Men and Women don’t usually share a prison. But recent transgender prisoner cases have thrust the question of which prison to use into the spotlight. Tara Hudson was recently released after serving the first part of her sentence in a male prison before a massive media campaign saw her moved to a female jail. There’s more about her case elsewhere on this blog. The Inquest into the tragic case of Vicky Thompson, who died in a male prison recently, has also recently been opened. Women sharing a men’s prison.
The Ministry of Justice has announced that they are reviewing their own policy. Given that their own policy expired in March this year before these cases came to the public eye, Tara Hudson and the family of Vicky Thompson may feel that the review comes rather too late. It is nonetheless to be welcomed. The outdated guidance put legal status at the heart of the process, whilst recognising a discretion should be applied in appropriate cases. That it took a massive media campaign for Tara Hudson to get the case conference her case so obviously needed shows immediately the problem with such a system. We should have little doubt that but for the media interest she would have served the 6 weeks ordered and been released before that review actually took place. Tens of thousands of prisoners are simply put into prison and left before any meaningful review of their circumstances, such as their mental health, is undertaken. The key to the whole thing is to make the right assessment at the beginning, either prior to or as part of the induction process.
The so called ‘Legal Status’ of a transgender prisoner is a pretty offensive concept, particularly when coupled with the Gender Recognition Certificate. That transgender prisoners should be effectively required to prove their gender in this way only reflects the widespread bigotry that many trans men and women experience in society all the time. It is to be hoped that any new policy puts respect for the welfare of the prisoner at the heart of the matter, not whether they have a particular piece of paper. Once you get past the ignorance and discrimination, the issue is no-where near as complicated as might first appear. The choice of prison is by no means the end of the matter – conditions and facilities for trans-prisoners fall some way short of even the previous guidance.
It was suggested to me recently when I appeared on Radio 5 Live to discuss the issues that the tough justice, prison works approach makes a call for reform over-stated, that soft liberals bemoaning the lack of Human Rights for the offender miss the point – don’t commit the crime if you cant do the time. Tara Hudson has said she is committed avoid re-offending in part because of her awful experiences in the prison system. So maybe it works? But we can be clear – these ends in no way justify the means. Legally, morally and in simple common sense terms, sending a woman to a male prison is profoundly wrong. I don’t suppose we would advocate allowing racist abuse of prisoners in the hope that making the prison experience that bit more miserable would deter re-offending. That sort of prejudice is wrong across our society, not least in prison.
When our Courts decide that a person has committed an offence so serious that only prison can be justified, we should all have confidence that the justice meted out is robust, but also proportionate and fair. The punishment comes in the loss of liberty, not in the state being allowed to degrade and humiliate a person, nor in exposing the offender to bigotry and prejudice. The failure of our prison system to achieve those fundamental aims must exacerbate and reinforce inequality in society at large.
I hope that the review on the policy of treatment of transgender prisoners is bold enough to ensure that these troubling cases are avoided in the future.