UK prisons must be ready to adapt to inmates’ needs

This past week the nation has watched the story of Tara Hudson, a trans woman initially sentenced to 12 weeks in men’s facility Bristol Prison, unfold. She was ultimately transferred to a women’s facility by the prison service but it should never have taken days for Hudson to be transferred. She should never have been sent to a men’s facility at all, and her lack of a Gender Recognition Certificate should not have mattered more than the fact Hudson has lived and identified as a woman for at least six years.

Gender classification of those in prison is an increasingly pressing issue. Rough estimates indicate 20 to 30 trans inmates are confined in British prisons at any one time. Commonly, these prisoners are subject to harassment from staff and other inmates, misgendering, deprivation of proper mental and physical health attention and they are also at a higher risk of victimisation and violence.

At present, the law indicates anyone sentenced to prison must go to one concordant with their ‘legally recognised gender.’ This alienates and endangers multiple populations not limited to transgender prisoners. In order for someone to acquire a Gender Recognition Certificate, they must pay a fee, but they are also required to jump through numerous degrading hoops to ‘prove’ their ‘chosen gender.’ For some, the process is not a priority, for others it is difficult to complete and it is debasing for all.

Moreover, the segregation of any institution into two genders ignores the experiences of those who do not conform to binary gender (potentially transgender, intersex, genderfluid, genderqueer and non-binary individuals) and often punishes them for not doing so. Tara Hudson’s case has brought to light the need for further reform of prison policies. If carried out, reforms proposed by Justice and Equalities Minister Caroline Dinenage – to do with meeting trans prisoners’ and other populations’ individual needs – could ensure incoming prisoners are allocated the safest location possible in available facilities.

Nonetheless, the standards of inmate processing leave much to be desired. According to 2011 reforms, prisoners are not required to take any medical or psychiatric assessment to claim a transgender identity and carry out their sentence in facilities designated to consider transgender prisoners’ needs. This was certainly not the procedure in Tara Hudson’s case, and must be enacted consistently in future. Dinenage recently explained that upon intake doctors, prison staff and other ‘stakeholders’ in a prisoner’s case work together to decide upon the placement of individuals, but the prisoner alone should decide their identity whether at the start of their sentence or any time afterwards. The worry is that prisoners ‘fake’ being transgender in order to be confined in better conditions: allegedly, in 2014 around 100 prisoners formerly identified as men were living in women’s facilities despite the fact they hadn’t been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. But the reality is these inmates, whether they ‘truly’ identify as women or not, are not requesting special but fair treatment. The ‘softer life in prison’ they attain is not rife with pampering, it is one where inmates are housed in separate facilities and less dangerous circumstances.

Going forward, prisoners’ gender and sexual identities must be something decided by the individuals in question. It can be difficult, particularly with small budgets, to manage changes in protocol within the prison system, but what is at stake here is the safety of many inmates. Even when transgender prisoners are sent to the facility that most closely matches their self-identified gender, they are at risk of harassment and abuse, but this should not discourage administrators from making an effort to place prisoners suitably. It only reminds us that they have individual needs like all other inmates, and the system must continually adapt.

Image: Kate Ter Haar

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