by Theresa Henry
This story is a plea for people to demand human rights protections for trans people in British Columbia. It is the story (so far) of Paris Abidi, a friend and comrade of mine, who was recently released from custody after being arrested on an assault charge. When I met with them—I’m using the pronouns that Paris prefers: “they” and “them”—at a coffee shop, they showed me a picture and told me it summed up their experience in jail. It was a photograph of them outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, holding a sign that read, “Full protection of transgender rights in Canada is a big lie and deception!”
Paris protesting outside the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2016. Source: private.
Paris, a non-binary Iranian political refugee, was protesting with this sign in 2016 because they were fed up with the contradiction between how the BC and Canadian governments posture as defenders of trans rights, and their actually failing to protect those same rights. This contradiction was made strikingly clear by Paris’s recent experiences of discrimination and torture in BC jails.
In October of last year, Paris was arrested and charged with assault. For the next month, Paris fought to be afforded basic human rights as a transgender person during their stays in three different provincial correctional facilities in the Metropolitan Vancouver area. Their battle with the province included an 11-day hunger strike in North Fraser Pre-Trial, a facility for men.
Now, while awaiting sentencing, Paris is determined to “make some noise” about what happened to them and to shed light on the suffering of other transgender people in Canadian jails and prisons. The following is the first act in Paris’s story.
Arrest and Transfer to Men’s Jail
On October 8, Paris was taken to the Vancouver City Jail for questioning and was told they would be sent to a women’s jail, as requested. At the Vancouver City Jail, a nurse asked Paris what medications they take; Paris answered, yet was detained for 24 hours without access to their medications.
The next day was Paris’ first court date, over video chat. Despite their appointed lawyer failing to appear for the court date, the judge decided to keep Paris in custody until their second court date, October 11.
Paris was then transferred to Alouette Correctional Centre for women. At Alouette, Paris was asked by jail officials whether they were transitioning from “male to female” or from “female to male”—two choices that preclude the correct identification of Paris’s gender—even though their provincial identification displays “X” as their gender, signifying they identify as neither male nor female. When Paris replied that they were assigned male at birth, the affect of the officials changed, and the women questioning them brought in “two big male guards.” Instead of completing their intake into Alouette, Paris was transferred back to the Vancouver City Jail.
Legal Protections Disregarded
The refusal to administer Paris’s medications and to house Paris in a women’s jail despite their wishes, was unlawful and against federal and provincial policy. According to Trans Rights BC, trans prisoners have “the right to continue to receive hormone therapy in prison if we were prescribed hormones while in the community.” This was the case for Paris, meaning the refusal to administer Paris’s medication was a human rights violation.
Furthermore, in 2016 the Canadian legislature passed Bill C-16, which amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to “add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.” Due to this legislative shift, Correctional Services Canada (CSC) began updating the policies on transgender prisoners in 2017.
The most recent CSC policy document concerning transgender prisoners was released in 2022. It states that “prior to admission, staff will ensure that newly sentenced gender diverse offenders are provided with an opportunity to indicate if they have a preferred institution type.” The document stipulates that only if “CSC cannot access the offender’s risks and needs” will the “intake site for initial assessment” be based on their current sex – sex here referring to genitalia. It is important to note that this policy indicates that the initial intake site, not the jail the person is housed in, may correspond to genitalia.
A 2020 policy document from the CSC states that operation practices are to “allow offenders to be placed in an institution according to their gender identity unless there are overriding health or safety concerns.” In 2016, British Columbia became the second province to implement the policy of housing prisoners according to their gender identity or the prison they prefer.
Tortuous Conditions and Memories of Prison in Iran
Upon arriving back at Vancouver City Jail, the guards laughed at Paris, who was struggling with the side-effects of not taking their medication and being denied access to water or a bathroom: trouble breathing; coughing; severe headaches; nausea, anxiety, and disorientation. Eventually, a guard-woman helped Paris use the washroom, still cuffed, and offered some water.
At the court date on October 11, Paris’s court-appointed lawyer again failed to appear. The judge nonetheless decided to keep Paris in custody, but said Paris would be transferred to a women’s jail.
Yet Paris was still not transferred to a women’s jail. Instead, they were transferred to North Fraser Pre-Trial. Paris said that some prisoners and guards were “shocked I was sent to a men’s jail.” One guard asked them their pronouns and whether they preferred men or women for body searches. But this did not relieve Paris’s suffering.
The men’s facility. Source: BC Corrections.
