Vancouver, 24 April 2019
This morning, I was at Corrections Services Canada (CSC) Regional HQ in Abbotsford BC to meet with the Assistant Deputy Commissioner responsible for correction operations.
We met to discuss some policy and procedural concerns brought to my attention by transgender inmates who I have been helping through the Canadian Human Rights Commission complaint process.
On the advice of the Canadian Human Rights Commission led by Chief Commissioner Marie-Claude Landry, CSC updated its trans-inclusive policy Interim Bulletin 584 in December 2017, reflecting the explicit protection of gender identity or expression added by Bill C-16 and CSC’s adoption of DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual which finally recognized gender identity to be a reflection of natural diversity and not an illness. Unfortunately, these new policies brought a significant change in the treatment if inmates and there have been a number of complaints of incidents of abuse or human rights violations.
A responsibility of the Minister of Public Safety, Corrections Services Canada has the complex task of ensuring everyone incarcerated in our federal facilities is housed with dignity while they serve their sentence. There is no doubt that when implementing new policy that stems from the increase of civil rights protection in Canada, mistakes happen and misunderstandings can take root as the processes are smoothed out. This is inevitable to a certain degree. These also bring systemic concerns to the surface and offer an opportunity for improvement.
This is what I recommended CSC do to make our carceral institutions more inclusive for transgender and nonbinary persons as well as anyone who faces discrimination.
1.Corrections Services Canada needs to improve transparency about inmate grievances. Creating a reporting protocol similar to the RCMP’s hate-crimes reporting so that hate-based incidents occurring on the basis of explicitly-prohibited grounds are reported to the national level for aggregation by grounds and reported to the public.
Because of the nature of mediated settlements which are always confidential, none of the human rights violation complaints filed by inmates with the Human Rights Commission are visible outside of CSC. There is no accountability for the frequency or nature of human rights abuses in Canadian prisons, and people who have lost autonomy through incarceration are protected by institutional accountability.
It is important that there be public oversight over the situation in prisons and over the frequency of abuses of inmates and one way to help is to provide visibility to a 3rd party.
2.Ensure that federal detention facilities have trans-competent resources available to inmates to help them navigate the carceral system while transgender. I suggested the positive-spaces framework already adopted at Pacific Institution might be a workable approach.
99.5% of people who are incarcerated are not transgender. Transgender inmates are a very small population with extremely limited access to external information about their community or about their needs. Further, their needs are still mostly misunderstood by the vast majority of their peers in the inmate population and by most of the staff. A dedicated resource to act as a source of information and third-party liaison between inmates and the administration would significantly help avoid unnecessary and expensive errors.
3.Gender identity or expression, like sexual orientation and sex, are explicitly prohibited grounds of discrimination in Canada. Corrections Services Canada needs to improve its processes so that an incoming inmate’s gender identity is respected from the very beginning and believed at initial intake, and that an inmate has the information they need to consider which facility works best for them.
Once a decision has been made, the appropriate risk assessments are made and the inmate is placed in the appropriate facility.
In the meeting, I highlighted specific incidents that were brought to my attention in which shortcomings in the actions of Corrections Services Canada staff caused significant harm to individuals. I mentioned three rapes and four suicide attempts. I also mentioned wildly diverging claims about incidents from inmates accounts written staff reports, and witness statements. I mentioned multiple reports of specific guard misbehaviour by multiple persons on the basis of their gender identities.
I feel that it is important to acknowledge the inherent difficulties due to the nature of the work done by Corrections Services Canada. Staff is responsible for mitigating risk, recidivism, and harm to inmates while respecting who they are and upholding dignity and staying safe in an often hostile environment. It’s not easy work. Nonetheless, opportunities to improve will make their work safer for them and the people they work around.
I hope to see what policy improvements come from the feedback that Corrections Services Canada has been receiving from stakeholders and advocates as it strives to revise its current policies on transgender inmates and investigates the tracking of grievances with sufficient granularity to help monitor human rights abuses.
I look forward to being in Ottawa this May to follow up on this meeting with the Ministry of Public Safety.
I write about inclusion and political issues while working to narrow the gap between the laws we took great pains to create and their real-world implementation.