The government announced late last week that its policy of only housing transgender prisoners in gender-appropriate prisons if they had undergone gender reassignment surgery will be updated. Corrections must now locate prisoners in facilities which match their actual gender, not their sex at birth, though the department is unable to say when the new policy will come into practice.
"It's a fantastic advance, a real change from minister Anne Tolley and I commend her for it," says transgender lawyer Kelly Ellis. "It's a sea-change."
But Ellis says Corrections must also update its rules regarding access to treatment or support for prisoners who need to explore transitioning or who wish to start transitioning during their prison term.
"Corrections will allow you to continue any treatment which started before you went into prison but if you want to explore this possibility you will be refused access to a doctor or counselor for this purpose," says Ellis. "And you certainly won't be able to access surgery while serving time in prison."
Ellis says prisoners have the same rights as all New Zealanders when it comes to access to medical treatments and procedures. To deny anyone the support needed to come to terms with their gender or begin any treatment they could access outside prison turns their sentence into "cruel and unusual punishment," she says. She notes such a finding by the Chicago Court of Appeal in the USA and believes New Zealand courts would say the same.