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Cruel, unusual, and inhumane

1A_transgenderTransgender women face assault and abuse in Canada’s prisons

Kristen McEwen
News Writer

When it comes to breaking the law, people are classified into gender segregated prisons based on genitalia rather than if a person considers themselves to be a man or a woman.

The U of R Justice Studies department held a screening in January of the documentary Cruel and Unusual which depicted the experiences of transgender women in American male prisons.

Transgender inmates face a similar situation in Canada.

“We don’t have anything that would protect those who are going through the transgender process, to assure that they would be placed in the prison which they would be transitioning into,” said Alisa Watkinson, professor of Social work at the U of R campus in Saskatoon.

Watkinson is also a 20-year board member of the Elizabeth Fry Society in Saskatchewan, which advocates for the care and support of all criminalized women.

“You could have someone that’s in conflict with the law who’s going through the process of transitioning to a woman, could be on the hormones and so on, but by the time they get sentenced and sent to a prison, if they’ve got a penis they go to the men’s, if they don’t, they go to the women’s,” she said.

Cruel and Unusal revealed how transgendered women – male to female transition – are mistreated and sexually abused within prison cells by other inmates. In the United States, hormone treatments and sex reassignment surgeries (SRS) are withheld from prisoners undergoing the transition.


“Society will continue to view her as male. A transwoman, who sees herself as female, will be placed with other men. That’s humiliating and embarrassing because you’re treated as male. You may have seen in the [documentary] that hormones are taken away, so they’ve now taken away your ability to make your body conform with how you view yourself. How your brain views yourself. And it’s also put you in a dangerous situation.” – Stephanie Cox


While Stephanie Cox has never been to prison, as a transgender woman, she has experienced the discrimination and ridicule that comes along with transitioning from male to female from interactions with other people in public washrooms. With a fear attached to men assaulting women in the washroom, Cox says the only purpose of in the washroom is to urinate. 

She imagines treatment of transgender women in prison would be worse, because in prison, inamtes aren’t able to run from the abuse.

“A transwoman will go her entire life seeing her body as female, and she might not have sex reassignment surgery because it costs [as much as] $25,000,” Cox said. “Society will continue to view her as male. A transwoman, who sees herself as female, will be placed with other men. That’s humiliating and embarrassing because you’re treated as male. You may have seen in the [documentary] that hormones are taken away, so they’ve now taken away your ability to make your body conform with how you view yourself. How your brain views yourself. And it’s also put you in a dangerous situation.”

The documentary explains that many transwomen become “prison wives” and are sexually abused, in order to have protection from other male inmates. The film also explains how these transgender women are placed in segregation within the prison. The isolation prevents the prisoner from being assaulted, however the solitary confinement can be harmful to an individual’s mental and physical well-being.

An exact number of transgender men and women in prisons in Canada isn’t known.

“We have no idea how many transgender women we have in men’s prisons nor do we know how many men are in women’s prisons,” Watkinson said.

Watkinson said the last number she found on the Correctional Services Canada website included 13 prisoners that identified as transgendered.

Statistics Canada released a report in 2010 which revealed how many Canadians considered themselves to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. Transgender people were included in the category, however no information was listed for the group.

Photo by Morty

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