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Three inmates are moving to Britain’s first transgender wing—but not all trans prisoners are keen to follow them
LONG BEFORE she was sent to prison, “A.L.” knew she was transgender. As a child, she “wasn’t like other boys” and liked to dress up in girls’ clothes. Yet when she first confided in warders, they suggested she move to a wing with sex offenders. In a study of transgender inmates published in 2017 by G4S, a firm which runs prisons, she said she was refused a place in a women’s jail. “I was told that the women prisons would be too interested in ‘what I’ve got downstairs’,” she said.
The prison service reckons there are at least 139 transgender inmates in England and Wales, which is probably an underestimate. Since there are no unisex prisons, the authorities face a dilemma in deciding where to place them. They must balance the welfare of transgender offenders with those of other prisoners, particularly women, whose safety could be threatened by prisoners who were born male. Karen White, a convicted paedophile who now identifies as a woman, sexually assaulted two prisoners in a women’s jail in 2017. “We have a clash of rights,” says Richard Garside of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, a think-tank.
This week the Ministry of Justice announced a possible solution: a wing for transgender prisoners, which opened in HMP Downview, a women’s jail in south London. It will hold three transgender women. Officials say it is a unique response to the individuals’ circumstances, not a pilot that could soon apply to all, but the ministry is reviewing its policy on how to handle transgender inmates in general.
Some reckon the wing represents significant progress. The prison service has twice issued more permissive guidance for transgender inmates since 2011, but a parliamentary report in 2016 found that this advice was sometimes “simply being ignored” by warders. Policy is inconsistent. A prisoner’s request to buy women’s underwear was turned down in one jail but approved in another. In one prison, inmates were given a sign reading: “Do not enter, shower in use by transgender prisoner.”
At first blush, separate wings would seem to meet the needs of both transgender and other prisoners better than the current system, under which the majority of transgender inmates have the chance to persuade a board that they should be housed in a jail with prisoners born into the opposite sex, even if they have not undergone surgery or obtained an official “gender recognition certificate”. The board runs a risk whatever it decides. Placing self-declared women in female prisons could expose other inmates to abuse by predators like Ms White. But forcing them into a men’s prison, even if they have lived as a woman for years, could put them in harm’s way. The parliamentary report highlighted the cases of two transgender women who committed suicide while in men’s prisons in 2015.
Even so, not all transgender inmates like the idea of separate wings. The mantra of some activists that “trans women are women” implies they should be treated no differently from inmates who were born female. And if the new wing is designed for dangerous inmates, others may avoid it. Debbie Hayton, a transgender campaigner, reckons that, were she ever jailed, she might plump for a men’s prison rather than a faraway transgender wing holding sex offenders. “If these people are considered too dangerous to be put with women, perhaps they’re too dangerous for me, too.”