Pin It
Trans prisoners in the UK
Embroidery Sarah Jane Baker

What it’s like to be trans in the UK prison system

Amid fierce national debate about how to treat trans people in prisons, I visited Britain’s longest-standing transgender prisoner, Sarah Jane Baker

I visit HM Lewes Prison on a cloudless morning in July. “It gets so fucking hot in the cells on a day like this,” says Carl, who is taking me to the prison. Carl is the author of the recently published Prison: A Survival Guide. It started life eight years ago as a DIY advice pamphlet he made after spending two and a half years in jail. It’s packed with practical information for anyone actually facing time, while also offering fascinating insight into how the system fails prisoners. Like the book, Carl is full of grim stories about life in prison; not only what it’s like to be stuck in a hot cell, say, but what it’s like to be stuck in a hot cell with a dead pigeon trapped in your only air supply. 

One of the strongest contributions to the book comes from Sarah Jane Baker, Britain’s longest-standing transgender prisoner and the person we’re visiting at HMP Lewes today. In the book, Sarah explains how things have improved for LGBTQ+ prisoners since she first went to jail in 1985, a time, she says, when guards would wear National Front badges and being LGBTQ+ was like a death sentence. She paints a picture of the relationships she’s seen LGBTQ+ prisoners forge in jail nonetheless, writing: “love is more powerful than prison rules and lust is even more powerful than loneliness.” But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows today either; Sarah has witnessed horrific violence – both physical and bureaucratic. Before my visit, I had read online that Sarah is serving a life sentence for the attempted murder of another prisoner, an alleged child rapist who she claims had attacked her three times previously, while she served time for kidnapping and torturing her stepmother’s brother.

As we approach the prison gates I am grateful that I have read Carl’s book, because until I did, all I knew about prison came from TV and films. I think about how these representations have conditioned me to feel nervous about entering a men’s prison as a woman, and then I think about what life must be like for Sarah, a woman who’s actually living in one.

While there are currently around 42 trans people held in prisons for women in England, out of an overall women’s prison population of roughly 4,000, Sarah is not one of them. Official Ministry of Justice statistics say the total number of trans people in the prison system in England and Wales is around 140, but as the Ministry itself acknowledges, the actual number is unknown, as many prisoners are not “out” as trans. 

A few months before my visit, in March 2019, the Ministry of Justice announced that they were opening the first transgender prison unit at HMP Downview in Surrey. In a statement, the Ministry said that this segregated unit did not represent their long term plan for housing trans prisoners. Instead, Downview is something more like a temporary solution amid a fierce – and not very nuanced – national debate about where and how trans prisoners should be housed. 

On the one hand, some (especially “gender critical feminists” and the right-wing and tabloid press) push the idea that allowing trans prisoners into jails that correspond with their lived gender could mean putting convicted male rapists into women’s prisons. They do this by using one or two extreme cases such as the Karen White case, where the prisoner was immediately remanded to a women’s prison (contravening the Ministry’s own policy at the time) and subsequently sexually assaulted fellow prisoners. On the other hand, campaigners worry about the risks of denying trans prisoners the right to live in a prison that corresponds with their lived gender. As with 21-year-old Vikki Thompson, who took her own life in her cell in Leeds back in 2015, and Joanne Latham, 38, who also took her own life in a Milton Keynes jail the same month, this can pose a very serious danger to a trans prisoner’s mental health and safety. 

The people who run UK prisons are tasked with the job of reconciling these concerns. In an attempt at diplomacy, Justice Minister Edward Argar said back in March that he hoped the new unit at Downview would: "strike the right balance between ensuring that all female prisoners are kept safe and transgender prisoners have their rights respected". 

“I’ve heard it all… ‘cock in a frock’ is a common one, people would shout ‘kill it’ at me or spit on me” – Sarah Jane Baker

When we enter the prison in Lewes we are patted down and searched with a sniffer dog. Carl is told to change out of his football shirt, as those aren’t allowed. We wait in a grey room that looks like the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery, along with family members and friends waiting to visit prisoners. Then we are sequestered off to a separate unit. “Why aren’t we going with everyone else?” I ask Carl, and he explains that Sarah lives in VPU – the Vulnerable Person’s Unit, which is the home of people who are at high risk for various reasons – like making the wrong enemies inside, or being an LGBTQ+ prisoner. 

