Pride in Prison?

Pride in Prison?

Nath B on the structural flaws of the New Zealand prison system that see trans people detained in the wrong prison

Content warning – accounts of rape and physical violence

The acronym LGBT is used through-out the article in an all-encompassing manner to refer to the queer community.  LGBT is used in lieu of writing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, pansexual, genderqueer, asexual, fa’afafine, and takatapui.

In February 2015, organisers of Auckland Pride announced that the New Zealand Department of Corrections and the New Zealand Police Force would be marching in the 2015 Auckland LGBT Pride Parade. The announcement resulted in considerable concern from individuals and groups within the LGBT community. Historically, Pride events had excluded Corrections and Police due to the high rates of on-going institutional violence perpetrated against the LGBT community.

During the 2015 Pride Parade a group named No Pride in Prisons (NPIP) interrupted the parade in protest. NPIP describes itself as a “queer and trans activist group based in Aotearoa fighting for the abolition of prisons”. The group protested to defend the belief that there is no place in a pride parade for institutions that fail to adequately care for the LGBT people they are tasked with caring for. NPIP raised particular concern for trans women prisoners who are often housed in men’s prisons, placing them at high risk of sexual violence.

The NPIP protest was small scale - there was a banner, a megaphone and a group of people who stepped into the parade because they had something to say. The interruption was not dealt with well. NPIP member Emilie Rākete was admitted to hospital after having her arm broken by a Pride security guard. Emilie later spoke of her assault as the “price of addressing Pride Inc.’s hypocrisy”. Emilie identified herself as the only visibly Māori and trans member of the group, a fact that was later discussed in the media as an example of the racist and transphobic targeting that the group was protesting against.

NPIP were present at Auckland Pride this year 2016, following the decision to allow Corrections and the Police to again march in uniform. The organisation again interrupted the Parade in protest. After Pride, I contacted NPIP to find out more about the group. NPIP arranged for me to meet with Scout Barbour-Evans, an Ōtepoti member. Scout passed on communication from Ti Lamusse, an Auckland NPIP member.

Scout and Ti are both involved with the operational organisation of NPIP - they tell me that the group was established in February 2015, shortly after the announcement that Corrections and the Police were going to march in uniform. The group is based in Auckland but is slowly building a presence in other Aotearoa cities such as Dunedin, where Scout lives. Ti describes NPIP as “primarily a queer and transgender organisation made up of members from a variety of social backgrounds including tangata whenua, immigrants and other people of colour, as well as Pākehā”. The majority of NPIP members are young people studying or working. Ti says, “although we’re [NPIP] mostly young people, we have a fair bit of support from older queer and transgender community members”.

I have been in email contact with one of these supportive people - Lexie Matheson, a Senior Lecturer from Auckland University of Technology. Lexie is central to Auckland’s LGBT community and is an active participant in NPIP protests. Lexie says that while she is not involved with the management of the organisation, she is a passionate supporter who is asked to speak at rallies and “be a part of the network of information promulgaters”.

I ask Scout, Ti and Lexie about the reality for LGBT people currently in prison in Aotearoa. Ti relays that life in prison for all incarcerated people is precarious; constantly living under the threat of violence that could come from other inmates and prison workers. Ti says that this precarious reality is exacerbated for queer and transgender prisoners; “queer and trans prisoners are much more likely to be victims of violence, more likely to attempt suicide, to be denied adequate and necessary medical care and be denied dignity and recognition of their gender and sexuality”.

Scout and I discuss the issue of gender recognition and the prison systems common practice of housing trans women prisoners in male facilities. Corrections policy is to house inmates as the gender/sex that is noted on their birth certificate. Many trans people are not able to change the gender/sex on their birth certificate –it is a lengthy and expensive process that not all trans people are eligible for. For example, a trans person who medically and socially transitioned decades ago still may not qualify for a birth certificate gender/sex change. Scout outlines that the policy needs to be re-evaluated and changed.

Lexie explains that the application process for trans women to be transferred to female prisons take months and that applications have been lost along the way. Lexie says that “every day in a men’s prison is hell for a trans woman and every night worse”.  

The NZ Herald printed an article last October that reported a trans woman who was housed in a men’s prison in South Auckland had been repeatedly raped by her cellmate after she was moved from segregation into a shared cell. While incarcerated, the prisoner was undergoing hormone replacement therapy to medically affirm her gender as a woman. For such a process to happen the prison management and the Department of Corrections would have been aware that she was transgender, and was a woman not a man.

In March this year NPIP released a statement regarding a trans woman prisoner housed in a men’s prison in Whangarei who had been raped by Prison staff. NPIP were supporting the woman and had lodged a complaint on her behalf.  

Unfortunately these are only two of many examples of how life is for trans women in prison.

Although NPIPs ultimate desire is to see the end of prisons in Aotearoa the group’s role appears to also be providing support to the LGBT community inside prison.

