Stories about transgender prisoners have rarely been out of the news these past few weeks, each headline more provocative than the last. Last week’s headline that a transgender prisoner had tried to use their transgender status to ‘cover up’ their past crimes has all but disappeared but the arguments around transgender prisoners in mainstream prisons remain. So how can we have a sensible conversation about this deeply polarising, and at times controversial topic?
My recent experience of being at Bronzefield HMP allowed me to meet two transgender prisoners. SK*, who was on my wing and with whom I had daily interactions, was transitioning from female to male. The second prisoner, now known as Jessica Winfield, had been convicted of serious sexual assaults against women when she lived as a man. Ms Winfield was housed in a separate wing designated for prisoners who had committed serious offences such as child rape and murder. My stay offered me a real insight on what the reality is for transgender prisoners serving their sentence in a women only prison.
So how many prisoners who self-identify as transgender are there currently in England and Wales? While there are no up to date 2018 figures, according to the BBC that there were some 125 transgender inmates in England and Wales between March and April 2017. These were identified as having had case conferences (CC) with senior prison management and staff on how to best meet the needs of each individual prisoner. According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), “prisoners on longer sentences are more likely to be managed as a transgender prisoners than those on a shorter sentence” thus implying that the data held by the MoJ is broadly inaccurate and therefore unreliable. There is no substantive data available on transgender prisoner sentences for crimes that result in shorter sentences, hence a truer picture of the actual numbers is currently very difficult to ascertain.
Transgender prisoners who have already obtained a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) were not included in the figure given by the BBC. A GRC is a legally recognised certificate and is issued by the government to those who identify with a gender different to that they were assigned at birth. This means that they are already living as their self-identified gender and, may consider that they have ‘finished’ transitioning. Obtaining a GRC is a long, complicated, invasive and expensive process that can take up to five years but once it is issued, it is legally recognised and enables holders to change their gender on their birth certificate, among other documents.
The current debate around transgender prisoners being housed in women’s prisons has been fuelled by a recent case where a transgender prisoner was found to have assaulted two female prisoners after she was placed at Newhall HMP while on remand for four counts of rape. After pleading guilty to the assaults and charges of rape, Karen White was then moved to Armley HMP, a notorious mens prison on the outskirts of Leeds.
Of the multiple questions raised from this case, two are the most pertinent: ‘How can we protect the safety and wellbeing of the female population from prisoners who have committed serious sexual assaults’ and ‘How can we protect the safety and wellbeing of transgender prisoners while inside prison?’.
Each trans person has a unique set of emotional, psychological and physical needs just like all people in prison. However, meeting those needs may require specialist knowledge or training. It is very hard to apply a ‘one rule for all’ across the board; we have some prisoners who are transitioning from the gender they were misassigned at birth with, some prisoners at the beginning of their journey while some have already started and need specialist mental health support throughout, not to mention ongoing access to hormone therapy to support the transition process. Placing transgender prisoners in prisons that are opposite to their gender can increase the risk of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, especially for the transgender prisoners and in some cases, for other prisoners too.
One of the solutions that kept coming up during numerous discussion over the past few weeks involves providing transgender prisoners their own dedicated space within prisons, very much like stand alone ‘mother and baby’ units currently attached to prisons.
But could this solution have prevented Ms White from sexually assaulting two female prisoners? And what about the safety of prison guards in women only prisons? According to a Freedom of Information request data, out of ten government run facilities, 8 prisons employed more female prison staff than males, while in two the numbers were equal.
Some campaigners argue that we already operate a system where high risk and vulnerable prisoners are segregated from the main prison population. In the case Ms Winfield, she was housed on a separate wing (D) designated for ‘Restricted Security’ (RS) prisoners. These were prisoners who had been convicted of serious offences that would make them a particular target amongst the prison population, such as paedophilia, murder of a child, terrorism and so on. The day to day timetable is planned to avoid other prisoners. In some cases, where interactions can’t be helped, such as a visit to the medical team or to the library for example, each prisoner is assigned their own prison guard who will accompany them at all times. While it is understandable that Ms Winfield hold RS status, what about other transgender prisoners who have been convicted of non-sexual violence offences? Do they have to also share a wing with paedophiles, rapist and child killers?
