Are transgender prison wings the answer?

Debbie Hayton
Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The management of offenders is difficult at the best of times, but Prison Service policy has been severely tested by the growing number of transgender-identified prisoners.

The recent announcement by the Ministry of Justice that they had opened a transgender wing at HMP Downview marked a major change of direction.

A new approach was certainly necessary. The 2016 guidelines – influenced by transgender advocacy group Gendered Intelligence – failed spectacularly when a rapist called Karen White was accommodated in the female estate at HMP New Hall. The consequences were sadly all too predictable: two women inmates were sexually assaulted before White was transferred to a male prison.

A presumably hasty review led to the creation of a transgender wing at HMP Downview, a women's prison. This is a superficially attractive solution. Transgender women continue to be located in the female estate – assuaging the concerns of transgender campaigners who claim that these people are women – but separate from the main population.

However, as a transwoman, I have serious doubts. Prisons are dangerous places for everyone, but transwomen – males who prefer to be treated in the same way as females – pose a particular headache for the authorities.

In the male population we are at risk from men who see us as an affront to masculinity; in the female population we pose a risk to women. But if people like White are too dangerous to be put with women, perhaps they’re too dangerous for me also, should we be housed together in a transgender wing.

The simple answer is not to get sent to prison, and that is one of my aims in life. Good intentions, however, are sometimes not enough. A momentary lapse of concentration on the motorway can lead to disastrous consequences and ultimately to a custodial sentence.

Should that happen, I would prefer to be accommodated within the female estate. I identify with women, my hormone levels are in the female range and my sex characteristics look female.

That used to be sufficient. As long ago as 1989, Stephanie Booth – a notable transsexual and the founder of the Transformation business – was held at Askham Grange Women’s Prison after being convicted for dealing in pornography.

However, times have changed and feelings and opinions are now in the ascendency. In a society that believes a woman can have a penis, why should such a person be incarcerated with men? But after the Karen White fiasco, it is clearly not a good idea to hold them with women either. One of the reports that emerged from New Hall prison described White’s penis, “sticking out of the top of her pants, covered by her tights.”

Such accounts leave me very reluctant to agree to be held with people like White. Indeed, the overall profile of transgender inmates is a major cause of concern: 48 per cent were incarcerated for sex offences, compared to 19 per cent of the male prison population as a whole. When it comes to offending patterns at least, it seems that transgender women are not at all like women – who account for only 2.2 per cent of sexual offences reported to the police. No wonder the prison service has a problem.

But my concerns extend beyond my prospective neighbours. Although the numbers of transgender-identified prisoners has risen in recent years, it remains small: in 2018 there were 125 from a total prison populations of 85,513 in England and Wales. Economics always being an issue, the nearest transgender wing may be far from home and in a higher security category than would otherwise be necessary.

Given the choice between a transgender unit and a low security male prison close to home, I would be tempted to take the latter option, especially if a risk assessment specified a single cell and separate toilet and washing facilities. I would prefer to be assessed according to my risk profile than my transgender status.

New and robust policy is needed in order to provide a basis for decisions to be made, and it needs to be based on more than feelings. It is not even satisfactory to rely on legal gender.  Under the present Gender Recognition Act, legal gender can be changed on the basis of conversations with two medical practitioners. Government proposals seek to abandon even those safeguards, so that a male person would be recognised legally as a female person purely on the basis of how they feel about themselves.

Actions, however, still speak louder than words. While I may claim that I am not a threat to women personally, it would be a courageous move for the prison service to arrange accommodation according to what offenders claims about themselves. Prisons are segregated according to biological sex for good reasons, and feelings are a poor reason for breaking that policy.

My request to be housed in the female estate would be based on my sex characteristics. Flesh and blood is more important than feelings – or even legal paperwork – when housing prisoners. However, should that request be denied, I would not want to be assigned with sex offenders to a high security unit and possibly a long way from home.

In my case, being housed with men might be the least worst option.