I’m currently the secretary of the rather grandly named Parliamentary Forum on Gender Identity. It’s a group of established activists for trans rights who meet three or four times a year with some civil servants and a very small number of parliamentarians. In the Forum we discuss a number of different issues, generally on a regular basis. One of these issues has been trans people in prisons.
I’ll admit – I’m not the greatest expert on prison procedures – there are people in the Forum who know much more about this area than me. But, as a result of these discussions, I was left satisfied that, even though I haven’t completed all the relevant paperwork, in the (hopefully very unlikely) event I was ever imprisoned (either by sentence or on remand) that I’d be placed in the “female estate” – for such is the wording that civil servants use.
Then came Tara Hudson, then the suicide of Vikki Thompson, and now, the suicide of Joanne Latham. All three were incarcerated in the “male estate”, although Tara was moved after a huge public outcry. I understand from other experts that there are almost inevitably other trans women in the male estate and, quite possibly, some trans men in the female estate. Indeed a prisoner has submitted evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry, and in that evidence she states that she is “legally female” – although, in fairness, it’s not altogether clear that she actually means she has a gender recognition certificate.
The impact on me personally has been that the assurance I felt, that I would be placed in the female estate if I was ever imprisoned or placed on remand, has evaporated like a puff of smoke. Now, it appears, I would need to convince someone that I’d be at significant risk in the male estate. And while I have absolutely no plans to be incarcerated at Her Majesty’s pleasure, mistakes sometimes do happen.
But Joanne’s story raises another interesting twist.
In Forum we hear stories of trans prisoners having medical appointments cancelled because no officer can be found to accompany them, of trans prisoners having medication removed (typically those who are on remand), and trans prisoners struggling to assert their identity because gender appropriate clothing has been refused. The evidence submitted by the Prisons Ombudsman to the Parliamentary Inquiry indicates how the male estate struggles to deal with issues like makeup, trying to determine what is an “appropriate amount” – (largely, it appears, by volume).
The Ombudsman’s evidence effectively states that the prison service should allow trans prisoners access to clothing appropriate to their gender, but makes no reference to moving prisoners from one estate to another. So trans women should be allowed access to female clothing and some makeup (although the prisoner’s evidence to the Inquiry indicates that the policy is not always followed), but would still have to interact with a jail full of male prisoners. Bear in mind that pornography is restricted (although reportedly widespread) in prisons. How do we expect a few hundred men to react when a woman is expected to mingle with them?
News sources report that Joanne was imprisoned in 2001 – before the Gender Recognition Act. It is very likely that she would have been subjected to the same restrictions above. The Guardian reports that she only changed her name in the summer, which would have meant that she wouldn’t have been eligible for gender recognition for another 18 months. But, in the male estate, she would not have been able to prove to the Gender Recognition Panel that she had successfully lived in the female role for 2 or more years – she was in a male prison.
However, Joanne’s case is further complicated because she was classed as dangerous, and there is no facility in the female estate for such prisoners. She was trapped in the male estate for as long as she was classed as dangerous, and her gender recognition would have been on hold for that time also.
Which leads us to the conclusion that, for Joanne and probably many other trans prisoners incarcerated before 2005, the system is actively conspiring against their gender recognition. She had no chance.
The problems in the current gender recognition process have been raised – the lack of self-determination, the reliance on a substantial paper trail, the requirement for a medical diagnosis, the costs of obtaining the relevant medical reports as well as the application, and the newly introduced spousal veto – where an obstructive spouse can delay a trans person’s recognition for no other reason than they want to. These problems are amplified in the prison system.
Also, news of Vikki Thompson’s death broke on 19 November, with calls in Parliament to urgently review the situation that trans prisoners found themselves in. Joanne was found on the morning of 27 November. So, despite Parliamentary pressure, it looks as though little was actually done by NOMS. Bear in mind that Grant Shapps resigned this weekend over the suicide of a Conservative activist. Questions will be asked (again) about the future ministerial career of Andrew Selous who now has two similar suicides on his watch.
EDIT: There’s a petition you may wish to sign: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/113811