Liz Barker questions Government on transgender prisoners after death of Vicky Thompson

Last week, transgender woman Vicky Thompson died in the men’s prison where she had been taken to serve her sentence. Ministry of Justice policy is to put trans prisoners in the gender they live as if they have a Gender Recognition Certificate. Obtaining a GRC can be a costly, difficult, bureaucratic process.

Liz Barker outlined some of the issues in an article for the Huffington Post:

In Tara’s case, she was put in a prison with 600 men, many of whom had committed violent offences and was eventually moved after a campaign which highlighted the risk to her safety.

Jonathan Marks, my colleague in the House of Lords and a highly respected barrister, raised this issue in Parliament following the case of Tara Hudson. He pushed the Government to make urgent changes to how they handle trans prisoners, calling for full and careful thought to be given to allocation before sentence rather than after placement. A policy that makes perfect sense.

I am deeply concerned that this wasn’t already common practice, but it is utterly shocking that a few short weeks after Tara’s case came to the public’s attention, action wasn’t taken to urgently review Vicky’s case too. There should now be an urgent review on a case-by-case basis for every trans prisoner in the prison estate to assess their situation

The Minister’s answer was not much more than waffle.

Paul Scriven and Jonathan Marks also got involved. When Paul Scriven pointed out that the policy under which these decisions were made had expired, the Minister got a bit grumpy and told him that he “might think he was being clever” and the policy would stay in place until it was marked obsolete. You wouldn’t think he was actually talking about vulnerable people’s lives, or that he cared about them.

You can read the exchanges here.

Liz highlighted on Twitter this week that British Columbia had managed to change their policies so that people weren’t sent to a prison for their gender they were given at birth. It’s not difficult. Why can’t we do the same here?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Once again, Liberals are guilty here of exploiting a tragic situation to make cheap political points, while giving no acknowledgement whatsoever that these kinds of cases can be very difficult for the prison authorities to deal with.

    I won’t say much about the Vicky Thompson case because unlike Baroness Scott (who very unwisely asserts that Thompson’s death was a “consequence” of being sent to a male prison) I am honest enough to admit that I don’t actually know why she died. I’d suggest waiting for the inquest before jumping to conclusions.

    Two facts that we do know about Thompson are that she was still legally male, and had been sent to prison for (among other things) assaulting a teenage girl. Those two facts alone should show how difficult the decisions faced by prison staff actually are. You can’t simply send any prisoner straight to a female prison on their own say-so; not unless you have zero regard for the safety of female prisoners. The government’s policy of treating each case on an individual basis is basically sound and is in fact the only reasonable approach to take – what other way is there?

    The one thing Baroness Scott does have a point about (if she’s right on her facts) is that it seems extraordinary that these decisions are apparently not considered until after the sentence starts, rather than before. That’s clearly a disaster for all concerned and needs to be addressed. But it won’t make the decisions themselves any easier in borderline cases.

  • “It’s not difficult”

    Sadly, I think it is.

    But unlike Stuart I’m very glad to see Lib Dems taking up the issue.

  • @crewegwyn
    I’m happy to see Lib Dems or anybody else take up the issue – but only if they make more effort to get their facts right. Hence I praised Baroness Scott for the sensible part of her article.

  • If they could send Myra Hindley to a female prison, they could have sent Vicky.

  • Caron fails to mention that when the Tara Hudson case was being discussed in the media many women – I would say by far the majority – were horrified at the thought of sending such a violent thug to a women’s prison. You can bet your life if Hudson committed a violent crime whilst in a women’s prison there would be many questions asked about the decision to send him/her there.

    I don’t know much about the sad Vicky Thompson case, but if he/she broke the terms of his/her suspended sentence it certainly wasn’t a first offence. One of Vicky’s crimes was apparently beating up a teenage girl and stealing her mobile phone. I wonder if her victim saw the accused as a woman or a man?

    The one thing that is certain is the sentences were right no matter where they were served. Violent thugs belong behind bars so that barmen, teenage girls and the rest of society are protected.

  • malc, Myra Hindley was imprisoned in Holloway for thirty years, and nobody demanded she be put in a male prison because she was a danger to the other women in the prison.

  • Richard Underhill 28th Nov '15 - 3:53pm

    Sarah Noble 28th Nov ’15 – 3:22pm Sorry, you cannot know that, because of confidentiality. The use of extreme words, such as ‘nobody’, ‘everybody’, ‘all’, etc is usually wrong because of the diversity in the general population.
    Also, please think about the victims of the offences. “The victims were five children aged between 10 and 17”

  • Sarah Noble – Whether anyone thought Myra Hindley should have gone to male prison I don’t know, but what I do know is that many people would have liked to see her hanged for her crimes. I feel sorry for Vicky Thompson – none at all for Tara Thompson who was just a violent thug – but my first thoughts are always for the victims of these violent people.

  • Simon McGrath 28th Nov '15 - 4:40pm

    well done to Liz for raising this. But to say ” It’s not difficult” is clearly wrong.There has to be an effective process for dealing with people without a GRC – but it also needs to be able to deal with inappropriate claims to go to a different prison. The system needs changing but their has to be a fair process for decision making – which may not be easy

  • There seems to be an expectation here that women don’t commit violent crimes, or that women who do have somehow unsexed themselves (to borrow Lady Macbeth’s phrase) and should be considered men.

