In 2015, the British Association of Gender Identity Specialists (BAGIS) submitted a written brief to the Transgender Equality Inquiry, which had been undertaken by the UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee, explaining why it was “naïve to suggest that “nobody would seek to pretend transsexual status in prison if this were not actually the case.”
“There are, to those of us who actually interview the prisoners, in fact very many reasons why people might pretend this,” wrote Dr. James Barrett, the President of BAGIS. “These vary from the opportunity to have trips out of prison through to a desire for a transfer to the female estate (to the same prison as a co-defendant) through to the idea that a parole board will perceive somebody who is female as being less dangerous through to a [false] belief that hormone treatment will actually render one less dangerous through to wanting a special or protected status within the prison system and even (in one very well evidenced case that a highly concerned Prison Governor brought particularly to my attention) a plethora of prison intelligence information suggesting that the driving force was a desire to make subsequent sexual offending very much easier, females being generally perceived as low risk in this regard.”
The idea that many male offenders would opt to serve their sentences in women’s correctional facilities is not something that should shock a thinking person. But it appears that common sense is forgotten once the words “gender identity” are invoked. Male offenders, including violent offenders and sex offenders, currently are incarcerated in women’s prisons in various western jurisdictions. This policy has been adopted in numerous countries under the guise of tolerance. Recently, Ireland had its first transfer, when a fully intact male sex offender was placed in a women’s prison in Limerick. The California Senate also recently voted in favour of such accommodations. This policy often is referred to as “self ID.” It means that your status as a male or female is determined by your belief (or claim) about your sex and not by your actual biology.
This is happening in Canada, where I live, even if most Canadians have no idea about it. The people who live in prison, including female prisoners, have very little constituency among politicians or journalists. The media reports on this issue rarely. And when they do, there is miniscule, if any, acknowledgement that self-ID poses a serious danger to incarcerated women. Just the opposite: Self-ID is portrayed as a step toward progressive enlightenment, full stop.
When these men do abuse female inmates, it is referred to, for official purposes, as “female” perpetrated violence, since that is how the perpetrator is classified. I learned about this policy, and the lobby effort behind it, from British radical feminists on Twitter, because, as noted above, the Canadian media either isn’t interested in reporting on it, or is fearful that candid reporting in this area will lead to accusations of transphobia.
The activism of these British women brought the case of Karen White to my attention. White is a male rapist who was admitted into a women’s prison in Wakefield, England in 2017. White has been convicted of sexually assaulting two female inmates during his three months of incarceration in Wakefield. He was subsequently sent to a male prison.
Hearing about the UK’s policy of self-ID for prisons prompted me to check if there was a similar policy in Canada. I assumed that this was not the case, as I had not heard anything of it. And the very thought of it ran counter to my conception of Canadian values, which tend to be highly protective of women’s rights and safety. It turned out I could not have been more wrong: On both the provincial and federal levels, male-bodied offenders have been housed in women’s prisons on the basis of self-ID for quite some time.
On the federal level, this began in 2017, after the passage of Bill C-16, which added gender identity and expression to the Criminal Code and the Human Rights Act. Prior to this, only men who’d had sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) could be considered for accommodation in a women’s federal prison. Now, the policy was basically anything-goes.
Sex offenders such as Patrick Pearsall and Matthew Harks have been housed in Canadian women’s prisons. As has contract killer Fallon Aubee, the first male offender (to my knowledge) transferred federally as a result of self-ID. Dangerous offender Adam Laboucan is currently housed in the Fraser Valley Institution for Women in British Columbia. To receive the designation of “dangerous offender” under Canadian law, there must be evidence that the offender has a pattern of brutally violent behavior that is overwhelmingly likely to persist. Laboucan was convicted of sexually assaulting a 3-month old baby, yet he is now living in a women’s prison that participates in the Institutional Mother-Child Program, which is run by the federal government “to foster positive relationships between federally incarcerated women and their children by providing a supportive environment that promotes stability and continuity for the mother-child relationship.” One feature of the program is that it allows young children to live with their incarcerated mothers in detached buildings referred to as “cottages.”
