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No Pride in Prisons: Life at the Cutting Edge

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 16th December 2016

No Pride in Prisons attracts considerable praise and condemnation from corners of New Zealand's LGBT communities. So, what is their perspective on LGBT life in contemporary Aotearoa and what challenges await it in the future?

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NPIP is the campaigning side of a broad-based campaign for transgender prisoners rights. Their ultimate objective is prison abolitionism, although they're short on details about what might need to replace incarceration for 'high risk' prisoners- pragmatic, incremental solutions like cannabis decriminalisation may take care of low-level nonviolent offending.

Still, their cause is a just one. As a predominantly Maori and Pasifika organisation, one of their focal points seems to be a tino rangatiratanga -inflected critique of the police and criminal justice systems as pakeha colonialist repressive state apparatuses that disproportionately punish Maori with greater sentencing severity.

Their targets are many- gender inappropriate imprisonment of transwomen prisoners, sexual violence against transwomen within correctional 'care,' questionable use of seclusion for transwomen prisoners, questionable use of strip search procedures against transwomen prisoners, against Serco and prison privatisation, against unaccountable prison policies that affect transwomen prisoners and solidarity with a sister organisation, "No Pride in Detention," which campaigns against the draconian racist refugee and asylum detention centres in Australia.

Although prison abolitionism may seem a utopian goal, it isn't that all that much. In the Netherlands, there have been substantial reductions in incarceration accomplished by decriminalising some low level misdemeanour offences (ie cannabis smoking) and imposing a residential sentence instead.

This hasn't had a particularly happy effect for Corrections personnel and maintenance staff, given prison closures, but it certainly seems preferable to the escalating imprisonment toll and de-emphasis on rehabilitation fostered by 'penal populism' , which mindlessly advocates greater severity of imprisonment as the 'solution' to all offences, instead a balanced focus on rehabilitation, drug and alcohol treatment and better standards of community mental health as better long-term objectives.

However, even the Netherlands haven't managed to completely eliminate imprisonment, even if it is reserved for particularly severe offences. As the current Auckland Mayor Phil Goff used to say while Minister of Justice under Helen Clark, tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Even so, custodial care may not be ideal for those cases of murder, manslaughter, rape and child sexual abuse which do arise in this context.

For Maori and Pasifika transgender communities though, it may be a more preferable situation to decriminalise some low level nuisance offences and 'victimless' crimes, which may lead to their entry into the criminal justice system. However, while whanau custody may be an ideal in this situation, it may only be feasible for those who are still connected to their whanau, and in other cases, intergenerational alcohol and drug or family/whanau violence problems may mean this is not a universal solution.

So, while prison abolitionism isn't something that can be achieved overnight, there may be opportunities to achieve it as a long-term objective. However, as noted above, No Pride in Prisons certainly has several other prisoners rights causes to keep it busy into the foreseeable future

 Some solutions require painstaking involvement and continual attention to insure that properly comprehensive change occurs- for example, formal announcements of the 'ending' of gender inappropriate imprisonment for transwomen are meaningless unless accompanied by comprehensive reform of procedures, protocols and practices that insure optimal safety for them.

These include not being referred to male prisons, not being subjected to strip searches by male prison officers, not being 'double-bunked' unless with cisfemale or other transwomen prisoners, rehabilitation access equality for transwomen and ciswomen alike, strict limits on the use of seclusion unless it is justified for mental health reasons or prisoner safety from tangible threats, the end of prison privatisation and so on.

While prison abolitionism is a long term objective, there are ample other issues that are not being addressed due to institutional racism and Corrections transphobia. No Pride in Prisons is to be applauded for its determination to be there for its more vulnerable whakawahine and fa'afafine sisters.

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Craig Young - 16th December 2016

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