Halifax study highlights experiences of LGBTQ people in criminal justice system
Survey participants describe being discriminated against, belittled and disrespected
LGBTQ people in Halifax who have gone through the criminal justice system say they've experienced discrimination, disparagement and ridicule during the legal process, a new research study has found.
The project was launched by Coverdale Courtwork Society, a non-profit organization in Halifax that helps support women and gender-diverse people who are involved, or at risk of becoming involved, in the criminal justice system.
"I started to notice just anecdotally that a lot of the folks that were going through the courts and who were incarcerated in prisons and jails identified as 2SLGBTQ," said Ashley Avery, the society's executive director.
"I quickly realized that yes, it's an issue that others notice, but it's incredibly under investigated. Certainly in Nova Scotia, but more broadly in the Canadian context."
30 participants from LGBTQ community
The project, called 2SLGBTQ Plus Justice, was funded by the Community Foundation of Nova Scotia. It began in late 2019 and wrapped up just near the start of the pandemic lockdown last March.
The project consisted of 30 participants from the Halifax Regional Municipality who identified as being part of the LGBTQ spectrum and had some degree of involvement with the criminal justice system, including experiences with police, criminal courts, jail or prisons.
It relied primarily on anecdotal evidence through interviews, focus groups and social events focused on community building, said Avery.
"Multiple experiences of incarceration were shared and interactions with police were identified as being particularly troubling, so reports of blatant disrespect and discrimination, misgendering and just using belittling and offensive language," said Avery.
"Access to gender-affirming garments was an issue. This is was especially true for trans males."
Examining the root causes
The study also looked at what leads LGBTQ individuals to the criminal justice system in the first place.
"Homelessness, unemployment and previous experience in the care system were widespread across the board," said Avery.
Sara Tessier, a former inmate who now works with Coverdale Courtwork Society, was among the 30 participants.
She is also the named plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal attorney general, alleging justice officials have failed to protect women in federal prisons from sexual assault at the hands of prison staff.
Tessier told CBC Radio's Mainstreet that she was singled out and segregated from the other inmates during her incarceration.
"I was targeted because as a lesbian, that must mean that I want to be with every single female that's in there, and that's how I'd be treated ... almost like a predator," she said.
"Other things I've experienced and witnessed as well is that people that are trans are being called by their dead name, or even guards standing around laughing and making fun of using their proper pronouns."
Poor access to mental health care
In addition to an overall lack of respect and empathy from inmates, court officials and staff, Avery said the project also found that access to mental health care and gender-affirming resources were limited, if available at all.
She noted that strip searches and being placed in a jail that doesn't match an inmate's gender identity were particularly traumatic for many respondents.
The project also included pre-existing research, including an LGBTQ prison survey conducted in the U.S. by Black and Pink, a prison abolitionist organization that supports LGBTQ and HIV-positive inmates.
That report, called Coming Out of Concrete Closets, had 1,118 prisoners across the United States write responses to a 133-question survey.
The survey found 70 per cent of respondents experienced emotional pain from hiding their sexuality during incarceration or throughout their interactions with the legal system. It also found that respondents were over six times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population.
'Get this issue on the radar'
Avery, who has worked with Coverdale Courtwork Society since 2015, said she hopes the project's findings will help educate the broader public about the misconceptions and stigma surrounding people who end up being incarcerated or otherwise involved in the criminal justice system.
"Our objectives with the project were not only to generate some knowledge around this issue, but also to develop some community capacity and get this issue on the radar of other organizations," she said.
Avery will be revealing her findings in full during an online seminar next month through a collaboration for Sexual Assault Awareness Month with the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax.
Avery said although this first study was small and primarily anecdotal, she hopes to take the research further and plans to turn it into a master's thesis. She said more interviews and focus groups will be held.
The future study will be supervised by activist and writer El Jones as well as Rachel Zellars, a transformative justice advocate, community organizer and assistant professor in the department of social justice and community studies at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.
"Really what I'm hoping is just to be able to continue to produce knowledge around this and hopefully influence some type of change," said Avery.