A CBC report on a 2010 decision to deny parole to Laboucan relays that he had threatened to kill a female guard, and that he had confessed to murdering a 3-year old child at the age of 11. (The Province reported that Laboucan also was denied parole in 2018. He had appealed this decision citing bias on behalf of the Parole Board but this was unsuccessful.)
Laboucan is not in a women’s prison as a result of Bill C-16 (which was cited to justify a policy of self-ID). He has been accommodated because, while incarcerated, he has undergone SRS. The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has allowed men who have had this procedure to apply for accommodation in a women’s prison since at least 1982. CSC policy made SRS more accessible to federally incarcerated inmates as a result of a 2001 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling (Kavanagh v. Canada), which declared that a blanket ban against SRS was discriminatory against incarcerated transsexuals on the basis of sex and disability.
This policy accounts for CSC’s odd classification system. A male offender who has had SRS is recorded in the Offender Management System as a female, while an intact male is recorded as a male (even if it was merely his claim to be a woman that led to his incarceration in a women’s facility).
Matthew Harks recently was released from the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Ontario. He is a serial pedophile who has been convicted of three sexual assaults against girls under the age of 8. He has claimed to have abused 60 girls and to have committed 200 offenses. A 2006 psychiatric assessment of Harks maintained that he has an “all-encompassing preoccupation with sexually abusing underage girls.” Like Laboucan, Harks has undergone SRS, but this has not stopped him from facing multiple accusations of harassment and assault while incarcerated in a women’s prison. In 2016, the Calgary Herald reported that Harks was potentially facing charges for “three alleged offences that took place recently while [Harks] was in custody: assault, unlawful confinement and sexual assault.” The Vancouver Sun has reported that Harks has assaulted two female inmates who were “childlike in appearance.”
The commonly held belief that a castrated male offender poses minimal threat to females is a myth. There is certainly no rational reason why a male serial predator should be housed with women, many of whom have a history of being abused by men. Offenders are sent to prison as punishment. They are not sent to prison to be punished; and locking these women in with violent men is cruel and unusual punishment. It is well established that men and women have vastly different patterns of criminality. It is a basic fact that men are physically stronger than women, and that they regularly take advantage of this fact in every imaginable context to dominate and abuse women.
On September 17, 2019, a grievance was filed by a formerly incarcerated Indigenous woman who maintains that CSC staff were aware that she was being harassed by Harks during her incarceration at Grand Valley, and that they failed to intervene. She has a history of childhood sexual abuse that was perpetrated by a male; and so her confinement with Harks, and the failure of CSC to relocate her, was deeply triggering. She is citing multiple violations of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.
Harks’ alleged harassment of this woman (a copy of whose grievance I have in my possession) included following her around, as well as telling her she was the reason he was at Grand Valley. On one occasion, he reportedly told her he was “horny.” On another, this convicted pedophile told her she had a “young spirit.” She alleges he met her outside the washroom and asked if she was menstruating. She recognized this continual disrespect of her boundaries as typical grooming behaviour (priming for abuse), and this had a negative effect on her mental health. She became “very fearful, and spiraled into a trauma response with nightmares, sleeplessness and flashbacks.” As there is no trauma therapy available in prison, the reduced functioning she experienced as a result of her symptoms led to threats of segregation from the rest of the prison population. She is citing discrimination on the basis of sex and Indigeneity. (Despite comprising only about 4.3% of Canadian women, Indigenous women make up 40% of federally incarcerated women.)
One would expect all this to provoke some sort of response from Canadian women’s groups. But it hasn’t. The indifference to the plight of such women from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) is especially eerie. The CAEFS exists to advocate on behalf of females in the criminal justice system. And so formerly incarcerated women attending a CAEFS conference in Ottawa this past June were in for a shock when they learned that the board had voted in favour of a trans-inclusive policy—meaning a policy supportive of the accommodation of male offenders in women’s prisons on the basis of their declaration that they are actually women. (This development was relayed to me by an attendee, Heather Mason, who formerly was a prisoner at Grand Valley Institution for Women, and now advocates for women in the criminal-justice system.)
