Women prisoners have enough problems. Self-ID will worsen them

‘Even a small number of prisoners transitioning to the female estate makes a big difference. And numbers are already mushrooming’

Spare Rib
Louise Perry

In 2015, this written evidence was submitted to the parliamentary inquiry on transgender equality:

It has been rather naïvely suggested that nobody would seek to pretend transsexual status in prison if this were not actually the case. There are, to those of us who actually interview the prisoners, in fact very many reasons why people might pretend this. These vary from the opportunity to have trips out of prison . . . through to wanting a special or protected status within the prison system and even (in one very well evidenced case that a highly concerned Prison Governor brought particularly to my attention) a plethora of prison intelligence information suggesting that the driving force was a desire to make subsequent sexual offending very much easier.

This came not from a radical feminist group, still less from conservative religious campaigners against LGBT rights. It was submitted by the British Association of Gender Identity Specialists (BAGIS), as part of a much longer document that also implored the government to do more to alleviate the suffering of patients diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

Five years later, during the current Labour leadership campaign, Lisa Nandy was asked during a hustings whether Christopher Worton, a convicted child rapist who now identifies as a woman, should be transferred to a women’s prison. “Trans women are women and trans men are men so they should be accommodated in the prison of their choosing,” Nandy responded, seemingly oblivious to the real risk that such a policy could be open to abuse. Like BAGIS, Nandy expressed support for transgender people. Unlike BAGIS, she did not address the dangers of reforming prison policy on sex-segregation. In doing so, she failed to express compassion for another, all too often forgotten, group: female prisoners.

Transgender activists and their allies who are pushing for reforms to the Gender Recognition Act argue that the current system imposes an unfair burden on transgender people, requiring them to undergo a lengthy administrative process in order to be legally recognised as their preferred sex. They advocate self-identification (or “self-ID”) in which people were permitted to officially change their sex without any medical or legal gatekeeping. This would mean that male-bodied people who identify as women would have as much right as natal women to access sex-segregated spaces, including women’s prisons.

In the current system, sex segregation in prisons reflects sharply different patterns of offending. Less than 5 per cent of prisoners are female, and 82 per cent of them are serving time for non-violent offences. Only 129 women, as of March 2019, were in jail for sex offences, in comparison with 13,789 men. In England and Wales male sex offenders alone comprise more than three times the total number of women in prison for any offence. So few female prisoners are dangerous enough to require Category A security that none is provided.

Against that background, even a small number of prisoners transitioning to the female estate makes a big difference. And numbers are already mushrooming. An official survey last year found that one in 50 male prisoners are now identifying as transgender, compared with roughly one in 200 in the general population. In some sub-groups of prisoners this figure is higher, with one in 10 Irish Travellers currently identifying as transgender. Although some of these inmates have been permitted to transfer to women’s prisons, most remain within the male estate, where they are provided with the usual protections afforded to vulnerable prisoners.

Currently, these prisoners are being housed in a variety of men’s and women’s prisons, with each individual being assessed on a case by case basis. But sexual predators still slip through and female prisoners are already paying the price. Research conducted by the campaign group Fair Play For Women found in 2017 that 41 per cent of male-bodied trans prisoners were convicted sex offenders, in contrast to just under 20 per cent of the non-transgender male prison population. These figures suggest that BAGIS were right to warn that sex offenders might be eager to “pretend transsexual status in prison.” In 2018, it emerged that a 52-year-old transgender prisoner called Karen White (pictured, left), who had previously gone by names including Stephen Wood and David Thompson, had committed several sexual assaults against female prisoners while housed at HMP New Hall near Wakefield. White had been convicted of multiple sexual offences against women, including pleading guilty to rape in 2003, but had nevertheless been granted access to the female estate.

Anne Ruzylo has been warning about this since leaving the prison service in 2013. A feminist, trade unionist, and former Labour Party women’s officer, she worked as a prison officer for 18 years, in both men’s and women’s prisons, including working with sex offenders. Such people, she says are “often very secretive and highly manipulative. They get a thrill from being able to get away with more and more and more”.

At stake is the welfare of female prisoners, the majority of whom have been victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse at the hands of men. Ruzylo warns that allowing male-bodied sex offenders like Karen White to be housed with these women not only physically endangers them, but also exposes them to daily harassment and intimidation, damaging their mental health.

She provides me with testimony from a female prison officer currently working in a women’s prison in England, who has asked to remain anonymous. This officer reports that several male-bodied prisoners who identify as transgender on arrival immediately stopped dressing in feminine clothing and reverted to masculine presentation. When women prisoners ask “is that a man?” confidentiality rules mean she is not allowed to reply directly.

Self-ID policy would easily lead to a situation in which more than a quarter of prisoners in women’s prisons were male, many of them convicted of sexual crimes against women. “Transwomen are women” is a comforting mantra for the woke. But it sentences women prisoners to a double, and wholly undeserved, punishment.