Transgender prisoners in Hong Kong suffer sexual assault, denial of hormones

All male-to-female transgender inmates are regarded as mentally ill and detained in male wards in a maximum-security psychiatric centre; an upcoming judicial review could bring a change in policy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2016, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 10:52am

When Filipina Navarro Luigi Recasa was sentenced to prison for a drug conviction two years ago, at just 20 years old, she couldn’t have been ready to go to a male prison ward. She couldn’t have expected that she would be escorted by male correctional officers to the male toilets – although she still has her penis, she’s been living as a female since she was 12 years old, and has fully formed breasts. They also cut off her supply of hormones that she’d been taking for eight years.

Prison in Hong Kong can be an ordeal for transgender offenders. All such prisoners are sent to the maximum-security Siu Lam Psychiatric Centre, because being transgender is still considered a mental illness in Hong Kong. And regardless of the gender the prisoner identifies with, they are assigned to a male or female ward based on identity documents, such as a birth certificate or ID card.

Recasa’s treatment in prison isn’t the only example – but there may be change coming for those transgender offenders who’ve been suffering in the system (And according to local advocacy groups, there have been dozens.) In January last year, Recasa filed a request for a judicial review to challenge the detention policy of transgender prisoners – and it will proceed to a substantive hearing on August 8.

NGO Midnight Blue works with and records the allegations of transgender inmates. One of its advocates, Rain Lo Lan-wai, said that since 2013, she’s heard desperate complaints from some 40 male-to-female transgender offenders. They’ve allegedly had their hair forcibly shaved off; body searches carried out by male correctional officers; hormones have been denied; interpreters refused; they have being verbally and sexually abused by prison officers; and they have been refused bras and given male clothes to wear.

“The procedures and policies that our client was subjected to were grossly unfair, and led to major repercussions both physically and mentally,” says Patricia Ho, Recasa’s attorney from human rights firm Daly & Associates. “We’ve encountered other cases, including people who are so depressed about the conditions under which they are detained in Siu Lam that they’ve attempted suicide.”

One such example is a post-operative female who Lo came into contact with in 2013, also in Siu Lam’s male ward, who attempted suicide. Lo said the officers had forcibly cut her hair and then she’d stopped eating. It wasn’t until her eventual suicide attempt that Midnight Blue heard reports that Siu Lam had begun to ease its policies on mandatory head shaving and sometimes allowed inmates access to hormones.

Still, though, Lo says whether an inmate can keep her hair or get her hormones is decided on a case-by-case basis, because there are no clear guidelines, let alone laws, for prisons to follow when it comes to transgender offenders.

“And we just deal with transgender women – we don’t even know what happens to transgender men and intersex people in the prison system,” said Lo.

Her voice was low, she was depressed, her skin was covered in rashes, and she was just crying and crying, and she asked me, ‘why?’
Rain Lo Lan-wai

Recasa alleged she suffered her first sexual assault at Pik Uk Correctional Institution, where she was sent temporarily before her detention at Siu Lam. This is a normal transfer point for young male offenders. There, she reported that during a doctor’s examination, she was made to get fully naked, lean on a table while male correctional officers ridiculed her, and that an unidentified object was inserted in her anus. Days later, in Siu Lam, she reported she was briefly kept in solitary confinement; her hormones cut off, she alleged. She reported that she eventually grew an Adam’s apple and that she was forced to use male toilets, where she was not only followed and sexually assaulted, but inmates masturbated in front of her.

“I saw her after four months in Siu Lam, and she’d changed,” said Lo, who had visited Recasa two months earlier. “Her voice was low, she was depressed, her skin was covered in rashes, and she was just crying and crying, and she asked me, ‘why?’”

Legislator Raymond Chan Chi-chuen, who advocates for LGBT rights, brought up the issue of treatment of transgender prisoners in March last year with the commissioner of the Correctional Services Department (CSD). He asked why CSD officers would “request sexual services” from transgender prisoners, and cut of their hormones – but said the commissioner ignored the issue.

He’s since put forward a bill in Legco that would identify a transgendered person’s sex based on factors other than their identity documents, which he called a part of their fundamental rights.

There’s a reluctance to treat transgender people like humans in this society, and there’s an assumption that all of them are offenders
Suen Yiu-tung

“The Commissioner for Correctional Services unabashedly answered my question by saying that the CSD will continue the practice of determining the gender of the prisoner solely on the sex as shown on identity documents,” Chan says.

Chan estimates that about 100 transgender offenders have been imprisoned at Siu Lam in the past five years; he drew this number from reports from various NGOs, since the government will not report an official number.

