A transgender inmate, who identifies as a woman, is doing time in the all-male Mountain Institution, a federal prison located on the outskirts of Metro Vancouver.
Now, she has filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in hopes of changing things for herself and for all transgender inmates. She wants to force federal prison officials to recognize the gender she identifies with and treat her accordingly.
In Bilyk’s affidavit, filed with her complaint, she describes her life.
She says she is kept in solitary confinement for her own protection. While at the federal Ferndale Institution in B.C. she was repeatedly raped, the affidavit says. Bilyk did not identify any assailants to prison authorities but she was moved to a treatment centre, and then to Mountain Institution where she received counselling, the affidavit says.
And even in isolation, Bilyk is not safe. In the affidavit she recounts a three-week stretch when she only showered twice because the ward lacked privacy and forced her to bathe with men nearby.
On hormone therapy since 2008, Bilyk’s features are increasingly feminine, and that has resulted in more attention from male inmates. She has been in prison since 1987 serving a life sentence for second-degree murder after a house robbery she took part in led to the death of the female homeowner.
Worse than the harassment, fear, and threats of physical violence, the affidavit continues, is the pain Bilyk feels when someone fails to acknowledge her as a woman.
“Now, staff usually use female pronouns, but sometimes I am still referred to as a man,” it reads. “It makes me want to cry and scream.”
Those conditions amount to “discrimination”, claims the complaint filed with the commission on December 4. That document argues the country’s federal prison system, Correctional Service Canada (CSC), “fails to accommodate transgender prisoners”.
The complaint was filed by Jen Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS). “The only remedy that we will be looking for is policy reform,” she said.
The policy in question is correctional services directive 800-5, which states that transgender inmates in a pre-op phase of treatment will be held in a facility based on an individual’s physical attributes.
In an email response, a correctional services spokesperson would not comment on Bilyk’s complaint.
“The Correctional Service of Canada cannot accommodate your request for an interview. As this complaint is currently being processed it would be inappropriate for CSC to comment at this time,” Avely Serin wrote.
A growing number of provinces are changing their policies for inmates diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the condition where someone’s emotional and psychological identity is the opposite to their biological sex.
In January, Ontario’s provincial prison system became the first in Canada to make it official policy to place pre-op transgender inmates in facilities based on their gender identities.
On Nov. 15, B.C. became the second.
Now, representatives for the governments of Alberta and the Yukon Territories say their correctional systems are revising policies for transgender inmates to follow Ontario’s lead.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission will now consider whether Bilyk’s complaint should be sent to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
If the complaint is deemed valid, it will be forwarded to the tribunal for a hearing and a final determination. Correctional services officials will be able to challenge the complaint.
If the rights commission decides in Bilyk’s favour, it would put pressure on federal prisons across the country to change.
In B.C., Bianca Sawyer was the first person transferred from a male to female facility under B.C.’s revised policy. In an interview at Alouette Correctional Centre, a provincial prison for women, she explained the relief she felt upon arriving there.
“It was a calming euphoria,” she said. Sawyer contrasted that feeling to years spent in prisons where she was constantly surrounded by male prisoners.
Sawyer is in jail for six counts breach of probation, possession of stolen property under $5,000, and uttering a forged document. She was previously convicted for committing 10 bank robberies.
She recounted strip searches conducted by male guards, the fear she felt showering in a room full of men who knew she identified as a woman, and constant verbal abuse from both inmates and prison staff.
Sawyer, who with Metcalfe’s help played an instrumental role in B.C. Corrections revising its policies, went on to recount worse stories about two transgender inmates she knew during four years she spent at Mountain Institution.
“They were made to give lap dances and sexual acts for people’s birthdays,” Sawyer began. She recalled inmates standing in line waiting for oral sex. Sawyer noted there was usually something traded in exchange, such as a food item. But she emphasized that doesn’t mean the act was consensual.
“There was nothing that they could really do,” Sawyer explained. “I mean, they could go cry to the guards, but where are they really going to go?”
Sawyer said a transfer to a federal facility remains her greatest fear. “I don’t want to be treated like they were,” she added.
It’s unknown how many transgender inmates there are in federal facilities and provincial prisons across the country.
In response to requests for numbers sent to each prison authority in Canada, most jurisdictions sent emails saying they did not keep track (B.C., Manitoba, and Quebec) or that they held no transgender inmates.
In Ontario, 63 inmates identified themselves as transgender during intakes between April 2014 and March 2015. On Nov. 14, there were 12 transgender inmates in the province’s custody. Alberta reported it held 16 transgender prisoners as of Nov. 27. Saskatchewan said it presently has one.
Corrections Canada said it could not provide a number. Metcalfe says she has worked with eight transgender inmates in federal custody.
This article originally appeared in print in the Toronto Star and online at TheStar.com on December 14, 2015.