Ti tells me that “we [NPIP] were formed through a recognition of the need to end incarceration. However, over time, incarcerated people have asked us to advocate on their behalf and we have been more than willing to do that. As a result NPIP has both activist and advocacy arms”.

Scout talks about some of the ways in which NPIP act within the current climate of the existence of prisons. NPIP regularly advocates for LGBT prisoners, especially transgender inmates. The group provides help with lodging transfer applications, gender and name changes on birth certificates, requests for medical care, prison visits and over the phone peer support. Scout tells me that NPIP wants more awareness raised about what it’s like to be an LGBT person in prison.

A common argument in response to prisoner experienced violence is “if they don’t want to be treated like that [raped, assaulted, locked in a cell etc.] then they shouldn’t commit the crime in the first place”. The complexities of the prison system are too great to suggest that a person is always incarcerated as the result of committing a crime. Regardless of the reason, people sentenced to time in prison do not deserve to be raped and disrespected in the manner that many have. Lexie expresses that “anyone who is incarcerated in a New Zealand prison has a right to personal safety”.

Figures released by the Ministry of Justice indicate that while Māori make-up 14 percent of the general Aotearoa population, 50 percent of the prison population are Māori. The Ministry indicates that Māori women make-up six percent of the general Aotearoa population yet account for 58 percent of the female prison population. These figures are indicative of a Pākehā-favoured justice system with a gross over-representation of Māori. The issue is not that Māori over-offend, it is that Māori are over-arrested and over-incarcerated. Ti shares the belief of NPIP that “prisons are violent institutions that do nothing to alleviate social harm and are merely used as a tool for the continued marginalisation of marginalised people”.

People are sentenced to prison for many different reasons –unfortunately the system is not as simple as incarcerating people for the crimes they commit. It is necessary to consider the institutional biases that exist within the justice system.

As a member of the LGBT community I have had numerous conversations with friends and family about the NPIP protests at Auckland Pride. Most of these conversations have included a discussion of the confronting nature of being an LGBT person protesting at an LGBT pride event. Many friends who are supporters of NPIP have conveyed personal discomfort at the concept (or reality) of shouting at fellow LGBT people. I ask Scout, Ti and Lexie about their thoughts on the issue and all three first mention the protesting history of Pride.

The first Pride Parades in the United States were held in June 1970, one year after the New York City Stonewall Riots. The Stonewall Riots occurred in 1969, it was illegal to be gay and anti-gay legislation was forcibly upheld by the Police. 1969 in New York City was a time of peak Police harassment of the LGBT community. The LGBT community called for the end to the discrimination and what started as a small group of the LGBT community standing up to the oppression grew into thousands over several days. Stonewall is often considered the beginning of the LGBT rights movement and it was on its one year anniversary that Pride Parades were seen in New York City and other parts of the United States.  

Pride parades now occur all over the world and are a striking display of queer culture; a visible celebration of a movement that calls for equality for the LGBT community. While Pride is a celebration it is also a continual annual call for LGBT equality - equality that is still not present. Despite same sex marriage being legal in New Zealand, the LGBT community continues to experience high rates of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identification. LGBT youth experience higher rates of suicide and self-harm than their non-LGBT peers. Transgender people in New Zealand do not readily have access to essential health-care and experience much higher levels of physical violence than their non-trans peers.  As much as we would like to say otherwise, LGBT hate crimes still do occur in New Zealand in 2016. Aspects of the inequality that is experienced by the LGBT community can be attributed to the policies and practices of the Department of Corrections and the Police Force which was the motivation behind the NPIP protests.

It is important to note that when discussing the inherent discrimination of Corrections and the Police, the critique is at an institutional level, not an individual level. The Police Force have Lesbian and Gay Liaison Units and welcome lesbian, gay and bisexual employees –the critique is not of LGB employees but is of the institution as a whole.

In addressing the confronting nature of a minority protesting within a minority, Lexie conveys that the NPIP protest was needed as “pride is for all of us and as long as one sector of the acronym is not free or is unsafe then none of us are free or safe”.

Ti notes that “social change never happens when you ask nicely. It is only when people are willing to stick their necks out and put their bodies on the line that things change. The welfare state, homosexual law reform and the eight hour working day would never have happened if people weren’t confrontational”.

The NPIP protests have raised awareness of the mistreatment of LGBT people in prison, and have started a conversation with the wider community and within the LGBT community. The conversation is difficult, particularly within the LGBT community, but it is very much needed to ensure the safety of LGBT prisoners and the safety of all LGBT people.

No Pride In Prisons encourages everyone to go along to their events, and/or to organise solidarity events. The group is active on social media and regularly updates its website and blog with events and current information –

This article first appeared in Issue 8, 2016.
Posted 11:06am Sunday 17th April 2016 by Nath B.