Sarah sits waiting for us here, wearing a skirt and Ugg boots, her hair tied back in a ponytail. We say hello, and Carl pops up to the canteen to buy us some Mars bars and Cokes. For the next hour, I learn that attacks are commonplace, as Sarah tells me what it has been like for her to be trans in a men’s prison. During periods of her incarceration, Sarah says she has been on the receiving end of transphobic slurs daily. “I’ve heard it all… ‘cock in a frock’ is a common one,” she says, before telling me that she has been called ‘it’ more times than she can remember. “People would shout ‘kill it’ at me or spit on me,” she explains. At times, other prisoners have attempted to end her life. I tentatively ask her the lowest point in terms of transphobic abuse: “Getting raped in the prison showers by five people,” she says, holding my stare brazenly, before quickly moving the conversation onto sunnier subjects. 

Today, Sarah doesn’t want to dwell on the difficult times for long. She has recently come out of special watch after a suicide attempt, made after her parole was last denied, and she is feeling sociable and spritely. We laugh as she tells me about how, on suicide watch, she managed to trick the guards into believing there is an animal called a “swuck” – a cross between a swan and a duck. She recounts prison news, like how someone recently nicked her boombox, then sold it to the person in the cell above her, so that she torturously had to listen to it all day. She also spends much of our time together trying to set me up with the female guards – “80 percent of prison guards are gay,” she conjectures, matter of factly.  

Then she whips out some of her embroidery work to show me – a passion of hers along with writing, reading, and playing the violin. One has the word “transgangsta” stitched onto it. “That’s the nickname the guards gave me when they found out I’d smuggled a Samsung in,” she grins. Another artwork has a quote from Martin Luther King Jnr. sewn onto it.

It says: “If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.”

Dr Sarah Lamble is a criminology academic and the co-founder of the Bent Bars Project, a pen pal scheme for LGBTQ+ prisoners in Britain, founded a decade ago. Their annual newsletter written by and for prisoners gets sent to LGBTQ+ prisoners, helping them to feel less alone. The articles written in the newsletters echo what Sarah Jane Baker had told me: that trans prisoners are subjected to repeated, long-term misgendering, as well as death threats and physical abuse. This is also supported by reports in the media; an inquest into the death of a trans prisoner called Jenny Smith, for instance, heard that she was bullied by guards, who reportedly called her “fella”.

Over the phone, Dr Lamble explains the current government policy on transgender prisoners in England and Wales. It stipulates that all prisoners must be allowed to express the gender with which they identify, irrespective of where they are housed within the prison estate, but the policy also states that you will be housed in accordance with your legal gender unless you undergo a case review. The case review assesses what your particular needs are and how they are to be managed within the prison. It also assesses whether there is “strong” or “weak” evidence of a trans identity, based on things like whether you have a Gender Recognition Certificate, or have ever applied for one, advice from a GP, a psychological assessment, whether you’re on hormones, how you present, “use of prosthetics” (a reference to wearing breast prosthetics or packers, say), or “affirmation of gender identity by teachers, family and others”. 

Every few years, the rules and criteria change slightly. In 2016, for instance, the policy softened after a formal government review, that seemed to be influenced by both the public petition to relocate Tara Hudson – a prisoner who had lived most of her life as a woman, but was housed in a men’s prison because she didn’t have a Gender Recognition Certificate, as well as the suicides of Vikki Thompson and Joanne Latham. Then, after the Karen White case in 2018, the policy was rewritten again. According to Dr Lamble, because the new policy places a greater emphasis on legal gender rather than social/lived gender, it will likely make it more difficult for transgender people to be relocated. 

While the policy sways to public pressure then, its main purpose is to manage risk – including risks to and from the prisoner. This includes a risk assessment to determine where a prisoner is best housed. While the narrative largely peddled by the right-wing media is concerned with prisoners abusing the system by lying, the Ministry of Justice have found that “people who are transgender are overwhelmingly genuine about living in the gender with which they identify”. But interestingly, both Sarah Jane Baker and Dr Lamble do acknowledge that in some cases, it does happen.

“If constant bullying, comments, sexual harassment and isolation are your idea of a soft option then I’d suggest you haven’t really thought things through” – Sarah Jane Baker

“The press officer for the Prison Officer’s Association’s view is that ‘some trans prisoners are genuinely gender dysphoric, others are looking at it for a soft option for prison life’,” writes Baker in Prison: A Survival Guide. “In some senses I wouldn’t disagree but if constant bullying, comments, sexual harassment and isolation are your idea of a soft option then I’d suggest you haven’t really thought things through.”

