money for damages. Jade spent from December up until June in a men’s remand facility and then after conviction she was sent to Rimutaka, which is a men’s facility. Essentially, she immediately put in a request to be transferred to a women’s facility and that hadn’t been processed so last week we sent out a press release leading up to hunger strike action in support of her and she was transferred about five or six hours into our strike. After this, it came out that Corrections had lost the first transfer document she submitted when someone went on leave.
Can you comment generally on the problems regarding the current treatment of trans, non-binary and queer people in prisons?
I think in February last year, Corrections updated their policies and made a big deal about essentially allowing trans prisoners who haven’t had their birth certificate updated to apply to be transferred. The problem with this is that firstly, changing one’s birth certificate is a really long, expensive process. You have to go through the Family Courts, it’s invasive; you have to jump through all these hoops to basically prove that you are who you are. Generally, the only people who really do it are rich, older, white trans people who have the access [needed] and who have lived as their gender for over a decade. That [process] is not accessible to most trans people, especially poorer trans people and women of colour in particular. The second problem with the policy is that if you haven’t had your birth certificate updated then you’re going to be put in a men’s facility right off the bat, which is immediately placing you into a situation that is extremely unsafe. In all communication with media and with NPIP, Corrections have fallen back on the same line of “The Department of Corrections is aware and sympathetic to the needs of trans prisoners, including issues of placement and safety”. But if they were, then this wouldn’t be happening in the first place. Their policies would have some kind of process at the beginning to make sure that trans people weren’t being placed into the wrong facility.
Editorial Note: When reached for comment, Rachel Leota (Deputy National Commissioner for the Department of Corrections), responded with a statement of Corrections’ policy regarding transgender prisoners:
“The Chief Executive has received six transfer requests from transgender prisoners since the Transgender and Intersex Prisoner policy took effect in February 2014, five of those have been approved. Corrections has a duty of care to all prisoners. We are very much aware and sympathetic to the particular needs of transgender prisoners including the issues surrounding their placement and safety.
If a prisoner has a change of gender recorded on their birth certificate they are automatically put into a prison based on that gender.
Upon entering the prison system prisoners are able to apply to the Chief Executive of Corrections for placement in a prison where they identify with the gender of the prisoners managed in that prison. The Chief Executive receives advice from the Director of Health Services and the Chief Custodial Officer. A range of factors will be taken into account when the CE considers this application. Every application for placement will be considered on its own merits and the utmost consideration will be given before a decision is made.
Some factors that will be considered are:
Any risk the prisoner may pose to the safety of other prisoners and the security of the prison, based on the nature of their offending and other relevant factors;
Any risk that other prisoners may pose to the safety of the prisoner making the application; and
Whether it is likely the prisoner will need to be subject to restrictive management measures, for safety or other reasons.
This, and other factors, will ensure that no prisoner is put in harm’s way due to their placement.
If they are unsuccessful with this application, transgender prisoners will be accommodated according to the sex recorded on their birth certificate. No prisoner will be permitted to make an application for placement if they have sexually offended against a person of the same gender as the prisoners they wish to be co-located with.
The process for when a prisoner wishes to apply to move to a prison that accommodates prisoners of the gender they identify with is available on our website. The prisoner applying for the transfer is required to complete a form, which is passed on to the Prison Director, to get the application started. Input from a number of staff is required.”
For some of our audience who might not be aware, would you mind explaining what’s been happening with Corrections and the Official Information Act requests that weren’t being answered by the Department on this issue?
For the last couple of months, we and a couple of other people not in NPIP have been sending through Official Information Act (OIA) requests asking really basic questions like “How many trans prisoners are there?”, “Where are they being kept?”. We have been asking what their rates of assault are, how they’re doing in terms of health and safety, and Corrections has either extended all of them and then refused to answer, or dodged the question. They keep saying that they don’t collect statistics on trans prisoners so they can’t answer questions. To one specific question on how many transfer requests have been made, they ignored the question and answered something completely different but then a week later in all their press releases they ended up giving that information out. It’s obvious that they had the information and they were legally obliged to provide it but they didn’t.
