” . . . it makes me proud and gives me hope for the future that maybe, even in prison, we can end the stigma against those who are different; that, even in prison, a person’s orientation and gender identity will be accepted.”: LGBTQ2S Offender.
Life in prison is tough. If you’re LGBTQ2S, it can be worse than tough.
Yet, the times are changing — and three original programs inside the walls of five Ontario correctional institutions and three federal institutions, both male and female, are leading the way towards safer, more positive environments.
They are driven by the passion and lived experience of Stacey Love-Jolicoeur, a trans woman who, as an educator and support worker for the LGBTQ2S community, devotes her time to helping these “lost and sometimes forgotten” offenders, as she calls them.
“It’s a hard life. There’s a tremendous amount of discrimination and bigotry,” she said, in a recent interview with JOURNEY Magazine Ptbo. “There’s that real stigma.”
Love-Jolicoeur, 59, is of the Metis Woodlands Painted Feather tribe of Bancroft, Ontario, and identifies as a 2-spirited trans person who transitioned during the last decade from her sex assigned at birth, having first identified at age nine.
She’s the facilitator of three distinct prison programs: LGBTQ2S & Friends’ Groups; peer-to-peer monthly support; and peer-to-peer re-integration counseling for trans offenders with a set release date. Her work is supported by Canadian Mental Health Associations (CMHAs) where the institutions are located, spanning from Ottawa in the east to Kitchener in the west and Penetanguishene in the north.
It’s making a difference.
“Today (June 5), for the first time ever in corrections’ history, we celebrated “PRIDE in Prison” in our group session,” said Love-Jolicoeur. “It was an amazing and fabulous opportunity for the offenders and they were over-the-top happy with our celebration.”
“I have been in prison for more than 20 years and have known a lot of men that are gay, bisexual and transgender and most were afraid to come out while incarcerated for fear of being assaulted.”: Offender.
In the groups, participants work from an agenda that they set themselves. Information is delivered on such topics as sex, mental health, resources in the outside community, romantic relationships inside and on the outside, spirituality and religion, substance abuse, friendships, body image, and living a true authentic self.
The groups aim to provide support for inmates exploring their sexuality, gender identity and sexual orientation. They also hope to educate and raise awareness about issues faced by the LGBTQ2S community and their friends and supporters, both in the institution and the broader community, while also educating inmates about safe sex, sexually-transmitted infections, and other health issues.
“One of the goals is to prevent suicides, because when these things are left unaddressed there is a loss of hope, and a lack of compassion,” said Love-Jolicoeur. “But people are leaving from our groups feeling elevated and happy and they’re talking about successes within the walls because they are being recognised. It’s decreasing suicide. People’s mental health is improving and behaviour is less corrosive. Some have been in prison for 20 years – they just want to talk.”
“I discovered a part of myself I never knew about. I discovered a strength inside I didn’t know I possessed . . . knowing this group is here for many of the guys who need a safe place, who need to know they are not alone.” Original Attendee
She said corrections’ officials have seen the importance and “huge benefit” of this work. She is constantly getting phone calls from different institutions asking for advice and there’s been a tsunami of requests for the programs across Canada.
The peer-to-peer program offers one-on-one support, dependent on the needs and requests of the offender. It could be ongoing personal support or providing information, documentation support, Canadian Human Rights Commission support or individualized support with lawyers, medical professionals or family.
In the trans offenders’ reintegration program, Love-Jolicoeur works one-on-one with trans individuals, who have a set release date, to provide opportunities to be successful on the outside and not re-offend. They look at education and employment opportunities, housing, trans-competent medical care, ongoing mental health support, and liaising and re-building bridges with families and partners.
“A couple have gone back home to families that said ‘you’re never coming back’,” she continued. “I can’t stress enough that it’s all based on the needs of the individual. Everybody is unique. I feel that’s really important to recognise.”
“I am writing this letter as a thank you for being a strong influence and support for my dad and other members of the LGBT community while they are in prison. Last year at Christmas, Dad told me how much the workshops have helped him and others . . .”: Family Member
Over the past three years, Love-Jolicoeur has helped 16 individuals re-integrate, “and of those 16 offenders, 15 have not re-offended yet, which, according to Corrections, both provincial and federal, is almost unheard of,” she said. “Everyone is so thankful to be out in society and not have those hard, discriminatory messages on their back.”
“This just goes to show we really need opportunities for Canada-wide funding both provincially and federally.”