Dr Lamble explains that the prison system itself, by diminishing your resources, encourages a kind of desperation where people will try to use whatever means they can to access basic things they need. The environment also encourages prisoners to be suspicious of each other and hyper-vigilant to any possibility that someone is getting better treatment. “This idea of people ‘lying to have an easy life’ is common in the prison system, and it applies to a whole range of identities. If a prisoner says they are religious, they might get accused of just trying to get a better meal or extra time out of their cells for religious observances. Any attempt to tackle discrimination or to address someone’s particular needs will be perceived as special treatment. In a prison context, this means that trans people are more likely to face disbelief.”

There are other reasons why someone might say that they are trans, too, Dr Lamble adds: in the rare cases where this happens, there is some evidence to suggest that sex offenders may want to try taking hormones because they think it will lessen their desire to reoffend, and others might think that changing their identity will help them to start over.

Yet, just because there are rare cases of people falsely claiming to be trans, it doesn’t mean that we should take the stance of not believing prisoners about their identity or subject them to a presumption of disbelief, warns Lamble. “Using rare cases as a basis for blanket policy decisions just ends up punishing an already marginalised group for the actions of others.” So if someone says they are trans, we should respect their identity, Lamble maintains firmly. “Otherwise we go down the path of policing people’s gender in ways that are deeply harmful, not only to trans people but to everyone who doesn’t follow gender expectations. There are also a lot of reasons why a trans person might not have been able to come out as trans previously, like denial, shame, fear of safety, or a lack of access to the things you might need to fully express your gender – like clothes, toiletries or make-up. Plus, in prison you are under constant scrutiny, so you aren't able to explore your gender as freely as you might be able to out in the community.” 

In other words, a big part of the difficulty of coming out as trans in prison is first having to prove that you’re trans – and how do you do that when you can’t get a Gender Recognition Certificate, chest binders, hormones, surgery, or even cosmetics – or might not feel safe to do so?

Essentially, it’s a chicken and an egg situation. 

“Risk assessments are necessary in prison, but unfortunately there is a growing assumption that trans women somehow pose an inherent risk to non-trans women” – Dr Sarah Lamble

Back in the VPU with Sarah Jane Baker, she shows me a copy of the prison shop order form. “No hair dye. Make-up is poundshop shit,” she says dismissively. I wonder if that’s because it’s a men’s prison, but don’t ask because I know Sarah doesn’t know any different. 

At this point, I ask her what it would mean to her to be housed in a women’s prison. “Why would I want to go to a women’s prison?” she responds. “I like men! I’d never get a shag!” I laugh. Her answer is not what I was expecting, but then again, nothing about Sarah exactly screams ‘perfect soundbite’, which is precisely why she is excellent company.  

Later, Dr Lamble clarified that Sarah’s answer isn’t as rare as we might think. One of the public myths about trans women in prison, they say, is “an assumption that all these trans women are trying to get into the women's estate, but actually there are a lot of trans women who don't want to be in women’s prisons, for a variety of reasons.” Like what? I ask. “Well, there are fewer women’s prisons, so if you move to one, you're more likely to be farther away from your home community. If you're in a prison and get to know how its system works, you don't know what to anticipate from another prison. And finally, you might have made friends or a support network in prison, and feel nervous about leaving that behind.“

On the flip side, just as not every trans prisoner wants to be relocated, it’s also a myth to think that cis women don’t want trans people in prison with them. “I would say that, for most women in prison, there are way more pressing issues,” says Dr Lamble, who has also heard from trans prisoners who actually felt welcomed at a women’s prison and have been actively supported by non-trans women prisoners.

Yet, instead of hearing from prisoners, too often it is the media that shapes the narrative. This is why we have started to believe that cases like Karen White are the norm, rather than the outlier. In reality, cases like this are in a minority. In fact, in the case of Karen White, the risk assessment protocol for location decisions was not properly followed, a mistake that the Ministry of Justice has since acknowledged.

We can tell that a lot of discourse around trans prisoners stems from out and out transphobia simply because we don’t apply the same fears towards other types of prisoners. We see very little concern in the media about trans men in men’s prisons for example, or vulnerable gay men in prison, or women sexually assaulting other women. In fact, Dr Lamble points out that current figures indicate that there are more non-trans women in prison for sex offences than there are trans-women in prison for sex offences, but we hardly hear about them.

“Risk assessments are necessary in prison,” says Lamble, “but unfortunately there is a growing assumption that trans women somehow pose an inherent risk to non-trans women. Although the Ministry of Justice has itself acknowledged that they have seen no evidence that being transgender is in itself linked to risk, the new policy is nonetheless largely oriented around that assumption. This needs to be challenged. Trans people are far more at risk of being harmed in prison than of harming others. The problem is that the prison system is a binary system that isn't set up to deal with people who don't fit in easily within that binary.”

