By Nikki, formerly in Japan

Nikki describes her ordeal in a Japanese prison as a transgender woman. Held in atrocious conditions and subject to transphobic abuse, Nikki was eventually allowed a transfer to a UK prison. This is her story.

My story is not a simple one, but no prisoner’s is. The usual issues faced by prisoners detained abroad are compounded for me by the fact that I am transgender.

Since I was 11 years old I have been seen as and treated like any other female. I started hormone replacement therapy (HRT) when I was 18 years old and was arrested when I was 20.

I was detained in an all-male prison and my HRT came to an abrupt end. I was denied a bra despite definitely being in need of one. The guards would tell me I was cute and behave inappropriately around me. If I complained or asked for help I was accused of harassing the officers and it would be written up that I was the one behaving inappropriately.

The injustice of that led me to be quiet and comply with their requests as asked because it was better to submit and do as I was told otherwise the guards accused me of seduction and would have me placed in solitary [confinement] for “enticing misbehaviour”.

I had transphobic epithets thrown at me daily by staff and prisoners alike and felt consistently disrespected and discriminated against.  No complaint I ever made was ever actioned unless the Embassy got involved - and thank God for the British Embassy Tokyo and its staff.  Without them and without Prisoners Abroad I do not think that I would have survived until my prison transfer came through.

The Prisoners Abroad staff are some of the kindest and most understanding people that you could ever hope to meet and have been wholly un-judgmental of both my offence and gender identity. They have been there for me to write to whenever I have needed them and have always done their best at all times to address my needs and concerns where they can, and if they cannot help with a specific issue then they have always been able to point me in the direction of someone who can.

Six years and nine months I spent incarcerated in Japan and during that time I became malnourished and lost my sense of self and individuality due to the nature of Japan’s “rehabilitation programme”. I was forced into the role of nursemaid and made to take care of all the old men in the hospital section of the prison where I worked. I had no prior experience in social care and was given only the terse instruction to “clean their cells and wash them.” I had to carry paralysed men to the bath and wash them, change the diapers of the incontinent and feed those who could not feed themselves.  I learned as I went along but was frequently berated for not working more efficiently.

For the first two years in prison I was segregated in a single cell away from everyone else. I was allowed out for exercise only once every two weeks. And all this was to ensure my safety.  In my third year I graduated to my position of nursemaid, a role I stayed in until my transfer. I’m told this is because it was more appropriately a “woman’s job” and thus more suitable to my “role as a lady”. As if my being female was an ‘act’ and not who I am in brain, heart and spirit.

After I was cleared for transfer - an historic event, as I am the first transgender (or openly so) person to ever be transferred back to the UK via the international prisoner transfer agreement - it took a few months for flights to be arranged and then I was going home.

My head had been forcibly shaved once a month during my prison time, so my hair was short. The Japanese authorities, who had known me since my arrival, took me to the airport. I wore heels and loved it.

They were some of the nicest people I’d met in prison and we spoke in a friendly manner all the way to the airport. One even apologised that Japan was so backwards in their treatment of trans prisoners. I had no reply to that.

At the airport I was handed over to the Brits - three incredibly lovely people who handled all repatriations back to the UK. I was particularly fond of the woman in their company. Her gentle handling of me, the respect she showed me and the decency with which she treated me nearly undid me.  On the plane she bumped shoulders with me, joked with me and kept me calm. She was a God-send. I have so much respect for her, for her humanity and her sense of fairness.  

She understood I was like a vase covered in a spider web of cracks and not only did she try to hold me together, she was quite protective.

It gave me hope that British officers were essentially decent people and I do not appear mistaken in that. Though hardly perfect, the guards I have met in prison in the UK have, by and large, been courteous and respectful and even, dare I say it, friendly. Respect them, appreciate what they do and abide by the rules and they are great and can even become like friends. I appreciate them immensely and, due to my experiences in Japan, do not take their decency for granted.  Prison here is much easier - still quite strict, but much more humane.  

I am applying for a restart of my HRT, I can wear my own clothes (and a bra! Praise the Lord!), I’m allowed to grow my hair, wear makeup, be correctly pronoun-ed and am treated with dignity.  Are things perfect? No. Prison is still prison, but I’m far better off - and I don’t think about taking my own life anymore. So I at least know that I’m making progress.  

Being transgender in prison opens up a whole new layer of difficulty the likes of which others can barely imagine. Having your identity, your personality and even your name taken from you in prison is hard. Constantly being told that you’re something you feel in your heart that you aren’t is heart-breaking and demoralising, in a way that can be hard to understand. Tragically this happens every day all over the world.   

I survived the experience, but there are a great many who will not. We need allies and supporters, people to stand up for us and protect us.  My hope is that other inmates will reach out and stand up for other transgender people in prison, without the expectation of ‘reward’ in some way.  

We need friends like everyone else.

No one deserves to be stripped of their basic human rights.

Prisoners Abroad translates human rights law into practical life-saving actions by providing prisoners access to vitamins and essential food, emergency medical care, freepost envelopes to keep in touch with home and books and magazines to help sustain mental health.

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