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Trans and gender-queer prisoners face a double punishment.

For trans prisoners, abuse isolation and poor medical care are routine parts of incarceration. By 'ASBO', a former inmate.

October 24, 2017
10 min read

Photo by Eleni Papaioannou

One of my mates inside called me ASBO, and I hope I will always be anti-social. Prison is designed to control, to oppress, to separate and alienate. However, even in a mansion of aching hearts, there are ways to keep your head held high. It’s easy to fixate on the moment you will leave jail and walk through the gate, but there are many possibilities for rebellion and solidarity along the way.

‘Transgender prisoners defy the institutionalised segregation of the prison system. The multiplicity of combinations of gender/sex/surgery/hormones/identification that people embody resist simplistic and dogmatic solutions. Consequently, given that no capacity (or desire) to comprehend these differences exists, transgender people are subject to what amounts as focussed repression.’ – Lockdown: Prison, Repression and Gender Non-conformity, Bent Bars Project.

‘While feminist anti-prison researchers and activists have worked to make imprisoned women visible, we have tended to assume that women’s prisons house only women, and that all women prisoners are in women’s prisons.’ – Julia C. Oparah

The ministry of justice has stated that there are 100 trans prisoners in the UK. However some LGBTQ activists have speculated that reality is probably much higher than this, especially in men’s jails. Incarceration is often the final, brutal expression of the systemic repression of trans people. As has been highlighted, many reformist organisations and feminist groups simplify custody arguments into a gender binary, minimising the male role in a child’s upbringing, and ignoring the complexities of issues around gender non-conformity and those who identify as non-binary, trans or gender queer. One example of this is ‘Women for Independence’ (WFI), a group who call for a cap on the number of women in jail in Scotland, demanding that no more than 100 women are incarcerated there at any one time. In making such short-sighted and arbitrary demands, reformist organisations such as this ignore the myriad of issues that contribute to issues surrounding gender in custody.

The daily life of a trans prisoner in jail can be one of constant battle. Trans people make visible the oppressions and prejudices that inmates and prison staff act out. There is increasing awareness around these issues, but it is an ongoing struggle. I observed a lot of transphobia during my sentence. The arbitrary yet rigid forms of social interaction that make up jail life mean that whilst ‘butch’ women are massively popular, and anyone who wants to actively transition is often sneered upon or dismissed as a ‘she-he’. Trans prisoner Sarah Baker has outlined these issues in her regular column in Inside Time:

‘I would never wish my own trauma of being beaten up, spat at, slashed twice with razor blades, raped, stabbed and scarred for life with scalding water mixed with sugar, not even on my worst enemy.’

A widely circulated document named ‘The Care and Treatment of Trans-sexual Prisoners’ contains a lot of specific recommendations for prisons and prison staff. Following a report by the Prisons & Probation Ombudsman into the discrimination involved in having to obtain ‘Gender Recognition Certificates’ (PSI 7/2011), the ombudsman also called for individual assessments on the of needs for trans prisoners; including ACCT reviews, investigations of all allegations of transphobia, and the supervision of reasonable adjustments made to help with expressions of people’s gender.

As with everyone inside, trans prisoners are theoretically entitled to the same level of health care they would expect to receive from the NHS outside (though of course the reality is totally different). For trans people this should include: access to counselling, pre and post-op care and continued access to hormone treatment. Trans prisoners should be allowed to attend their case conferences, and have the opportunity to input into planning for their needs in custody, with additional input from those who will be directly responsible for them during their incarceration: their personal officer, offender manager and wing manager.

Unsurprisingly there is an established history of prison governors per-sistently refusing to acknowledge their responsibilities in relation to PSI 7/2011, and the gender-based protections enshrined in the Human Rights Act and the Equalities Act. Sarah Baker has reported how many prison governors pay lip service to ‘political correct- ness’ whilst continuing to ignore transphobia in their jails, from both prisoners and staff. Despite clear instructions from PSI 7/2011, governors have refused to allow trans women to have the relevant ‘items to fulfil gender identity’, access to showers, and the NHS treatment that is routinely (though sparsely) offered to trans gender people outside the prison system. In January 2016, the home office committee Transgender Equality Report was published us-ing evidence from the Bent Bars project. It highlighted how many trans prisoners are ‘systematically denied the right to wear appropriate clothing, misinformed or lied to about their rights and not given access appropriate medical treatment.’

It is common practice in America for trans prisoners to be forced into seg (‘segregation units’) for their own ‘protection’. Separation is also a fairly common occurrence within the UK prison system, and trans prisoners are coerced and forced into leaving normal location wings, as staff try to ‘hide’ them on more vulnerable prisoner wings (with much higher security restrictions). The Ministry of Justice has highlighted that prisons have ‘duty of care’ to prisoners, and as part of this they cannot segregate based on sexuality or gender. The case of Bourgass v Secretary of State for Justice highlighted issues around segregation. Following this precedent, the prison must demonstrate that any segregation is justified and proportionate. Although it remains to be seen whether those legal protections will in practise, mean a fairer deal for trans prisoners. ‘Justified and proportionate’ covers all manner of sins, and trans prisoners are still routinely isolated from their peers.

