Statement from Women in Prison

Statement from Women in Prison (12.10.18)

Transgender people, prisons and women’s spaces

Recently, there has been a stronger public focus on a small number of cases of trans women in women’s prisons. This statement responds to the broader issue of transgender women and men in the prison system, particularly women’s prisons, and community-based women’s spaces.  

Women in Prison (WIP) is a feminist campaigning charity that also provides services supporting women affected by the criminal justice system, many of whom have experienced male violence. It campaigns to expose the injustice and harm caused to women, families and communities by imprisonment and to radically reduce the number of women in prison. Harm resulting from, and exacerbated by, imprisonment includes death, self-harm, trauma, mental ill health, homelessness, unemployment and damage to children when their primary carer is in prison. The vast majority of women are imprisoned for non-violent offences that attract short sentences, and because of a lack of appropriate support on release, there is a high rate of re-offending. All of this provides overwhelming proof of a broken system.

For thirty five years, one of the main purposes of Women in Prison (WIP) has been to offer support to women, trans women and trans men, in women’s prisons, in the community and, for the past decade, in women’s centres, in order that they be best equipped to rebuild their lives. As far as resources allow, we will continue to do this.

WIP respects the right of any individual to transition. Drawing on our experience in providing support, we recognise the significant difficulties that this often involves. We support the right of transgender people to access services that meet their needs.

Our priority is the safety and wellbeing of all those with whom we are working. HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) have a duty to maintain a safe environment for every person in prison. WIP supports the continued scrutiny of requests by transgender individuals to move to a women’s or men’s prison. WIP’s concern is that rigorous and transparent risk assessment that explores the background, motivation and potential risks to the individual and to others, is not being consistently conducted and monitored.

Risk assessment must include the individual’s stage of transition; their particular needs; any history of sexual exploitation, violence or abuse; evidence of motivation to exploit, control and/or manipulate others (including coercive control); and risk to the individual or others of consensual sexual activity, pregnancy or sexual assault. This assessment also needs to include transition plans before prison, future intentions after serving their sentence, and any risk to, or impact on the individual, and to others, of moving prison and of not being moved.

Any failure of the risk assessment process can have life threatening consequences and impact on the safety, sense of security, wellbeing, mental health and daily lives of all individuals in prison, including transgender people. We recognise that decisions not to place an individual in the prison of the gender with which they identify can relate to the risk to that person, and/or a risk to others. As this is an area that requires careful balancing of rights, with prioritising safety, a sense of security and the prevention of harm, it may require innovation in provision within the prison system.

The Government must now take action to ensure that thorough risk assessments are taking place and to provide alternative facilities if it is decided that the placement of a trans woman or trans man is not appropriate in the prison of their self identified gender. Such alternative facilities would need to take account of the particular needs of trans people, including for access to specialist services.

WIP is pleased that the government has confirmed that there are no plans to amend the Equality Act that allows the provision of single sex women’s services. Justification for these provisions includes a woman’s right to privacy and dignity and the ability of organisations to provide the most effective services (including women only spaces). Provision of women only spaces are necessary for a range of reasons, including the impact of the trauma of male violence and sexual exploitation, and because some services do not meet women’s specific needs. In fact, Women in Prison was established because our founders recognised that a criminal justice system dominated by men’s offending meant that women’s needs and experiences were often invisible.

The exemptions in the Equality Act enable case-by-case decisions to be made in relation to the access of transgender individuals to women specific spaces. The government must ensure that these vital legal protections continue and that guidance is adequate to enable service providers to make decisions that balance the rights of individuals without opening services to risk of legal challenge. We hope that the government’s response to the current consultation on the Gender Recognition Act takes account of this important issue.

WIP, like other organisations working in the field of penal reform and in the women’s sector, is facing an acute financial crisis, as resources shrink, demand increases and the needs of those we support become more complex. If the government is serious about tackling the crisis in prisons, then appropriate investment is required in the women’s sector so that the prison population is reduced, the cycle of re-offending is broken and all women have a genuine opportunity to rebuild their lives. Only this will ensure the ability to manage the safety and wellbeing, and balance the rights, of all those caught up in the criminal justice system.

Women in Prison does not comment on individual cases.