Transgender inmate hopes to make history with transfer to women's prison

After nearly two decades of taunts, threats and physical abuse behind bars, Fallon Aubee hopes to become Canada's first federal inmate to be placed in a prison based on gender identity rather than biological sex at birth.

Aubee, who's serving a life sentence at B.C.'s Mission Institution, has applied for a transfer to a women's penitentiary under a new policy prompted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this year.

"It's an opportunity to make some history, I suppose, but it's more so other transgenders can have their needs met and that's my goal," Aubee told CBC News in a telephone interview. "I will be the first one in Canada who goes from a prison for men to a prison for women."

Fallon, whose birth name is Jean-Paul, was convicted of first degree murder in 2003 in a street-gang contract killing case.

When first in brought into custody at the federal prison in Prince Albert, Sask.,Fallon said she was held in segregation for six months after advising officials she was transgender, in conditions that made her feel like a "junkyard dog."

Since then, it has been an uphill battle for single-cell privacy and other basics like women's clothing and toiletries, Fallon said.

"Discrimination has continued unabated, and sadly those that assess whether discrimination has occurred are not trained in the needs of transgender people," she said.

Facing insults and derogatory names, Aubee said she was threatened with being thrown over a balcony, set on fire or stabbed to death, if she didn't end her own life.

'Horrifying' threats

"It's horrifying to be told to go kill yourself because you're different," she said.

Over the years, Fallon has carved out a niche working as a prisoners' legal rights advocate, helping on parole bids and fighting for better quality prison food. The role afforded her some protection from peers because she provided a valued service.

Other transgender inmates suffer in silence and hide their identity in fear of repercussions, she said.

Canada's prison service abruptly reversed course and adopted an interim policy for transgender inmates in January, just one day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to promote equality for all transgender Canadians, including those behind bars.

He was asked about it at a town hall meeting in Kingston, Ont., and made the off-the-cuff pledge to address what advocates see as a human rights issue.

Now Correctional Service is considering transfers and other accommodations on a case-by-case basis, replacing the strict long-standing rule that based placement on genitalia rather than gender identity and considered transfers only after sex reassignment surgery.

CSC is conducting a broader review of all its transgender policies to ensure they comply with human rights legislation that is now before Parliament.

"The Correctional Service of Canada is committed to ensuring that inmates who identify as transgender are given the same protection, dignity and treatment as others," said spokeswoman Lori Halfper.

'Important development'

Jennifer Metcalfe, a lawyer with the West Coast Prison Justice Society, called it an "important development."

"It allows transgender women to live in women's prisons, which is key to being treated equally as women, and is so important for their personal safety and dignity," she said.

Metcalfe hopes the informal policy will lead to a formal change on placement based on gender identity, and ensure staff and prisoners are properly trained to support the new policy.

Last year, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow inmates to serve their sentences in institutions based on self-identified gender, and to be referred to by their chosen names and preferred pronouns. At the time the provincial government called it "the most progressive policy on the treatment of trans inmates in North America."

Ontario leads on trans policy

"Having a dedicated policy in place for trans inmates is an important step forward to ensure that all inmates are treated with dignity and respect when in our care and custody," Yanni Dagonas, spokesman for Ontario's Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Marie-France Lalonde told CBC. "It ensures that the human rights of the individual are respected by protecting a person's gender identity and gender expression, while promoting fairness and safety of all correctional staff and inmates."

It is not known exactly how many offenders are placed in Ontario jails based on gender identity.

British Columbia became the second province to change its policy, and now permits placement according to gender identity.

Aubee plans to have sexual reassignment surgery eventually, but is hoping for a decision on her transfer in coming weeks. She is grateful the prime minister did what she calls the "proper and pro-acting thing" by pushing for human rights for transgender Canadians, even those who are incarcerated.

"I wake up in the morning, the first thing I say to myself is 'Oh it's going to be a beautiful day, I'm a woman,'" she said. "Then when I step out of my room I'm realizing that I'm living in a prison for men and I have to face all of those challenges all day long, all over again."