Trans women in English prisons

Dark money is funding court actions against government bodies, human rights organisations and women’s rights organisations, seeking to make trans lives harder. These cases are often terribly weak, but each win only reverts back to the status quo, and may contain a tiny thing the trans-excluders can use, in their desperate attempts to harm trans people.

There was a case seeking to exclude trans women prisoners from women’s prisons, which failed. The judge took time to compliment the QC for the trans-excluders, who presented the case with her “customary skill”. He did that because he needed to comment that “the weakness of the arguments is the failure to give sufficient weight to the way in which the policies permit, and indeed require, the necessary balancing of competing rights.” (Judgment, paragraph 91.)

The trans-excluders lose, because they cannot see the need to consider the needs or rights of vulnerable trans people. They may continue fomenting anger and fear against trans people, and raising large sums of cash, but apparently are not good at assessing whether a case is worth pleading. It appears money is no object for them. One witness they led gave irrelevant and inadmissible evidence (72)- I imagine them railing against the human rights of trans people, ineffectually.

What do we learn from the case? The court accepts a distinction between the words “sex” and “gender”, and quoted another case claiming sex relates to “physical characteristics, including chromosomal, gonadal and genital features” while gender “is used to refer to the individual’s self-perception.” In reality, I am just as much a “real woman” as a cis woman is, and gender refers to a wide range of cultural norms and expressions including the norm that trans women are women. However the claimant conceded that the Equality Act uses the words interchangeably. Perhaps all the trans women on GIC waiting lists should start calling themselves “transsexual women”.

47% of women prisoners are serving indeterminate sentences or sentences of four years or more. That is, they are dangerous women serving sentences for serious crime. They included the claimant in this case, who has recently been released back into the community on licence. The claimant argued that seeing a trans woman in a woman’s prison amounted to “torture” under the Human Rights Act, despite the seriousness of the crimes committed by cis women, and the fear they might raise in others. The prison system is full of violent offenders.

The average length of a custodial sentence for women is 11.3 months. That is, most women sent to prison are sent there for less serious offences. However most women actually in prison are there for serious offences.

With that context, the offences of trans women actually in prison seem to fit the profile of cis women. There are no central statistics of how many women prisoners have a gender recognition certificate, but it is thought to be fewer than ten (para 13).

In March 2019, there were 163 transgender prisoners, of whom 81 had been convicted of one or more sexual offences. There were no details of whether those prisoners were currently imprisoned for sexual offences. 129 were in men’s prisons, of whom 74 had been convicted of a sexual offence, so there were seven trans women in women’s prisons then who had been convicted of a sexual offence at some time in the past.

Between 2016 and 2019 there were 97 sexual assaults recorded in women’s prisons. Seven of these were committed by trans women without a GRC, four by one prisoner. In 2019, eleven trans women were recorded as sexually assaulted in men’s prisons. No trans woman was recorded as having committed a sexual assault in a women’s prison (14). In March 2019, there were 34 trans women without a GRC in women’s prisons.

Mr Justice Swift gave the opinion that the prison service should keep a record of how many trans women with a GRC are in women’s prisons (103). The problem is that this may result in their being outed, which could be a criminal offence.

Both judges said that there could be a “significant psychological impact” on a cis woman seeing a trans woman in a women’s prison (76-77; 100). This should not be overstated. They have made a decision on the relevant facts for the purpose of this case, so it should be read as even if there is a significant psychological impact on cis prisoners, the rules are still fair. However it is still horrible to read that I am scaring cis women as I go about my daily life, when they see me in women’s services. If that were the case, trans women would have been ejected from women’s services before now: I have been in women’s spaces for twenty years.

Trans women in prison are not allowed to shower with cis women (38).

The prison service has a rule (9) that “Women prisoners shall normally be kept separate from male prisoners.” However this is not the same as invoking the Equality Act single-sex exemptions, as the claimant demanded (44). No person in charge of a service, including the prisons minister, had any obligation to apply those exemptions (88). This will make it considerably harder for the trans excluders to win cases against any women’s service that admits trans women, though I doubt it will stop them trying. I worried that this court action would blur the distinction between the Equality Act rules allowing men to be excluded, and the rule allowing trans women to be excluded. Fortunately it did not, because it was so misconceived.

The trans excluders tried to argue that statistically, a trans woman was five times more likely than a cis prisoner to sexually assault a cis prisoner. The judge called this “a misuse of the statistics” (75). They tried to argue that there was indirect discrimination, as cis women were more affected by trans women than cis men were by trans men, and failed: perhaps they are, but the prisons service has to look after the needs of trans women.

Effectively, the trans excluders lost because putting trans women in women’s prisons follows the legitimate aim of ensuring the safety and welfare of all prisoners, including the trans women (87). The prisons service demonstrated that the means adopted are reasonable, at least from the point of view of any challenge by non-trans prisoners.

Trans women will continue to be in men’s prisons, and continue to live in fear there, and be assaulted, often sexually. But the excluders have failed in their attempt to make more trans women live in such fear and threat.

Dr Sarah Lamble of the Bent Bars Collective intervened in the interests of trans prisoners. She is a reader in Criminology and Queer Theory. She argued that the lack of reliable data prevented assessing the risk of trans prisoners as a group. Because there are more trans prisoners than are recorded, the proportion who had committed sexual offences is likely to be lower than the claimant had asserted. There is no reliable basis for claims by trans excluders that trans women have “male patterns of criminality”.

When a trans woman without a GRC asks to be placed in a women’s prison, the prison service will continue to be assessed by a Local Transgender Case Board and/or a Transgender Complex Case Board (24). It seems that such boards err on the side of placing trans women in men’s prisons, placing those trans women at risk. This court case could never lessen the risk to vulnerable trans women, but at least it has not made it worse.

The Guardian misled with these figures. It did not mention the assaults on trans women in men’s prisons. It did not show that the number of trans women convicted of a sexual offence in women’s prisons was only seven.

2 thoughts on “Trans women in English prisons

    • In an IPP sentence, an “indeterminate sentence for public protection”, the prisoner is incarcerated with no date on which they know they will be freed. They will only get parole if they can show they are no threat to the public. Such sentences are no longer given. They were given more indiscriminately, and for more minor crimes, than the Labour government had envisaged. There are currently 2000 people in prison on IPP, and more than 90% have served the minimum time the judge imposed. After release, they can be recalled to prison for breaching licence conditions.

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