“Coming into the institution my whole identity was taken from me. My hair, my make-up, my clothes, and my community. After two years of hardship and struggle to break, at the least, the stigma that there was about the LGBTQ2S community, I asked for help from a worker to look for someone from the community to come and offer support and strength to the LGBRQ2S offenders. Since this support has started, it has been a great success in bringing together inmates and giving us a safe place with acceptance during the dark times we go through. I also pray this program can open doors and break down more stigma behind the walls in many more prisons.”: Offender.
How It All Began
During a very dark time in her life (2012 to 2013), Love-Jolicoeur’s doctor suggested she participate in the Gender Journeys program run by the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge CMHA. It “saved her life”, she said, and eventually led to employment with CMHA in which she was building trans awareness among local companies and organizations and doing group facilitations.
In October, 2015 her supervisor at the time approached her, asking if she would be interested in working with a newly-formed LGBTQ2S Friends’ group at a local medium-security penitentiary for men. The group had formed from the idea of one of its inmates, who, sadly, passed before its implementation. Starting with 12 participants, that group now has 22.
Word soon spread about the innovative program, and referrals started coming in from other jails. Love-Jolicoeur discovered the LGBTQ2S population was vastly under-serviced and under-represented. She also soon recognised the need for training of front-line staff — she has since presented workshops to close to 1,400 corrections’ personnel. But, she said, often guards cannot take part in training sessions due to union rules.
She said there is an old boys’ culture and “B.S.mentality” among correctional officers in many prisons that is hard to break through. Many do not accept the request of trans people to be called by their chosen names and pronouns, for example, she said.
“Not everybody is on board with it. Many correctional officers say ‘f… that. I’m not doing that’, and they treat them like shit. It is terrible. This is the truth of the matter and it really needs to be talked about,” she said.
“Perhaps it’s a matter of time. In the meantime, it’s still problematic.”
Love-Jolicoeur figured the best way to change attitudes was by reaching students in college corrections’ programs. So, she has visited five college classes, and is hopeful it will make a difference. She also does presentations to community agencies and recently spoke at the Rainbow Health Ontario Conference, Canada’s largest conference on LGBTQ2S health. And she is an advocate for trans people with their families, social workers, Crown prosecutors, lawyers, and even judges.
Rainbow Ontario Health reports that:
“Trans people are usually assigned to
men’s or women’s prisons based on their
birth-assigned sex, unless they have had
genital sex reassignment surgery.
They are often held in segregation units,
ostensibly for their own
protection, regardless of whether they feel
that is necessary. While this limits harassment
from other prisoners, it does not protect them
from harassment by correctional staff.
Within prisons, trans people may experience
harassment and violence
(including sexual violence) from both
prisoners and staff, limited access to
transition-related medical care, and refusal
to use their preferred name/pronoun.
Trans people in prison are vulnerable
to HIV and Hepatitis C1, as rates are
much higher within prisons, where harm
reduction services are not consistently offered
Approximately two-thirds reported that they usually did not feel safe while in prison. About two-thirds had experienced hostility or verbal harassment, and about one third had experienced physical violence, related to being trans.”
In December, 2017, the Canadian government introduced an interim policy for transgender offenders in federal institutions which will now, among other concerns, allow trans people to be placed in men’s or women’s institutions based on gender identity. They also have the right to be called by their chosen name and pronouns; have their gender identity kept confidential; and wear clothing and personal effects that suit there gender identity.
“But how do we police that?” wonders Love-Jolicoeur. “Inmates can file a human rights’ complaint, but it is onerous and take years to reach the courts.”
There are a still a number of problems which make it hard for the LBGT2S programs to carry on, she said. Lock-downs mean offenders miss programs. There is a lack of trained people like herself who are able and willing to do the work, and she must cover a huge geographical service area.
But lack of funding for institutions, facilities and detention centres requesting services is the biggest issue.
“I am constantly knocking on doors,” she said. “At some point, I am confident someone will see the importance of this work and cover it financially. It’s not highly expensive.”
“The fear I had upon entering was crushing. Having support, I have gained confidence in myself and my surroundings. I feel this program is of huge benefit and hope it can expand in all jails.”: Offender.
When asked why she does what she does, she said, “It’s not about the money. It’s my passion to provide opportunities for anybody and everybody to live truly authentic selves, whether incarcerated or on the street. Growing up as I was, as a trans person in society, I feel it’s important that others not experience what I did.”
“I feel so honoured to do this work as an ally. It’s an opportunity to create awareness, support and work toward a better tomorrow.”
By Melodie McCullough
Also See: From Rejection to Acceptance — a Trans Person’s Story of How CMHA’S GENDER JOURNEYS Throws a Life-Line to Trans’ Communities https://journeymagazineptbo.com/2016/05/11/1009/