In the process of enforced isolation, trans prisoners are doubly punished, hidden away in so-called ‘prisons-within-prisons’, while the prevailing culture of transphobia within jails goes unchallenged. They tackle bigotry and violence by erasing the trans person, rather than the transphobia. Historically, the MoJ has demanded that ‘all prisoners should be placed according to their gender as recognised by UK law.’ (i.e. a Gender Recognition Certificate, which are notoriously troublesome to get hold of, even with the benefit of liberty). However, after numerous complaints made by trans prisoners about their attempts to obtain the necessary paperwork to support their claims the MoJ has allowed some individuals to be moved if they are ‘sufficiently advanced in the gender reassignment process’. This is still a lengthy procedure, and often one that involves a certain amount of privilege. It is only open to those trans pris- oners with the will and money to transition, and the confidence and educa- tion required to convene a case conference and multi-disciplinary risk assessment within the prison. It also perpetuates a very limited approach to trans prisoners in terms of what are acceptable forms of appearance and behaviours.

Trans prisoners are further side-lined and marginalised in relation to prison labour, and several people have highlighted how they have been denied jobs in positions of trust, especially just after transition. Screws perpetuate transphobia by not reporting acts of violence upon trans gendered prisoners and ignoring verbal abuse from other prisoners, and their visitors.

‘There is no way that trans gender people can ever be ‘safe’ in prisons as long as prisons exist and, as scholar Fred Moten has written, as long as we live in a society that could even have prisons.” – Bassichis, Lee and Spade, Building a Queer and Trans Abolitionist Movement

The majority of trans deaths in custody relate to people seeking to be moved to women’s prisons from men’s jails. Jenny Swift was the third trans suicide in 2016. She had been on hormones for three years but despite this was refused medication in HMP Doncaster. Swift suffered major physical withdrawal, and was not allowed to be moved to a women’s jail. She was extensively bullied by other prisoners, ultimately taking her own life. Vicky Thompson also committed suicide, in November 2015 at HMP Leeds. Despite being groomed as a child, she had been put on wing with people who were convicted of sex offences. Thompson had identified as female since her teens, but had not had reassignment surgery.

The famous case of Tara Hudson, who was held in HMP Bristol, is fur- ther example of the failings of the prison estate for trans prisoners. Despite six years of gender reconstruction surgery, Hudson was sent to a men’s jail, which compromised both her mental health and personal safety. Eventually, after much lobbying, Hudson was moved to Eastwood Park. However, as Sarah Baker has pointed out, many trans prisoners never get this ‘opportunity’:

‘Call me cynical if you wish, but that opportunists such as Maria Miller MP, Lord Cashman, Baroness Barker, Lord Faulks, Baroness Hayter and Peter Dawson, Deputy Director of the Prison Reform Trust, should come out in support of trans issues, was shocking. Why had it taken them so long to become so vocal? Why did they decide to come out of the woodwork and jump on the Tara Hudson bandwagon? Is it be- cause she was young, photogenic and serving a short sentence (though traumatising for any trans prisoner)? Some might say that they were only paying lip service to a cause that would increase their public profile. Would they have been so vocal if Tara had been in her mid-50s, serving a life sentence, denied trans-suitable make-up to maintain her feminine appearance, and lacked 100,000 petition signatures?’

It is also worth noting here that a lot of the rhetoric surrounding Tara Hudson’s case focused on her being in the wrong jail rather than a critique of the whole system as a violent extension of binary constructs of gender. People who identify as non-binary or gender queer are often overlooked in the rhetoric around gender and prison. There is no way the prison system can deal with a non-binary model of gender, as it is dependent on putting people into ‘women’s’ or ‘men’s’ institutions.

Judith Butler highlighted the use of ‘construction as constitutive constraint’. Butler argued that regimes of power produce intelligible and knowable bodies, the flip-side of this being a domain of unthinkable, abject and unlovable bodies. These are the marginalised groups who are seen as ‘disposable’, or what Davis labelled “detritus”: human surplus, the result of sexual, psychological and physical violence, neoliberalism, hetero- patriarchy, and white supremacy.

‘Most current discussions of transgender issues separate out transphobia, heterosexism and misogyny from racism, ethnocentrism, and Eurocentrism. In examining transgender identi- ties in isolation, a white, middle-class trans gendered subject is assumed. By analysing anti-transgender violence as sepa- rate from race and class, the lived experiences and specificity of trans persons of colour are ignored.’ – Bassichis, Lee and Spade

In 2016 there was the first annual Trans Prisoner Day of Action, in order to acknowledge the experiences of trans and other sex and gender-minority prisoners and express transnational solidarity. This has become an annual, international event. Solidarity with trans and gender queer prisoners!

The survival of trans and other sex and gender minority people is not a quaint conversation about awareness, but a struggle for us to live in a world so determined to marginalize, dehumanise, and criminalise us…Once incarcerated, trans people face humiliation, physical and sexual abuse, denial of medical needs, and legal reprisals… Just as our lives are violently repressed on the outside, trans people experience extreme suffering and death within the walls of jails, prisons, youth facilities, and immigrant detention centres.

This is an edited extract from Bang-Up and Smash: Women’s Prisons, Probation and Bail Hostels

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