By definition, imprisoning an individual necessarily means taking away some of their freedoms. But what if incarceration meant taking away the most important liberty of all: self-identity? What if the prison system were able to dictate your own identity to you?
Far from some nightmarish dystopian novel, this has been a sad reality for some transgender prisoners in terms of the how the UK prison system treats their gender identity.
On 30 December 2016, transgender inmate Jenny Swift (formerly Jonathan) was found hanged in her cell at HMP Doncaster. She had been admitted to an all-male prison in November of that year after she was initially charged with attempted murder. An inquest into her death has been opened in the first few weeks of 2017, however it is suspected that Ms Swift committed suicide.
What if the prison system were able to dictate your own identity to you?
This is not the first case of its kind. In November 2015, two more trans women, Vikki Thompson and Joanne Latham, were found dead in their cells just weeks apart at the men’s prisons HMP Leeds and HMP Woodhill respectively. So just why are people who identify as women being placed in all-male prisons?
Well, since the passing of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, it has been possible to legally change your gender status with a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). Old policy drawn up in 2011 meant that in general, GRCs were a requisite when allocating trans offenders to an institution of their preferred gender. This inevitably resulted in some transgender prisoners being placed in institutions according to their gender at birth rather than the gender in which they live.
Transgender inmates are currently spread across prisons throughout the country. In November 2016, 1 in 4 UK prisons held trans offenders, and of these, 19 held just one transgender inmate. As a result of this, such prisoners have claimed to feel singled out, and some even report that they have been left vulnerable to abuse from other inmates.
New guidelines came into force on 1 January 2017. This reformed policy recognises that many transgender people live their lives without GRCs, and therefore intends to be more lenient in its treatment of transgender offenders. However, according to the Parliament website, it remains that “those who wish to be placed in a prison location which is not consistent with their legally recognised gender must provide evidence of living in the gender with which they identify”, and that cases will be assessed individually by a Transgender Case Board. In short, without official and legal recognition of a gender different from that at birth, trans prisoners may still not have total autonomy in deciding which sort of prison they go to.
Talk of ‘autonomy’ and ‘prisoners’ perhaps seems contradictory, and the counter argument to all of this may of course be, that if you have committed a crime, you have opted to lose the freedoms you were once privileged to enjoy. However, it is important to recognise that gender transition is not a choice or a luxury. Perhaps the fact it requires active and deliberate effort leads to a misleading regard for it as such, but it’s no more a choice than homosexuality is. And besides, we’re not talking about offenders having the pick of the prisons, simply that they should be able to choose a prison most appropriate to their gender. Surely that is as reasonable as a woman resisting being sent to a men’s prison, or vice versa?
More to the point, in negating to recognise the assumed gender of trans prisoners, gender essentially becomes a medium of control. Returning to the case of Jenny Swift, it is alleged that prison staff insisted on addressing her as ‘mister’. In an interview with the Sheffield Star, a friend of Swift’s also claimed that she was denied access to the same hormone treatment which she had been taking for three years. From this it can be understood that there exists a margin in which the system is effectively able to dictate gender to its transgender prisoners. That is completely, undeniably unethical.
the system is effectively able to dictate gender to its transgender prisoners
To an extent, it’s understandable that this is such a complex issue to resolve. If you start unpicking and disregarding legal status, it is true that you are essentially undermining the very law by which an individual is being punished. Balancing individual rights with the stability of the system is necessarily tricky. Nonetheless, calls for the government to find this balance in the case of transgender prisoners only seem to arise with public petition and high-profile cases in the media, such as those of Thompson and Latham in November 2015.
However eventually, reform has indeed happened. It is too early to say how much of a difference this year’s change in policy will make, but in any case, it unfortunately comes too late for Jenny Swift. However, it is clear that this complex issue needs to be dissected and addressed in order to ensure fair treatment of transgender prisoners. Prisons may be places for rehabilitation and punishment, but they should not be places for cruelty. Hopefully, the promise of a more understanding, reformed policy will finally ensure this for transgender prisoners.