“The CSD incarcerates some transgender prisoners convicted of petty offences in a high-security prison, which is tantamount to increasing the severity of punishment [and] is absolutely unreasonable and unacceptable,” says Chan.

But whether it’s pushing a bill in Legco or making clear guidelines for prisons, there is still no legislation on the incarceration of transgender inmates. “In Hong Kong, transgender people are [presumed] guilty unless proven otherwise – even if they’re not offenders,” said Suen Yiu-tung, the associate director of the Gender Research Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He explained that this pervasive stigma in Hong Kong holds up even the most basic legislation. “There’s a reluctance to treat transgender people like humans in this society, and there’s an assumption that all of them are offenders.”

Strip-searched transgender woman granted right to challenge Hong Kong prison for treating her like a man

Recasa was found guilty in July 2014 and was granted leave for the judicial review in July last year. Suen says the High Court “takes a conservative approach” and policy on handling transgender prisoners is unlikely to be changed by the judicial review at this stage. “It will probably need to move to the Court of the Final Appeal for a more liberal judgment,” Suen says.

Chan says he is especially outraged by how slow the CSD has been to respond to Recasa’s accusations. “The police are still unwilling to report on the investigation’s progress, and still haven’t pressed charges against the perpetrator. It looks like a cold case,” he says.

When asked the CSD how many transgender offenders are imprisoned at Siu Lam, a spokesman refused to answer, saying it would prejudice the hearing on August 8.

“It’s not okay for the CSD to refuse to respond to this question, and it should be information that’s made available to the public,” says Ho. “The judicial review has to do with one person’s complaint, and it reviews general policies and procedures – how does the number of transgender prisoners detained affect the proceedings at all?”

During her imprisonment in Siu Lam, Recasa says that she was detained in what Siu Lam calls the Vulnerable Persons Unit. The CSD refused to give any details of what the Vulnerable Persons Unit is. The CSD further refused to reveal the number of complaints of abuse that have been made to the department regarding transgender offenders, nor the precautions that are taken at Siu Lam to protect transgender prisoners from assault.

Separate confinement has its own problems, but it’s the only way they can feel comfortable
Chu Shung-man

For Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunity Commission, the solution is a simple one – keep transgender offenders in solitary confinement.

“Separate confinement has its own problems, but it’s the only way they can feel comfortable,” says Chu Shung-man, the equality watchdog’s director of policy, research and training. He uses the analogy of a gender-neutral bathroom: “The Leisure and Culture Department has been changing disabled bathrooms to unisex bathrooms – this may be the way out, moving forward with gender-neutral facilities.”

But Tommy Chen, a spokesperson for LGBT rights group Rainbow Action, says this is not a solution – instead, it’s torture. “Isolation for so long is dangerous to mental health, and defined by the UN Convention Against Torture as a form of torture.” Chen explains that forcibly shaving transgender prisoners’ heads is also classified under the Convention as “degrading treatment”, and his organisation has filed multiple claims against Siu Lam with the UN.

Like Midnight Blue, Rainbow Action also records complaints of abuse from transgender inmates. Chen says that “Recasa’s allegation of sexual harassment is not an isolated case. We’ve heard this a lot – inmates have been laughed at, degraded and have had their hair cut off, and told they don’t have a choice.”

Chen says that because most transgender offenders are not Hong Kong citizens, they do not have a strong understanding of basic human rights – and are often misled into thinking that abuse is normal. Many are from the Philippines and Thailand.

“There’s a reason we don’t have more high-profile cases like Recasa’s,” Chen says. “Most transgender offenders we’ve encountered are scared, depressed and just want to leave Hong Kong. They’re weak and emotionally beat up.”

A report launched by Rainbow in conjunction with three other major Hong Kong advocacy groups in September last year found that cases of abuse against transgender offenders in Siu Lam have been reported since 2009. The report also found that, despite the relaxation of rules in 2013 following the post-operative inmate’s suicide attempt, at least four transgender prisoners detained at the time of the report had their heads forcibly shaved.

From her personal experience of visiting Siu Lam since 2013, Lo finds the CSD’s logic that female transgender offenders must be isolated within a male ward – for fear they will be harassed or harmed – is as flawed as it is ineffective.

“Why couldn’t they just put Recasa or other transgender female offenders in a female ward, with female toilets?” she says. “The mindset is very traditional.”


This story was amended on July 28 at 10:44am to remove references to Navarro Luigi Recasa's head being forcibly shaved.