'I didn't want to die' - queers battle prison system

People with gender dysphoria feel there is a conflict between their physical sex and the gender they identify with. (David Harrison, M&G)

People with gender dysphoria feel there is a conflict between their physical sex and the gender they identify with. (David Harrison, M&G)

“Why are these gays here?” the prison official asked, pointing at the two openly gay men seated in their prison cell.

“I told them not to be like this but they don’t listen,” the other official replied.

The two officials, and a few others, entered the cell. “Moffies”, “hoere”, “kaffir moffies”, they screamed, beating and kicking the two men. Armed with a shock shield, one of the officials also repeatedly shocked the prisoners.

Escorting the two men to the prison’s dining hall, the officials took knives to the men’s clothes — deemed too effeminate — and ripped them until they fell off.
They were left standing in their underwear in full view of other inmates and were then escorted back to their cell, their buttocks slapped for added humiliation.

This is according to draft particulars of a claim by the men’s legal representatives, Lawyers for Human Rights. The summons is still to be served so the correctional facility cannot be named.

According to the claim, the incident left one of the men so depressed that, three weeks later, he took an overdose in an bid to commit suicide.

Sitting across from me in the visitors’ room at the Malmesbury Correctional Centre, Jade September recounts how, a few weeks earlier, she too had tried to take her own life.

She diligently collected the sleeping tablets she requested from prison authorities. One day, she thought, she would have enough to end it all. But, when she finally swallowed the “about 20 or 30” tablets she had collected, her attempt failed.

“I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted to switch off. I’m exhausted. I’m tired of fighting. I’m just so tired of fighting,” she says.

A transgender woman jailed in a male prison, September’s fight is for the recognition of her gender. And it is the prison authorities, not her fellow inmates, she is taking on.

Dressed in the bright prison uniform issued to men, the 34-year-old says: “[The other inmates] have no issue with me being who I am. Nobody has a problem with me. Nobody. Only them [the officials].”

September has initiated court proceedings against the department of correctional services for discrimination because of her gender identity and expression. The matter is to be heard before the equality court.

In addition to verbal abuse by prison officials, September is also fighting the various facilities she has been jailed in for their refusal to acknowledge her gender.

“From a young age, I remember finding it difficult to look into a mirror and see a male person looking back at me. I remember feeling complete on the inside but not on the outside ... Not being able to live fully as a woman is causing me to feel depressed, helpless and hopeless.”

People with gender dysphoria feel there is a conflict between their physical sex and the gender they identify with.

Ronald Addinall, a University of Cape Town academic and clinical social worker, is part of the team that runs Groote Schuur Hospital’s transgender clinic.

Addinall, who has worked with transgender people for 13 years, says, although not all transgender people battle with gender dysphoria or wish to go through gender-affirming treatment, the rates of depression, anxiety and suicide attempts are disproportionately high among people with gender dysphoria.

A 2008 study, Attempted Suicide among Transgender Persons: The Influence of Gender-based Discrimination and Victimisation, found that “the prevalence of attempted suicide was 32% … [with] depression, a history of substance abuse treatment, a history of forced sex, gender-based discrimination, and gender-based victimisation independently associated with attempted suicide [and that] suicide prevention interventions for transgender persons are urgently needed”.

Addinall says: “This is not because depression and anxiety is something innate to trans people but because they often find themselves in environments in which they have to battle for acceptance.”

This battle for acceptance is particularly hard in the prison environment.

“I do not wear female clothing, apply make-up and keep my hair long for cosmetic reasons or in an attempt to be fashionable or ‘difficult’,” September says. “It is the only way I can express a vitally important component of my identity, which is my gender. It does no harm to anyone.”

Not so, say prison officials. Responding to the allegations, they claim that by expressing herself as a woman September is “a security risk”.

Responding to her allegations, the authorities state: “If [September] is given preferential treatment by being treated and identified as female, [her] bodily integrity and personal security would be at a high risk of violence from other male inmates. Gender violence and abuse underscores the purposes why this legislature demarcated separate male and female correctional services facilities.”

But September’s allegations go beyond the possibility of her gender expression posing a security risk. In one incident, a prison official refused to search her, saying he did not want to touch her because doing so “would bring [him] bad luck”.

