Tara Hudson is a woman. She was sentenced to 12 weeks in Jail for head butting a member of staff in a Bath pub on Boxing Day 2014. She was taken to an all male prison at HMP Bristol to serve her sentence. Following an unsuccessful appeal against her prison sentence, a social media campaign and over 140,000 signatures on an e-petition, the intervention of her MP and and wave of press attention she was transferred to an all women prison at HMP Eastwood Park to complete her sentence. What? On? Earth?
Tara Husdon was registered at her birth as a male. But she lives her life as a woman. She has suffered more than her fair share of ignorance and prejudice. That ignorance and prejudice became state sponsored when she was taken off to jail after Bath Magistrates concluded that her offence was so serious that only a prison sentence could be justified, and that an immediate custodial term was necessary. The Crown Court agreed, despite the probation and psychiatric reports in the case. A drunken offence, the high harm, the head butt, her record. Off to prison, do not pass go.
The Prison Service has a policy about dealing with transgender cases. What is shocking about Tara’s case is that it took so long for that policy to be properly considered and sensibly applied. The assessment of the needs and circumstances of any prisoner should absolutely be understood before locking them up in a cell, wherever reasonably possible. It is inexcusable and a desperate indictment of the current criminal justice system that we lock up people first and then think about them second (and only then if their MP or the twitter sphere kicks into action). Tara had been on bail throughout her proceedings. She was on bail pending sentence after pleading guilty. The prospect of a prison sentence was known to the authorities before she was given one. Even when she was sent down, it is truely astonishing and profoundly wrong that she should have been sent to a male prison. The absence of a proper procedure for assessment of incoming inmates brings shame on our system, and affects thousands daily to the detriment of us all. The mentally ill, children, first time prisoners, for example, are all locked up inappropriately because we cannot find a way to decide how they should be incarcerated. It is easy to think that this is about resources – austerity and all that. But such a simple and easy answer hides a darker truth. Thinking about the people we lock up, who they are, their needs, the affect of prison and prison conditions, will quickly lead to the inescapable conclusion that often the wrong people are being pointlessly jailed. Short term sentences that increase the risk of reoffending and harm to society are a waste of money and only cause misery to future victims. Simply locking up the mentally ill without treatment will work about as well as you think. Young offenders who mix with adults get tough pretty quickly. The schools of crime that are our prisons educate with miserable efficiency. A bit like putting a woman in a male jail really. Obviously wrong when you think about it.
Tara Hudson’s case also bought into sharp focus a very tricky legal wrangle. How to weigh into the balance of sentencing the predictable awfulness that a particular offender will suffer if jailed? On one hand, a court can hardly be prevented from sending a down a deserving transgender offender just because the prison service might send him or her to the wrong jail. Yet to ignore the reality of the cruel and frankly inhuman consequences of a particular decision is to ignore justice. We readily take account of prison conditions abroad when considering extradition proceedings, but it seems that for a court to take account of the failings of our own system would be a step far. Perhaps to do so would risk revealing those darker truths. Some Magistrates and Judges are suprisingly ignorant of the reality of the sentences they hand down, from the actual length of time to be served to the prospect of receiving meaningful rehabilitation. They are supposed to weigh the seriousness of the offence in proportion to the sentence imposed, but the task is little more than pontificating guesswork if the ivory tower casts the future of the offender into shadow. Justice is not dispensed with at the end of a case – it goes on for the lives of victims and their families and for offenders and their families. Ignorance may make life easier. No doubt the appeal court in Tara’s case spoke genuinely in hoping that the prison authorities would review her circumstances. But it can hardly have been much of a factor given that they were quite prepared to send her back to HMP Bristol and the shocking abuse they had been told without dissent she had suffered and which any right thinking person would know to be wrong. Not our problem. Indeed, we can be fairly confident that the issue of her treatment whilst in jail awaiting appeal played no real part in the court’s thinking given that the Crown Court stuck with the same 12 weeks imposed by the Magistrates below. She did get moved. But the court was not to know that.
It is that sort of shoulder shrugging, the not-our-problem-abrogation of responsibility that tells us how a women got sent to a male prison. A court should absolutely know the truth of the sentences it hands down if justice is to be done. What happened in a crime is only part of the story. The impact on the victim, the offender and on society more widely all needs genuinely to be in the mix if justice is to be done.
I see Tara. The justice system isn’t yet ready to look.
Posted by Matthew Graham, with the assistance of Nicholas Wragg. Nicholas is a Crown Court advocate with Mowbray’s Crime Team and represented Tara at her appeal hearing in Bristol Crown Court.