The ignored prisoners: transgender inmates driven to suicide

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Image by Federica Savo, via Flickr Creative Commons

By Emily Howard

Jenny Swift was found hanged in her cell on 30th December. She had been placed in an all-male prison in Doncaster, despite having asked to be put in a women’s prison. Although she was born male, she identified as female and had already been living as a woman, undertaking medical transition.

Inmates are placed in prisons according to their legal gender, but prisons may exercise local discretion on the placement of transgender offenders. Ex-offender Tara Hudson was moved from an all-male prison in Bristol to a female prison in Gloucestershire in October 2015. However, this rarely happens.

Jenny is not the only woman who has committed suicide because of placement in a male prison. In November and December 2015, Vikki Thompson and Joanne Latham both committed suicide in prisons in England. Following the deaths, the Ministry of Justice undertook a review of how transgender offenders are treated.

The review concluded that treating offenders “in the gender which they identify with” is the most effective starting point for safety and reducing re-offending. The government responded to the review in July 2016, stating that if a transgender offender is held in a prison different from the gender with which they identify then they will be entitled to live and express themselves in the gender in which they identify and be provided with items to enable this.

However, this doesn’t seem to be the case in practice. Jenny had been taking feminising hormones, but these were confiscated when she entered custody. Dr Heather Peto, a transwoman herself, says that the review makes it clear that there are currently no procedures and systems in place to ensure that transgender offenders’ gender identity is respected or that they can be supported in their transition. She adds that it is “inhumane and dangerous” to place transgender offenders in the prisons of their gender assigned at birth.

Some prison service personnel believe that the “threat of rape for transgender prisoners is positive in that it prevents full transition in prison and deters re-offending”, according to the minutes of a public meeting that Peto attended in Westminster in September last year, to discuss the government’s response to the review.

George Barrow, the co-ordinator for the review, told The Spoke that “there are other things from the review that are yet to be published (for instance recommendations for pre-sentence report preparation, training, mental health and personality disorder)”.

The government proposed in their review that an advisory group on transgender people in custody or subject to community supervision should be set up for three years, to ensure that any new operational policy is fit for purpose and being correctly implemented. However, this is yet to materialise.

In the Netherlands, the policy towards the treatment of transgender inmates is no clearer. Jaap Oosterveer, press agent for the Ministry for Justice responsible for prison affairs, told The Spoke that “we don’t have any transgender inmates. I don’t know if we have a policy on this at all.”

He assumes that transgender prisoners can be placed in “any prison that they want”. However, Emily Plugge, an ex-inmate, was placed in the male prison in Zwolle despite asking multiple times to be sent to a female prison.

The Transgender Netwerk Nederland also sees problems with the way transgender inmates are treated. They told The Spoke that last year an inmate could not go to hospital for her appointment for medical transition, as nobody would take her. They added that there are more trans prisoners than the current person that they know about.

Lawyers estimate that there are currently around 200 transgender inmates in the UK, according to Peto. The government have not publicly responded to Jenny’s death or released any developments in policy towards the treatment of transgender prisoners.

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