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Today, the ABC’s Background Briefing released a graphic novel today telling the story of a transgender woman who was locked up in an Australian male prison.

The piece, by reporter Meghna Bali and producer Gina McKeon, with illustrations from Samuel Luke, tells the story of Mara Ellis, who first enters prison in 2018 after a series of assaults. She is sent to a male prison, despite identifying as female. When an altercation occurs between her and another prisoner, she is sent to what is essentially solitary confinement, where she spends 21 hours a day in her cell.

“It’s like the prison couldn’t come up with a good, safe way to deal with me, and I’m being punished for it,” she says.

She spends months in isolation. Then, she is moved to “mainstream”, spending her days sharing a cell with a male prisoner. She describes the experience as terrifying, with prisoners on high alert regarding her presence. She is sexually harassed and lives in fear.

“I feel constantly harassed and there is no privacy. I feel like I’ve lost control of my body,” she says. “I hate being so seen.”

Credit: Samuel Luke.

Mara’s story is a really hard read, but an important one. What was shocking to me was how a trans persons prison placement is completely out of their hands.

For example, if you’re a trans person and get convicted in NSW, VIC, TAS or the ACT, you are somewhat protected because these states require trans, gender diverse and intersex people to be placed in a prison system that aligns with their self-identified gender. But there is also the potential you may be placed in a prison aligning with your birth sex, because a prison can decide that for safety reasons, or because they’ve decided your trans status isn’t “authentic”, that you need to be placed there.

It gets worse in other states. In Queensland, the NT and South Australia, things are murky. You can say whether you want to go to a male or female prison, but your placement is considered on a case-by-case basis. And if you haven’t had gender confirming surgery, you’ll be placed in the prison that aligns with the gender on your birth certificate.

But in WA, where Mara Ellis was imprisoned, there actually isn’t any transgender prisoner policy. WA Corrective Services told ABC’s Background Briefing that a policy would be in place by November.

Reading Mara’s story highlights why this is a serious issue. Her safety is put at risk, which in and of itself is obviously unacceptable. But even if she wasn’t sexually harassed, her prison experience is inhumane. Whatever your feelings are regarding how Australia’s prison system works, I think we can all agree no human being should be subjected to inhumane treatment, like being placed in solitary confinement for months simply because, it seems, their safety was at risk.

Mara’s full story is well worth a read, and you can find it here. There is also a Background Briefing audio episode that goes into more detail here.

Image: Supplied / Samuel Luke