I contacted the office of my Member of Parliament, Nick Whalen, a Liberal, and shared my concerns about this accommodation policy with one of his staff members. It was bad enough that sadistic male offenders were allowed into women’s prisons if they had SRS, I explained. Bill C-16 opened the door wide open to any male offender with an inclination towards preferring female company to male. The staffer asked me to send along a more detailed query, as she was “having a hard time finding any viable information regarding [my] concerns.”
I replied by sending a link to article about a father in Quebec convicted of molesting his 3-year-old daughter. Between the time of his crime and the time of his conviction, he claimed to have become a woman; and on this basis, he was permitted to spend his eighteen-month sentence in a women’s prison. I also sent along an article that detailed disturbing data from the UK women’s group Fair Play For Women, which showed that 48% of transgender prisoners in England and Wales were convicted sex offenders.
Her response to this was: “Female prisons in Canada do not house male sex offenders—that is unethical.” She also stated that I was misinformed, and that all of the information I need to know regarding Bill C-16 was at the web link she provided. (The link she sent actually pertained to a different Bill C-16—the Sex Offender Information Registration Act.) All further attempts at correspondence went unanswered. It was like something from a novel by Franz Kafka: The law of the land had been turned upside down for women’s prisons, but no one wanted to talk about it, or even admitted that there was anything to talk about. My own government was essentially gaslighting me.
In November, 2018, I decided to place an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request in order to obtain data on the number of men in women’s prisons, as well as the crimes that had put them there. (This was the sort of thing that enterprising journalists usually do. But as noted earlier, this sort of investigation was inconsistent with their newfound role as trans “allies.”)
I phrased my request so as to ask how many “males labeled ‘transgender’ were being housed in women’s correctional facilities.” On December 3, I received a response from CSC that stated they had no relevant records. I was shocked by this, so I phoned CSC. I was told that they could not provide data because transgender prisoners were not being tracked at all. I was further told that the fluidity of gender made it impossible for such data to even exist.
The following month, I filed an appeal with the Office of the Information Commissioner. In April, my case was assigned to an investigator. In his initial correspondence with me, via email, he copied and pasted part of the Wikipedia entry for “transgender.” He followed this up with: “I guess your request is not very clear.” It was a completely obnoxious response.
It fell to me to explain that we had a policy of self-ID in place for federal prisons, and that these men did not all have cosmetically constructed approximations of female anatomy (as he seemed to assume). He told me that the investigation could take as long as eight months. I stated that I did not believe that this was reasonable seeing as there are fewer than 800 beds for federally incarcerated women in the entirety of Canada, and that all I was asking was how many men were lying in them every night.
While I was waiting for a decision regarding my appeal, someone sent me information relating a completely separate ATIP request. It was a document from CSC that featured a slideshow outlining the number of “transgender women” in women’s facilities. It stated that as of January 22, 2019, there were 10 such individuals in women’s prisons (as well as one inmate listed as “gender diverse”). I forwarded this information to the investigator. When I tried to broach the question as to why the CSC had claimed, in response to my own request, that it did not track transgender prisoners, I was told that this was not within the scope of the investigation. (To be more precise, the investigator, having been called out on the previous misinformation that was supplied to me, cut me off before I was even able to finish the question.)
On September 3, 2019, I received a supplementary release, via email, from the Office of the Information Commissioner, stating that its staff had concluded their investigation, with a finding that my complaint to them had been “well-founded.” This meant that CSC had failed in its obligation to follow the Access to Information and Privacy Act. On September 18, I received the CSC data I’d asked for—more or less. They provided me with a list of the transfers from men’s to women’s prisons between June 1, 2017 and December 3, 2018, as well as the main type of crime committed by each offender. This was the information that both the CSC—and the investigator who’d been assigned to deal with my follow-up queries—had assured me did not exist; indeed, could not exist.
I pored over the information. Seven out of the eight men who’d been transferred had been convicted of a violent crime. Two offenders had first-degree murder listed as their main offence. Three had second-degree murder. Two had “Schedule I” offences—a category that includes sexual offences and other violent crimes, excluding first and second-degree murder. The final offender had Schedule II drug offences as his main offence.
