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Fears For Transgender "Sistergirls" Locked Up In NT Prisons

Experts say transgender people are at risk of rape and murder in prison.

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An LGBTI advocacy group has slammed the Northern Territory Government for failing to implement a policy to deal with transgender people in NT prisons.

Members of Brother and Sisters NT (Supplied)

Brothers and Sisters NT, an advocacy and support group that celebrates gender, intersex and sexuality diversity, has accused the NT Attorney-General John Elferink and Corrections Commissioner Ken Middlebrook of ignoring transgender prisoners - particularly transgender Aboriginal women known as Sistergirls - in custody

"I’ve heard stories of Sistergirls being incarcerated recently and correctional staff going, 'what’s wrong with them? Something is wrong with them; they’re not normal'," Starlady Nungari, one of the founders of Brothers and Sisters NT, told BuzzFeed News.

"They speak to them in a derogatory way and say they need to see a psychiatrist. My god, it's dangerous for the wellbeing of that person."

Starlady has reached out several times to the government on behalf of the organisation to offer consultation on transgender issues, but says her calls fell on deaf ears.

"It can be a really simple process to resolve. There are fantastic policies, and a review is currently going on in Victoria. Why not look at some of those progressive policies and work with them and actually consult with Sistergirls and LGBTI groups in the Northern Territory?"

"Do we really have to wait until someone gets sexually assaulted or seriously injured or murdered or is found dead in their cell. Do we really need another death in custody?," Starlady asks.

Arranta transwoman Que Kenny grew up in a remote Aboriginal community in Central Australia and is a well-known advocate for transgender rights in the Northern Territory.

Sistergirl Que Kenny (supplied)

"There needs to be an overhaul of the entire NT justice system with a new policy for transgender people and an overarching body that supports and upholds those policies," Kenny told BuzzFeed News.

Kenny believes that if the government is serious about protecting Sistergirls they should start by educating their staff, "there needs to be cultural awareness training for staff and gender diversity education as well."

"I have never been to prison, but if I did go I would like to know my rights as a Sistergirl and what help will I be given. I don’t want to commit suicide in my prison cell if I’m not getting the help I need."

"I want to be protected just like heterosexual people," Kenny says.

Aboriginal woman Lisa Obrien, 49, spent the majority of her youth in prison. As a transgender inmate, she was repeatedly raped, assaulted and humiliated while in custody.

Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed

"I first went to prison when I was 18 and it was absolutely terrifying. The last time I was in prison was when I was 30. It was mostly related to prostitution, driving offences or drug offences. I wasn’t a hardcore criminal."

"I experienced rape and violation. Constantly being violated by other prisoners and also prison guards. I’ve been approached by prison guards who made me strip off so that they could have a look at me out of curiosity," Obrien told BuzzFeed News.

Obrien now campaigns for transgender rights and is the creator of the Brotherboys and Sistergirls of Australia Facebook page, an online support group and networking page for the Indigenous transgender community.

She believes Indigenous Sistergirls are at highest risk of abuse and death inside prison, saying that even in states with a gender identity policy, indigenous transgender women are often alienated because many of them don't meet the criteria.

"Even with a prison policy I don’t think there is a lot of protection for transgender people, and that is especially true for Sistergirls. In most cases they wouldn’t even come under that prison policy anyway."

"Prison policy around transgender people has conditions, like you must be on hormone replacement therapy, and it relies on your surgical status. It's up to the discretion of whoever processes you to decide if you meet the conditions. Most sistergirls don't meet these conditions because they have limited access to health services and options," said Obrien.

Starlady agrees that the cultural difference is staggering and must be addressed in any future policy in the NT, where almost 90 percent of the prison population is Aboriginal.

"The Sistergirl identity is different from other transgender identities," she says.

"It is a cultural identity and it’s different. It challenges what other people register as what 'transgender' is from a non-indigenous perspective. Sometimes Sistergirls just grow their hair long to signify that they are transgender and my concern is correctional staff won’t even register that they are transgender," Starlady says.

In 2009, the death of transgender Aboriginal woman Veronica Baxter in Silverwater men's prison in Sydney sparked outrage amongst the LGBT community.

Veronica Baxter (Supplied)

Despite living her life as a woman, Baxter was placed in a men's prison and was found dead in her cell. A coronial inquest ruled it as the result of suicide.

In her last hours Baxter had made several emergency calls from her cell to corrective service officers. However, the calls were not recorded and officers couldn't remember who answered them.

The highly publicised rape of a transgender inmate in a New Zealand male prison last week highlighted the continued vulnerability of transgender prisoners.

The Northern Territory Attorney-General John Elferink and the Northern Territory Correction's Commissioner Ken Middlebrook did not respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for comment.

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Allan Clarke is an Indigenous Affairs Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at allan.clarke@buzzfeed.com.

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