“We would not want to see a situation where lesbian trans women, for example, are less likely to be transferred to the prison estate than heterosexual trans women” – Dr Sarah Lamble

So, how do we make the policy better? Lamble would like to see changes to the specific factors assessed in order to decide where a trans person should be housed: “One of the things on the current list of ‘risk factors’ is anatomy – and there are real concerns about how this will be interpreted and applied. If a trans woman hasn’t had gender confirmation surgery for example, will she be assumed to pose a greater risk to others on that basis? From my knowledge, there has never been a case of a trans person getting access to bottom surgery in prison. So the concern is that trans women who have not had surgery may face discrimination on the basis of anatomy.” 

Another factor is physical strength – but how do you measure that? “Like if you have a tall and big-boned cis-woman, should she be segregated from petite, frail women? There's evidence that interpretations of physical size and strength are prone to racism, too. For example, some studies have shown that when police encounter black people, they perceive their bodies as bigger and more threatening than they actually are.” 

And finally, Lamble has concerns about how the policy’s criteria of “sexual behaviours and relationships within custodial settings” may be interpreted in ways that discriminate against lesbian or bi trans women and gay or bi trans men. “If the underlying issue is a history of coercive or abusive sexual relationships, that is certainly a valid concern. However, we’ve already seen some evidence that trans women are subject to a higher level of scrutiny and control around consensual sexual relationships in prison than non-trans women. We would not want to see a situation where lesbian trans women, for example, are less likely to be transferred to the prison estate than heterosexual trans women.”

Ultimately, says Dr Lamble, in cases where there are concerns about the risks prisoners might pose to others, it is their overall history and behaviour, rather than on their gender identity or sexuality, that should be in question. We must not conflate trans identity itself with risk to others. The reality is that you are far more at risk from others and from the prison system itself if you are trans. 

Before I leave Sarah at HM Lewes, I ask her how she thinks the whole process could improve. “I believe that the prison system is working hard to do the best it can and has become more compassionate – whether that’s because society has changed, because there are more LGBTQ+ staff in prisons, or just because prisons are worried about litigation,” she tells me, in an unexpectedly press-friendly turn. She says that she sympathises with the difficult job prison staff have in assessing where to house trans people. But the main thing she would like to see is trans people who have been to prison sitting on the boards, shaping the policy. Only when you’ve been through it, do you know, she explains, before adding: “Everyone should have the right to live in any way they choose as long as they hurt nobody. There are deviants who are male and many who are female. If some pervert should wear a frock to invade a woman's space to commit an offence, that doesn't make them transgender, it makes them a pervert.”

After we meet, Sarah starts writing me letters. One is written right after my visit and numbered with points to ten. Point six is a list of semi-famous people to whom she’d like me to post her embroidery. Point seven says “I hope you don’t find my demands overwhelming!” 

Another letter says: “As you may have heard, I did get my parole. Even though I told the parole board judge that I didn’t think they should give it to me. My 30 odd years have fucked up my head. I’m more afraid of getting out than of rotting inside. I am aware of feeling maudlin, mawkish and overly sentimental about prison but it really is all I know. As long as I have (or not) the balls to tuck my knickers into my skirt (or the other way around) I will always find the guts to knock a transphobic prisoner out.  

“In here, I’m the tranny queen of the prison system, dispensing advice to trans prisoners in prisons all over the globe. But who knows what the future will bring? I’ve been told that I will be released any time after September 5. The staff say that the prison will give me 45 quid and tell me to piss off. To be honest I am afraid, scared, frightened and struggling to control my anxiety and the overwhelming sense of doom that agoraphobia brings. Sorry for being such a downer and a miserable bitch. With love, Sarah.”

Now, on the outside after serving 31 years, Sarah is finding life tough. She’s living in a bedsit, busking and selling posters and postcards of her embroidery online. When we meet, she plays me her violin. She tells me that she got so used to life in prison, that the outside world can feel overwhelming. She has never seen a smartphone or an electric car. Transphobia inside has been swapped for transphobia outside, and it’s going to be difficult to get a job because of her record, but also because her legal gender does not match her lived gender. I remind her of something that she said to me in prison. “You said: ‘I’m trying to build bridges and explain to people what it means to be trans with humour’. Just keep doing that.”  

“Hmm,” she says, and goes back to trying to voice activate her weird new 2019 phone. “Oi! Google!” she yells into it, before looking at me, confused.

To see and buy Sarah Jane Baker's artwork to support her outside of prison, visit here