This was horrifying to see but, sadly, unsurprising—as a source already had informed me that half of the male offenders applying for transfers in Canada are sex offenders. Even men who present a serious escape risk are being transferred. This past April, a Quebec judge ordered that John Boulachais be transferred to a women’s prison despite that fact that he is a murderer who evaded custody for 12 years and has made escape attempts while incarcerated in a men’s facility. In one such attempt, which occurred on a bus, he was able to conceal a small saw, cut through his restraints, and jump out of the emergency exit before being apprehended. Women’s prisons were not created to contend with offenders such as Boulachais. Unlike in high-security men’s prisons, the guards there typically do not carry guns.
When I received the appeal decision, I thought that this might mean the government was admitting that the information I’d asked for could not be withheld. Not so: In the process of providing me with the data, CSC retroactively changed the object of my query from the number of males in women’s prisons to the number of transfers between men and women’s prisons. This is an important distinction, as it omits any male offenders who may have been directly admitted upon intake. This data also omits men such as Harks and Laboucan, who have had SRS and so are considered female by CSC. The actual number of males in Canadian women’s prisons is unknown.
And things are getting worse. As of January, Statistics Canada mandates police to record the self-declared gender—and not the actual sex—of both perpetrators and victims of crime. Which means that the tools are now in place for criminal-justice officials to pretend that biological sex simply doesn’t exist from one end of the criminal-justice pipeline to the other. That’s a great boon for sexual predators, and a tragedy for women.
When asked about the subject, most Canadians will say they support legal protections in regard to gender identity. But they are answering such questions in a state of total ignorance. The government has simply gone ahead and transferred inmates, without bothering to explain to Canadians how they are using the nebulous notion of gender identity as a mean to put violent men behind bars with women and girls. In some cases, even broaching this subject socially with people I know elicits raised eyebrows. Until I got the data I wanted (some of it, anyway), people accused me of pursuing a conspiracy theory. But even the incomplete data that was grudgingly handed over to me shows that my fears were well-founded.
On January 12, 2017, Prime Minister Trudeau attended a town hall in Kingston, Ontario, where he was asked a question by a self-described woman who wanted to know whether the PM was working to prevent the possibility that men who claim to be women should be required to serve their sentences in men’s prisons. The Prime Minister responded that “yes,” he would address the issue, despite never having “thought” of it before—and he hoped that we were moving forward on this issue even without his “leaning in on it.” The very next day, the CBC reported that CSC had changed its transgender prison accommodation policy, and that CSC officials would now have a policy of self-ID.
It was a telling moment. The man who had asked the question at the town hall seemed aghast by the idea that a man identifying as a woman would be placed in a men’s prison. He described incarcerating these men with other men as “torture.” Women are expected to accept that claim, while believing that the intrusion of male offenders into women’s prisons represents the height of inclusivity. And the government summarily decided the issue—in men’s favour, of course—without bothering to consult with the 18-million Canadians who are girls or women.
It was nauseating to see these two men so cavalierly discuss this issue in public, while paying no attention whatsoever to the reason why we have sex-based protections in the first place: to protect women from male violence. Self-ID has marched forward despite there being no evidence supporting the claim that these men pose any less of a threat to women than other men. What’s more, our national media–which seems to anxious to produce splashy stories on rape culture in every other context—continues to ignore the issue. What could be more emblematic of “rape culture” than a locked building full of women forced to live with an actual rapist?
In the UK, currently 1 in 50 male prisoners are now claiming to be a woman. There is every reason to assume that the needless danger facing these women will only escalate as more male prisoners become aware of this “self-ID” escape hatch. Meanwhile, we women are dismissed or berated as “transphobes” when we voice concerns. It’s a scandal that is now in plain sight. No woman should tolerate this appalling situation, and no civilized country should ask her to.
April Halley, who blogs at aprilhalley.com, investigates and writes about the impact of gender-identity policies on women and children in Canada.
Featured image: Davina Ayrton, a violent male-bodied British sex offender who identifies as a trans woman, was jailed in 2016 for raping a 15-year-old girl. Davina was named David at the time of the crime, but has indicated a desire to be housed in a female facility.
Correction Notice: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article stated that Karen White raped female prison inmates. This has been corrected to indicate that Karen White, who was convicted of rape in 2018, sexually assaulted female prison inmates.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.