Editorial Note: In response to the claims made regarding the treatment of OIA requests, Corrections replied that “the Department of Corrections, as a government agency, is subject to the Official Information Act 1982 (OIA). If any person who has made a request under the OIA is unhappy with the response they received then they are entitled to raise a complaint with the Ombudsman. Every OIA response gives the Ombudsman’s contact details.”
So would you say that a factor leading up to the #strikeforjade movement, and one of the reasons for that was, in part, the lack of transparency you described from the Department of Corrections during the time of their communication?
Yeah, I mean #strikeforjade was in itself very focused on Jade Follett; we were all really worried for her safety. However, the other huge problem in the background was that Corrections has zero transparency on this and they’ve refused to give us answers.
If this were an ideal world and you could recommend policy changes to be made on how people are being treated in prisons, how do you think policy would go about becoming safer and more inclusive of the rights of trans prisoners?
Jade’s lawyer has actually brought this up in an interviews. She’s been saying that she’s talked with Jade about it and they both reckon that there needs to be a process at the start of incarceration, even before the court case. That way instead of being sent to a men’s remand facility, the process needs to be at the start and it has to look at the prisoner in terms of who they are, it has to analyse what they need for safety, and then to place them in the correct facility right off the bat.
What do you think may be preventing parties from creating policy to remedy some of these problems?
Well, right off the bat I think generally that people don’t care about trans prisoners. People don’t care about prisoners, people don’t care about trans people, and they care even less about trans prisoners. In the eyes of the public, we’re such a minority that we don’t matter but if you look at the most recent statistics, it’s up to 1-2% of the population. It’s the same across the board in terms of healthcare and housing and things like that. People just don’t care. They think we’re such a small number that we don’t matter but that’s incorrect.
Keeping in mind that NPIP is a prison abolitionist group, would it be strange for me to ask about your stance on the privatisation of prisons so far and if it’s contributing to the problem or?
I mean, the privatisation of prisons is bad but prisons themselves are also bad. We’ve seen that even after SERCO relinquished control of the Mt Eden facility, there were still problems there. Corrections aren’t managing it any better. I think running a prison for profit is inherently wrong but I also think that the existence of prisons in our colonial society is also wrong.
On that topic, in transitioning then from a society where prisons are the norm to a society where prisons have been abolished, how do you think that process would take place? How would we move towards a society where incarceration is an unacceptable way to treat people?
So, we would need to shift the focus in justice from retribution, revenge and payback to one that focuses on restoration and community processes. We need policies that look at the causes of crime will improve the situation when it comes to poverty and things like that. Studies across the board have proven that if you look at the causes and fix those, less people are going to offend. Ideally we would just keep doing that until less and less people offend, and prisoners are just not needed anymore.
Do you think that there are any offences, particularly violent ones that the abolishment of prisons would not be appropriate for? Is there ever a situation whereby you think that an offender could be too dangerous, perhaps, for rehabilitation in the way you described?
I think as it stands now, because there are no safe alternatives, then yes – there are some people who need to be removed both for their own safety and others. But ideally, in a space where we’ve had time to build up alternative policies and processes to incarceration, then my answer would be “no”. There is no crime that can’t be resolved in a different way to prison.
Seeing as how submitting OIA requests hasn’t worked so far, do you think there are better alternatives that Corrections can be contact? Or do you think that the issue is not in the method but in the reception?
Yeah, I reckon that the problem is with Corrections. OIA requests have a legal requirement in terms of how they have to be answered. Instead, we’ve seen them dodge our questions. They’ve dodged questions in other cases. After the news of the fights at Mt Eden broke, a Stuff reporter submitted an OIA request for all electronic communications dating from that story to the date of a meeting with SERCO and Corrections just stated that such information doesn’t exist, which seems like a lie. We know that MPs and government workers have put in requests and they’ve been faced with the same denial, so Corrections isn’t talking to anyone.
Is there anything that we haven’t covered so far that you would like to draw attention to?
I think I would like to draw attention to how Jade’s first request for a transfer was lost. That hasn’t been covered by mainstream media apart from the fact that Corrections is apologising. We know that someone went on leave and didn’t pass on the request, we know that she was left there for two months longer than necessary because of incompetence. We reckon that a public apology isn’t enough. She’s been in danger of harm and this entire thing has been flawed. We need something else to come out of this other than a “We’re sorry”.
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