Hunger Strike and Mental Health Watch
Being locked in a men’s jail brought back memories of having been raped and tortured in men’s prisons in Iran. Paris had been imprisoned by the Islamic Regime, charged with being a guerilla fighter. These flashbacks confronted Paris, but they were still denied access to their medication and hormones. At the same time, they were sent into quarantine for seven days, in line with COVID-19 protocols.
Paris immediately began a hunger strike to demand their medication and transfer to a women’s jail. The guards and jail officials deemed their hunger strike a suicide attempt, to which Paris responded, “if I were trying to commit suicide, I would still do so even if I were in mental custody. No, I am protesting.”
The hunger strike “scared the officials and the guards,” said Paris. During the hunger strike, Paris was put under a mental health watch in the “mental patient wing” of the men’s jail. Despite both the crown officer and social workers in the jail goading Paris to eat, Paris lasted on hunger strike for 11 days, only ending it when their release was confirmed.
While under mental health watch, guards would bang on the door and yell, “are you dead? Is he, she, whatever, it is dead?” Guards also let other inmates knock on Paris’ cell door, and they refused to speak to Paris when asked why the other inmates were allowed to do this.
Paris complained to the crown official, who “listened but didn’t do anything about it.” This means that the guards followed CSC policy, which specifies that trans prisoners can be spared from having a cellmate, but, in doing so, found a way to worsen Paris’s suffering without any consequences. CSC policy that stipulates that prisoners have a right to their preferred pronouns was utterly ignored.
During their hunger strike in isolation, Paris found a pen and marked up their cell with “graffiti about trans rights and solidarity with the Iranian revolution,” referring to the wave of mass protests that broke out in Iran after the murder of Jina (Mahsa) Amini on September 16, 2022. Inspiringly, Paris’s revolutionary spirit has yet to be dampened by repeated and incredibly personal injustices and violence.
End of Hunger Strike but Delayed Release
By October 21, Paris had finally spoken to a new lawyer. Part of the complication was that the lawyer had called, but the staff at the jail did not pass the message along. The new lawyer was shocked at Paris’s placement in a men’s jail and encouraged Paris to file a human rights complaint and sue over inappropriate placement.
At their next court date, even the judge apologized to Paris for having been sent to a men’s jail. Still, Paris was sent back to North Fraser Pre-trial for another week.
During their last week in North Fraser, Paris was taken to a place away from the general population, but it was not mental custody. Paris was told they were being isolated “for my safety.” Yet, to me, Paris expressed that they had experienced more animosity from the guards than from other inmates.
Paris was released on the night of October 27. During 19 days in jail, which included 11 days on hunger strike and 11 days without access to any of their daily medications, Paris lost 35 pounds and spent their birthday alone. Paris said that after being released from custody, their psychologist and mental health team were worried about their deteriorated emotional and psychological state. Since then, Paris has had panic attacks and flashbacks to being raped and tortured.
They are still waiting for their trial to start.
Justice for Paris, Justice for Trans Prisoners!
Unfortunately, Paris’ treatment is standard for transgender prisoners in BC jails. Paris met two transgender women in the men’s jail, both of whom were denied their Hormone Replacement Therapy medication. This brutal treatment of trans prisoners has motivated Paris to share their story about “the suffering of transgender people in prison” because “it is not just about me; it is about all of us.”
Paris’s story reveals a massive contradiction between the progressive posturing of the BC government around human rights and the routine neglect of those rights for transgender people in provincial institutions. Paris’s story also shows that they will unwaveringly stand up for themselves and other transgender people. Their fight against discrimination and torture in BC prisons is part of the fight for trans people to be treated with human dignity, a battle being waged inside and outside prison walls.
Paris has decided to accept their lawyer’s advice to connect with human rights advocates to file a human rights complaint and sue for improper placement. But these efforts alone will not be enough to hold the BC and Canadian governments accountable for trans people’s rights in custody. Therefore, there is no guarantee that, if Paris receives a prison sentence, they will not be placed in a men’s prison.
We are asking that readers in Canada who are engaged and sympathetic to the fight for prisoners’ and trans people’s rights share Paris’s story with trans and prisoners’ rights groups, as well as feminist organizations. Paris hopes this will help them connect with campaigns and organizations fighting for trans people’s rights in prison.
We also ask that readers in Canada and internationally write letters of solidarity or begin correspondence with Paris. To get in touch with Paris, you can send an email care of firstname.lastname@example.org.