In another incident, after being made to hand over her make-up and telling officials “this is who I am and [nobody] can change that”, she was placed in solitary confinement for nearly three weeks.

Prison authorities claim September was “segregated in a single cell for his protection and safety”.

In 2016, civil society groups — the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative, Just Detention International South Africa, Lawyers for Human Rights and the South African National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders — made a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. It stated: “Even though the disciplinary punishment of ‘solitary confinement’ has been removed from the Correctional Services Act by the 2008 amendment … there is reason to conclude that it still occurs under the guise of ‘segregation’. While the difference between effective solitary confinement and segregation appears now to be one only in name, an important distinction has nevertheless crept in under the noble mantle of correcting offending behaviour.”

Liberty Matthyse, the director of nongovernmental organisation Gender Dynamix, says, because “the system is built on cisnormative and heteronormative assumptions”, it is particularly hard on queer prisoners. “Mental and emotional abuse are common features when a trans and gender-diverse person enters the criminal justice system.”

Ariane Nevin, Sonke Gender Justice’s national prisons specialist, adds: “Discrimination against queer inmates is something that is perpetuated by inmates and prison officials, and it is very much a part of the institutional culture of prisons, which emphasise a toxic hypermasculinity and no tolerance of any kind of masculinity that isn’t macho and aggressive. Queer, trans, young, nonviolent, short and skinny inmates are all potential targets of abuse.

“Although this discrimination is as likely to be carried out by other inmates, it is likely that it happens with the knowledge and implicit acquiescence of prison officials.”

For two years, Stanton Bosman was incarcerated at Pollsmoor prison. He says the verbal and physical abuse he experienced came at the hands of prison officials.

“I felt safe with the wardens, in a way, but also scared. Some of them don’t like gay people, and they make it known. They say we turn the place upside down when we have relationships in there,” Bosman says.

“They would call you a lot of names: whore, moffie, teef [bitch]. We would be asked to strip down. They would cover the floor with water and shock us with electric current from shocking boards.”

But his fellow inmates made his time in prison bearable, so much so that leaving the prison “was heartbreaking”.

“While I was inside, I was singing and dancing in the prison band. We would sing gospel, jazz, classics, kwaito, everything. We toured with that band to the farm areas outside of Cape Town. I got to know [my fellow inmates] and they got to know me. We shared each other’s ups and downs. I had dreamed of going home but, before the day of my release, I could hardly sleep. I cried the day I left.”

September recalls her initial incarceration as “a much better time. I was [initially] allowed to express my gender through my hairstyle — I wore it long, in braids and neatly tied up — and a bit of make-up. The female cleaners would even bring me some make-up to wear. No one ever complained. They even allowed me to dress up and take part in drama performances and talent shows at the prison.

“I have never experienced victimisation or harassment from other inmates … [only] officials and prison heads.”

Sanja Bornman of Lawyers for Human Rights’ gender equality programme, believes September’s case “is an equality issue”.

“The state has a duty to ensure substantive equality for all people in its care. Medical conditions and religious and cultural beliefs are all reasonably accommodated. Why is the correctional service system still blind to gender identity, 24 years after the advent of democracy?”

The department’s Singabakho Nxumalo says: “The Correctional Services Act, which governs corrections in this country, is in tandem with the Constitution. As a result, gays and lesbians in custody enjoy the same right to dignity, to privacy and to healthcare without any prejudice.”

He says the department has “always protected the vulnerable group of inmates from others” because it has a responsibility to “maintain and promote a just, peaceful and safe society by correcting offending behaviour in a safe, secure and humane environment”.

“Hence we even segregate inmates by age, gender and risk classification.”

My visiting time is coming to an end and September says: “I could turn this place upside down without wearing a stitch of make-up. But that’s not me. I’m just so tired of fighting. And I’m not asking for much. I just want to be me.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian


The Other Foundation

Carl Collison

Carl Collison

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian. He has contributed to a range of local and international publications, covering social justice issues as well as art and is committed to defending and advancing the human rights of the LGBTI community in Southern Africa. Read more from Carl Collison

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