Pin It
Tara Hudson
Tara Hudson, who was moved from a men’s prison to a women’s prison following an online petition

A battle for trans rights points to a failing prison system

Gender roles and the prison system are both barbaric ways to control us – trans activism should join the wider call for prison reform

Three weeks ago, trans prisoner Tara Hudson was moved from a men’s prison to a women’s prison following an online petition and a popular campaign. Her case exposed institutional failings by both the judiciary and HM Prison Service to understand trans issues. Today, on Transgender Day of Remembrance, when the trans community and its supporters remembers those who have lost their own lives to violence or suicide, the consequences of these failings have been thrown into sharp relief by news of the death of Vicky Thompson.

The 21 year-old had reportedly said that a male prison would kill her; this tragedy shows the realities and the human cost that lies beneath all of the current media discussion of trans politics and the charmingly theoretical ‘free speech’ debates about gender identity provoked by Germaine Greer.

The current rules for trans prisoners state that prisoners should be placed according to their gender "as recognised by UK law" – either their birth certificate or their Gender Recognition Certificate. However, the GRC only recognises binary gender identities and requires a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria. It also costs £140. This is both legal and financial gatekeeping by the state of people’s right to determine their own gender – while non-binary gender identity is currently given no such acknowledgment.

As a gender variant person who sat in on Coroner’s inquests into deaths in prison when training as a solicitor, I’m fiercely committed to all campaigns which recognise trans people’s right (whether imprisoned or not) to have their gender identity respected with minimal intrusion by the state. However, while campaigning for practical change for trans prisoners in the here and now, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge the current discussion for trans prisoners points to the barbarism and psychic brutality of our unreformed prison system more generally.

The over representation of BME people in the prison population has always signalled a distinct issue with our justice and policing system, which claims impartiality. Trans people, too, are overrepresented in contact with the prison service. We need to examine the underlying social conditions – family rejection, homelessness, mental health issues and poverty – behind this.

In the case of trans prisoners, the unease around removing the oppressive legal framework stems from hypothetical scaremongering and an often dehumanising preoccupation with genitalia  – could male sexual predators simply declare their gender identity to be female to enter a women’s prison? Isn’t the prison divide on biological sex necessary for safety?

Even if taken in good faith, such arguments seem content with their implication that vulnerable men in prison – gay men or men with learning difficulties, for example - may be consistently exposed to sexual harassment, assault and rape. Prison rape has become a sick cultural joke, while its disturbing reality is hidden. Last year, then-Justice Secretary Chris Grayling blocked attempts by researchers to interview prisoners by the Howard League for Penal Reform into sexual assault and rape in prisons. There is no comprehensive data on the issue. 

In women’s prisons we know there are huge failings. Over 80 per cent of women prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent offences and many of these women will have young children – here the prison system simply begets separation and attachment issues that perpetuate criminality.

Ministry of Justice statistics show that 62 per cent of male and 57 per cent of female sentenced prisoners have a personality disorder and 49 per cent of women and 23 per cent of male prisoners in a Ministry of Justice study were assessed as suffering from anxiety and depression. The prison death rate is rising, with many prisoners perceiving that their most realistic option of escape from the jaws of incarceration is suicide. Trans people in any prison are frequently placed in solitary confinement – originally intended as a drastic punishment – for their own protection.

The UK fetishises its damaging, broken prison system. While the rate of re-offence shows its supposed role in rehabilitation is failing, it indulges in wielding draconian state power over those caught within it – whether it be demanding to see “proof” of gender identity or even the pettiness of banning smoking.

“Prison rape has become a sick cultural joke, while its disturbing reality is hidden”

LGBT campaigners and their supporters should take this moment of discussion regarding trans prisoners as a time to discuss the wider barbarism of criminal justice. Gender roles are one means the state uses to regulate and control us- the prison system is merely the most extreme form of the same impulse. I would like a trans activism that moves beyond debates around trans people that simply accepts status quo to one that looks more holistically at the reality: we should be trying to reduce and reform the prison system in its entirety.

In the meantime, however, it’s important to learn lessons from Vicky’s terrible death and support trans prisoners right to respect for their safety and dignity. This can be done through campaigning and petitioning to raise further awareness as well as through demonstrations of solidarity, such as the Bent Bars project which encourages LGBT people to write to their brothers and sisters in prison – a tangible way to show kindness. It’s acts such as these which can relieve prisoners' desperation, while we fight to commit their anguish to history forever.