Transgender activist Nachacha Kongudom was arrested in June of last year for protesting against the military junta. She was sent to a men’s prison, despite her request to go to a female prison for fear of being harassed for being transgender. The authorities countered her request with the reply that, according to the law, she remains a man and there is no document in Thailand that can identify a trans woman as female.
Despite her pleas, the student activist was sent to a male prison. In just the few short hours before she was released, two officers demanded that she reveal her body during a physical examination, and she was verbally harassed by other inmates.
“I asked [the officials]: What happens if I’m a trans[gender] here? They replied that [there] would be a small place for me in prison, but I couldn’t go to the garden because my presence would be too shocking for the other inmates,” explains Nachacha.
The activist ended up not serving time and was released the same day on bail, but her case raised concerns in the LGBT community about the harassment that she could have faced if she remained in jail.
The Department of Corrections has recently announced that Min Buri prison, on the outskirts of Bangkok, will be used as an LGBT facility under a pilot program designed to prevent possible abuse of transgender inmates. It’s an initiative that has been met with approval by some gender activists. It has also aroused controversy because “it could encourage exclusion.”
LGBT activist Phongsathon Chankaew said he strongly agrees with the launch of the project to reduce prison abuse cases, but he is concerned, at the same time, about the selection process.
Phongsathon believes that going to this prison, “should be an option, not an obligation.” He also voiced concern that “other abuse could be added if the authorities do not show an in-depth understanding of [gender] issues.”
According to the Department of Corrections, out of the total prison population of approximately 300,000 people, there are currently 4,448 prisoners in the Thai corrections system that identify as LGBT. Among them, 2,258 identify as women; 2,156 identify as men; and 34 as transgender. Transgender prisoners are already separate from male inmates in the Pattaya men’s prison following regular reports of abuse suffered at the hands of cis male inmates. Transgender women and men do, however, spend time together doing work assignments at that prison.
In other countries, especially in parts of Latin America such as Paraguay, Argentina and Mexico, they have adopted similar initiatives to those proposed by Thailand, although these are special units within larger institutions, and not stand-alone LGBT prisons, explained Jean-Sébastien Blanc, detention advisor at the Association for the Prevention of Torture, a Swiss NGO that focuses on these issues.
In a prison of Paraguay, explained Blanc, there is a special wing for trans women that was created with the express purpose of protecting them from other inmates. “But their situation is reportedly horrendous. Worse than that of the general prison population. They are all held together in a very small space, without beds, health services, or activities.”
There is also a wing for LGBT prisoners in a federal prison in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as well as in Mexico City. “Some of the prisoners report that they prefer to stay in such wings because of their extreme exposure to violence within the general prison population, but their living conditions are extremely poor. Staying in such wings is often a matter of life and death for them, but this is not a long-term satisfactory solution,” says Blanc.
On the creation of the LGBT prison in Thailand, and taking into account the experiences of trans prisoners in other countries, Blanc believes that Thailand has a duty to protect all people in prison, but that protection should not mean exclusion.
There is the risk of going to this prison and having it negatively impact family relations of prisoners or even forcing them to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity. “Furthermore, placing all detainees identified as LGBT in the same prison does not take into consideration the place of residence of their respective families, or the city in which the judicial hearings are to be held,” says Blanc.
Creating LGBT prisons, he said, “doesn’t tackle the problem of violence at its root but rather, runs the risk of shifting violence towards other vulnerable detainees [in the general prison].” With regards to trans detainees, he believes they should be given the ability to choose their allocation [male or female prison] on the basis of their self-perceived gender.
“Generally speaking, LGBT organizations should be involved in the discussions around such projects,” he added.
Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, Communications Director for Just Detention International NGO, explains that, in one U.S. county, a judge ordered the jail to create a separate wing for LGBT prisoners, determining that it was the best way to keep this population safe.
“In this case, all other options had been exhausted, and steps were taken to ensure that the LGBT prisoners had access to services and were not isolated,” he explained.
According to Lerner-Kinglake the segregation of LGBT prisoners, however, “does not guarantee security, as some LGBT inmates may also commit sexual abuse.”
Thailand has a reputation as an oasis for LGBT people. However, there is still a long way to go: the society tolerates them, but does not accept them.
Same-sex marriages, civil unions and domestic partners are not yet legal or recognized. Also, a large number of Thais that identify as LGBT have suffered physical and verbal harassment by peers.
One of the biggest problems for transgender people in Thailand is that they can’t change their sex on their identity card, even after undergoing complete sexual reassignment surgery. This inability to officially change their gender leaves them continually open to abuse for the rest of their lives.