Court rules inmate has right to identify as woman in male prison

Judges gavel and law books stacked behind
Transgender inmate Jade September has come out victorious in the Equality Court, which found she has the right to identify as a woman in a male prison.

September, who is currently serving a 15-year sentence at the Malmesbury Medium Correctional Centre for the murder in 2013 of Graham Flax in Sea Point, had approached the court in 2016 after claiming she had suffered a series of discriminatory actions by officials at the Helderstroom Prison in Caledon.

In her application to the court, in which the Justice and Correctional Services (DOJ) minister and the department’s national commissioner were among the respondents, September said the heads of Helderstroom and the Malmesbury correctional facilities had failed to allow her to express her gender identity by not allowing her to wear female underwear, jewellery or make-up.

She said she was also told to cut her hair.

September’s attorney at the Gender Equality Programme, Sanja Bornman, said Monday’s judgment had set a precedent that “from now on, all prisons in South Africa must respect, protect, and promote the rights of transgender inmates”.

“They cannot deny any trans person the right to express their gender identity, and they cannot force trans and gender non-binary inmates to behave or present in a way that conflicts with their identity. 

The judgment makes it clear that a person’s gender identity is part of their rights to equality, human dignity, and freedom of expression. If you deny a person the right to express their gender identity, you are violating those rights,” said Bornman.

Asked for September’s reaction to the judgment, Bornman said her client was “overjoyed”.

“She is especially happy that this judgment is not only a win for her, but for many others like her stuck in a binary prison system, and trans people generally in South Africa whose existence and rights are ignored,” she said.

September had first approached Lawyers for Human Rights in 2016 after she said she was verbally abused by prison officials, Bornman said.

The DOJ had not responded to requests for comment by deadline.