Transgender Inmates at Greater Risk of Abuse

Information on this page was reviewed by a specialist defence lawyer before being published. Click to read more.

Transgender inmates detained in US immigration facilities are at high risk of being sexually assaulted, repeatedly strip-searched and held indefinitely in solitary confinement, according to a study released last Wednesday by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

The 68-page report, “‘Do You See How Much I’m Suffering Here?’: Abuse against Transgender Women in US Immigration Detention,” documents 28 cases of transgender women who were held in US immigration detention between 2011 and 2015. More than half were held in men’s facilities at some point. Half also spent time in solitary confinement, allegedly for their own protection. Many who spent time in solitary confinement through no fault of their own reported experiencing profound psychological distress.

“Many trans women arrive in the US seeking protection from violent abuse in their home countries,” said Adam Frankel, coordinator in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Instead, they face further mistreatment under detention policies that put them needlessly at risk of violence and abuse.”

Sara V., a transgender woman from Honduras, told Human Rights Watch that she was raped by three men at a detention centre in Arizona in April 2014. She said that when she reported the assault, a guard told her, “You [transgender women] are the ones that cause these problems and always call the men’s attention.”

Gloria L, another transgender woman from Honduras, was held in solitary confinement for approximately four months at a detention centre in Louisiana: “A guard told me that [they placed me in solitary confinement] ‘because I had long hair and breasts,’” she said. “One of [them] told me that he was ‘tired of seeing faggots.’ They treated me like an animal.”

Transgender Rights in NSW Prisons

In New South Wales, the Transgender (Anti-Discrimination and other Acts Amendment) Act 1996 makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of being transgender.

For the purposes of the law, term ‘transgender’ is used to refer to all transgender persons, regardless of whether they have undergone surgical intervention. This was considered necessary, because discrimination usually occurs as a reaction to a person’s dress or behaviour – rather than physical gender.

In New South Wales prisons, this means that “any person received into the custody of the N.S.W. Department of Corrective Services who self-identifies as transgender has the right to be housed in a correctional facility appropriate to their gender of identification, subject to their induction screening and case management.”

The final decision on what type of prison a transgender inmate will be placed into is meant to be determined through a case management process, and based on:

  • the nature of their offence and criminal history,
  • custodial history; and
  • perceived risk(s) to the continuing safety of the transgender inmate.

Transgender inmates also have the right to request a review of the decision, if they do not agree with their initial placement.

These measures were implemented to recognise the unique safety risks posed to transgender inmates; who are at a far greater risk of assault, particularly sexual assault if they are placed within a male correctional facility. However, the system in NSW is still far from perfect.

The Tragic Death of Veronnica Baxter

In early 2009, Veronnica Baxter, an indigenous transgender women, was arrested in Redfern on drug charges. She was initially received by Surry Hills Police Station, and upon having her bail denied sent to the MRRC, the Silverwater Remand and Reception Centre. Two days later, she was found dead, hanging from her bunk bed. She was just 33 years old.

Ms Baxter’s tragic death, and the circumstances surrounding it, have caused many to speculate that she fell victim to racism, or transphobia, within the prison system.

Prior to her death Ms Baxter’s cell was left unchecked for an astonishing 14 hours – against State Safety regulations, creating a window of opportunity for a violent attack to take place.

Questions have also been raised as to why she was placed in Silverwater, a gaol for men, despite identifying as a woman. There is also speculation that Ms Baxter failed to receive her hormone therapy treatment in prison.

During the 2011 Coroner’s inquiry into her death, it was revealed that on the night in question Veronnica made four calls to prison staff though her cell intercom. However, the content of these calls was not available during the inquest, nor were the prison officers who received them, nor any inmates from the surrounding cells.

To prevent self-harm in the prison system, inmates are given mental health assessments. Between the period of her arrest and her death, Veronnica received two assessments, neither of which deemed her to be at high risk of self-harm. The second assessment took place just hours before her death; but the assessor, Donna Williams, also failed to be brought before the inquiry.

Unfortunately, questions regarding the decision to place Ms Baxter in a male-prison, and her access to hormone treatment (or lack thereof) were not addressed at all.

With Human Rights Watch now shining the light on the abuse of transgender people inside prison systems, it is hoped that this type of tragedy will never happen again.

Last updated on

Receive all of our articles weekly


Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

Your Opinion Matters