Our Prison System Is Failing Trans Prisoners - We Need Radical Changes

Following the deaths of four transgender prisoners in just 14 months, reform is needed to prevent further deaths
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Radical changes are needed to protect serving transgender prisoners following a spate of deaths in custody.

The current prison system in England and Wales is failing and is putting transgender prisoners in a position where they become victims of verbal abuse, misogyny, physical assault and rape. Radical changes are needed and the current system is failing transgender prisoners, leading to the untimely deaths of four transgender prisoners in little over a year.

Following the deaths of four transgender prisoners in just 14 months, reform is needed to prevent further deaths in custody. In December 2016, Jenny Swift was found dead at Doncaster Prison, a male prison, and Nicola Cope died at the closed female prison Foston Hall in November 2016. Those deaths followed that of Joanne Latham, who was found hanged at HMP Woodhill, a male prison, and Vikki Thompson, who died at Armley, another male prison, both in November 2015. At the beginning of this year a transgender woman in an all-male prison went on hunger strike after she accused the government of failing to recognise her chosen gender. What will it take for the Ministry of Justice to begin to respond to the need of transgendered prison population, albeit small in numbers?

The deaths of transgender prisoners highlights the need for action and led the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman to speak out about the need for prisons to be more flexible and proactive in managing such prisoners.

Latest data revels that there are around 70 transgender prisoners in 33 out of the 123 public and private prisons in England and Wales. A report from the Women and Equalities Committee has stated that there is a “clear risk of harm” where transgender prisoners are not located in a prison appropriate to their acquired or affirmed gender.

Current guidelines state that all transgender prisoners must be allowed to express the gender with which they identify. However, a decision to locate them in a prison which does not accord with their legal gender can only be made following a Transgender Case Board. Those who wish to be placed in a prison location which is not consistent with their legally recognised gender must provide evidence of living in the gender with which they identify.

A Ministry of Justice review last year admitted the treatment of transgender people in courts, probation and prison services has not kept pace with the development of a more general understanding of the issues surrounding gender in society.

In a prison system that has neglected the needs of transgender prisoners, it could be argued that what is needed is a radical departure from the current custodial arrangements. Currently transgender prisoners are held with the mainstream prison population in various prisons, a new approach would be to house transgender prisoners in the same custodial facility. Though this proposal has its own challenges, it would diminish the risk of assault and violence towards transgender prisoners.

Transgender people placed in prisons that are not reflective of their chosen gender become victims of verbal abuse, victims of misogyny, physical and sexual assault and rape in prison. There have been cases where they are inappropriately placed in isolation or solitary confinement to protect them from the other male prisoners. There are accounts where trans-prisoners are subject to misogynistic and highly sexualised comments that have coerced some trans-prisoners to be sexually exploited. In relation to health care, there have been cases where specific health and social care needs are not being met - medication being delayed, withheld or discontinued.

What is clear is that rather than seeing prisons in crisis and that the discrimination faced by trans-prisoners are a manifestation of the inherent problems of the prison estate, transgendered prisoners are viewed as the problem. Trans-prisoners are placed by the State in a vulnerable environment which has led to the tragic and unnecessary deaths of four individuals in less than two years. There are still reports of inconsistent practice, raising questions around dignity and care and about whether such rights are being upheld in practice. This is yet another example of the systemic problems and failure of the current prison system.

In my recent book co-edited with Dr Linda Moore and Professor Phil Scraton, entitled: Women’s Imprisonment and the Case for Abolition: Critical Reflections on Corston Ten Years On, we explore ‘the limitations of reformism, arguing for narratives and practices informed by decarceration and abolitionism inspired by movements for social justice and equality’. Moreover, rather than build more prisons shouldn’t the Government as stated in an open letter to the press from a coalition of individuals and organisations (Guardian 26 January 2017):

Be prioritising policies that radically reduce the number of people in prison. This could include meaningful jobs, social housing, healthcare, education, transport – for all.

Professor Wahidin, along with Dr Linda Moore and Professor Phil Scraton, have recently published Women’s Imprisonment and the Case for Abolition: Critical Reflections on Corston Ten Years On


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