Having spoken to other prisoners about their feelings towards transgender prisoners and in particularly, Ms Winfield, it became clear that the prisoners were reluctant to engage and interact with her had little to do with the fact that she was transitioning but more to do with the fact that she had committed serious sexual violence against other women. When I indicated an interest in interviewing and speaking to her, I was told to “keep safe” and “don’t allow yourself to be alone with her”. The fact that she presented as a woman and had adopted a female name did little to assuage the fears and concerns of fellow prisoners, and many still viewed her as a predatory man.
This feeds back to the argument that whose interests should be addressed- the majority at the expense of a few or the interest of the few at the expense of the majority?
So could creating safe spaces within prisons to accommodate members of the transgender community be the right answer? There were no issues around sharing a wing with SK*, the second transgender prisoner in Bronzefield HMP. (SK* asked that pronouns referring to him be he/ him) Other prisoners were happy to interact, engage and work with him. Although he had been receiving hormonal treatment, and were in the latter stages of his transition (female to male) he was not seen as a threat nor were there any concerns over sharing communal spaces within the prison. The nature of the offences committed by SK were not sexually related, and according to a fellow prisoner, she felt much safer:
“SK hasn’t been raping women on the outside, has he?’
Does SK’s case highlight that some transgender prisoners can serve their sentence in a mainstream women only prison without facing prejudice or abuse or is it a one off? Does it also depend on the types of crime committed by the transgender prisoner? It is impossible to generalise without having spoken to other prisoners, both transgender and non-transgender, and their experiences of other prisons.
Dani Dinger, an activist who identifies as trans, non-binary and uses the pronouns ‘they/ them’ believes that the following steps would help transgender prisoners and the wider prison population to better manage situations such as this:
1. Give people in prison access to the prison which matches their gender (if they identify as binary. However, if they identify as non binary, there are currently no provision as non-binary genders are not legally recognised. I recommend allowing each prisoners to decide which gendered prison they’d feel most ‘comfortable’ in, though this is still very unsatisfactory.
2. Allow transgender people in prison unquestioning access to medical interventions if that is what they would like, as you would any person in prison who needs access to healthcare
3. Train staff, all staff, on how to work with trans people, and generally LGBTIQ+ people etc.
4. Provide all residents with access to support, counselling and spaces to raise questions and explore ideas around sexuality, gender and pretty much everything. Provide access to books, education, links with the outside world, support networks to help people adjust to their surroundings and support each other.
(Dani would like it to be noted that they support prison abolition, and the above suggestions are a compromise within a deeply flawed, unworkable system)
Freddie*, a long time campaigner who works with marginalised groups, also agreed with Dani and wrote that we need ‘Safe spaces within prisons, also better education and protection. Real question is what about non binary/ gender neutral etc prisoners…?’.
Some campaigners, however, feel that a separate transgender wing is not the answer and will only lead to further isolating an already targeted community. Rachel Krengel, a feminist activist and co-organiser for Women’s March London believes “the prison system is very broken, it needs a radical overhaul. To put transgender women in men only prisons is very dangerous, prison authorities have a duty of care to vulnerable and marginalised groups to ensure their safety once they are behind bars. Most of the documented violence in prison is carried out by cis men against other cis men but the good news is that we are now paying attention to sexual violence in prisons which can only be a positive thing.” Ms Krengal further advocated a case by case approach to determine the best course of action to support transgender prisoners.
So could separate wings for transgender prisoners be the answer? Are we not further isolating a minority that has traditionally always struggled to be accepted and integrated? As pointed out by Freddie earlier, “what about prisoners who are non-binary, gender-fluid, gender- neutral and so on- would we need a separate wing for them?” The arguments for and against a safe space for transgender prisoners within prisons are both compelling and controversial. It would seem that the only thing clear at this point is the fact that we cannot ignore this very tricky ‘Pandora’s Box’ any longer and solutions need to be found that ensure all prisoner’s safety and wellbeing are protected.
(*not their real name)