There is a "tragedy unfolding" with the jailing of a transgender woman in a men's prison, despite a request for home detention, lawyer Kelly Ellis says.

Ms Ellis, who has previously defended transgender women facing time in men's prisons, said the sentencing yesterday of the Oamaru woman was "incredibly disappointing".

"We've got a tragedy unfolding, because there's one thing that's as sure as the sun rising in the east is that transgender women get raped in prison, and it's almost an inevitability for people in her situation," Ms Ellis said.

"Of course prisoners are an unpopular sector in society, but they're still humans, and human rights apply to them and should be vigorously protected."


Shelley Lee Williams, 37, was yesterday sentenced to nine months' imprisonment after pleading guilty in the Oamaru District Court to three charges of assault.

Ms Ellis hit out at Corrections Minister Anne Tolley, who last year announced changes to prison regulations so transgender inmates could serve their sentence in a prison for their identified gender. The changes were due to come into force by the end of 2013.

"It seems that she had not changed the regulations and has either misled us deliberately or has forgotten about transgender women getting raped in New Zealand prisons as we speak," Ms Ellis said.

"It's incredibly disappointing that despite the undertaking of the minister to ensure that transgender women were going to be safe and enjoy the same level of safety as other prisoners .... this hasn't happened."

Ms Ellis, now in the running as a Labour candidate for Whangarei, represented transgender woman Glen Cooper who was convicted on a serious assault charge in 2012 but sent to a men's prison, despite telling the court she suffered continual sexual assault when locked up with men.

Williams' lawyer Ngaire Alexander told Oamaru District Court yesterday it would be difficult for Williams to serve her sentence in a men's jail.

Judge Joanna Maze said she accepted imprisonment was a "harsh" sentence for Williams, but with violence convictions in 2000, 2009, 2010 and 2011, the focus had to be placed on the victims of her offending.

"You have continued to offend," she said. "I cannot just focus on you and your rehabilitation."


Williams assaulted a man last november, punching him in the face and then kicking him.

While on bail, she committed two assaults with a weapon in Oamaru - lunging at someone with a screwdriver, then again at another person who intervened.