    Perhaps we should resist these gender stereotypes.

  • @Joe Otten
    That expectation seems to be held mostly by people like those who campaigned to have Tara Hudson moved “for her safety”. Actually, though she is now in a women’s prison, she is kept away from the other prisoners to protect her from “risk of harm”.

    It wasn’t the fact that Hudson had headbutted a barman that made people question her womanly credentials. Sadly, plenty of women behave that way these days. No, it was more the fact that Hudson had described herself as “actually a bloke” in an interview just weeks before her trial. When people self-identify as men one day and women the next, and have a history of violent crime, who would envy the justice sector staff who have to make these decisions?

  • Zoe O'connell 29th Nov '15 - 10:27am

    Suicide usually has a number of causes, as you note, but we do know that misgendering and poor treatment of trans people, along with sexual harassment, are huge factors and downplaying that risk helps nobody. These are not borderline cases, as Tara has lived her entire adult life as female and the only reason she ended up in a male prison was the establishment’s obsession with an expensive legal process and bits of paper.

    There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that trans women in prison are a greater risk to other prisoners, and suggesting that there is pandering to a media stereotype and enabling deadly prejudice. Tara may well now be kept separate from other women for her safety, largely enabled by the kind of harmful views expressed in this thread, but better that then being kept separate in a men’s prison.

  • Richard Underhill 29th Nov '15 - 10:47am

    Prisons and parts of prisons used for male or female prisoners have Vulnerable Persons’ Units, but the social isolation is itself a problem, so staff are constantly trying to find ways to tackle isolation as well.

  • Zoe O’connell
    I’m all for protecting transgender people. In some cases it might well be suitable for them to choose whether they serve their time in a male or female prison, but it’s not a “no brainer” like some suggest. The views of women have to be taken into account, you may not mind sharing a cell or washing facility with someone like Tara – who is still legally male and a very violent one at that – but many women would be horrified. Perhaps families with loved one’s in jail may well think it’s views like yours that are harmful.

  • Zoe O'connell 29th Nov '15 - 12:16pm

    Malc – That argument (“Views of the majority” and “many would be horrified”) is one that can and has been used against every minority group going. Society doesn’t tolerate that approach against most marginalised groups any more, and it should not tolerate it against trans people.

    The “legally male” argument isn’t helpful, because the government puts major hurdles in the way of obtaining legal recognition. It is no surprise that, particularly since the Equality Act 2010 stripped many of the employment protections previously available, that many people don’t bother with a Gender Recognition Certificate as it gives little benefit.

    And as to “violent” – 19% of women in prison are there as a result of a violent offence (29% for men) based on NOMS statistics. They are not unused to dealing with violent offenders.

  • *hugs for Zoe*

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 29th Nov '15 - 6:26pm

    I can only commend Zoe’s patience in dealing with views which I doubt the commenters would express about other groups who are marginalised. It is not acceptable under any circumstance to use pronouns other than a transgender person would want, so I was not at all impressed to see the use of he/she to describe a woman. Don’t expect that level of disrespect to get past moderation again.

    The distress to a transgender person of being misgendered and incarcerated in a place meant of the wrong gender is enormous and should not happen.

    I note that Stuart consistently refers to Baroness Scott when it is Baroness Barker who wrote the article.

    I’m putting this thread on pre-moderation from now.

  • Zoe O’connell
    You can’t just dismiss the “Views of the majority” or the “many would be horrified” that easily. I’ve always found most people very sympathetic to the problems that the transgender population have to put up with. However, there has to be a certain amount of individual responsibility. If someone has made no effort to get a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and then gets sent to prison it’s a little late to start changing sex. If the system was run the way you and others seem to want it, it would be wide open to abuse. Also I’m sure staff at women’s prisons are used to dealing with violent women, but are they used to dealing with the likes of Tara Hudson, who caused extensive damage to a mans face by head butting him. There is a big difference.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 29th Nov '15 - 8:31pm

    Malc, Tara Hudson had lived as a woman for ALL her adult life. It’s not like she showed up in prison and decided on the spot she was a woman. Do you have any idea how bureaucratic and expensive it is to get a Gender Recognition Certificate? Our party policy is to get rid of that process altogether because of the distress it causes.

  • Sarah Brown 30th Nov '15 - 1:06pm

    Malc – if you think getting a GRC is anything to do with “making an effort to start changing sex”, may I respectfully suggest that you know a lot less about this than you think you do.

  • Zoe O'connell 30th Nov '15 - 1:22pm

    Malc, I think you’re misunderstanding the process to get a GRC. It comes near or at the end of the process and certainly isn’t when you “start changing sex” as you put it. Given Vicky was 21 and there is a several year wait for a Gender Identity Clinic appointment on the NHS in parts of the country (On top of the 2 year wait for a GRC) it’s not really surprising she didn’t (yet) have a GRC even if she intended to get one.

    As for your attempts to paint Tara as male because she was inside for a violent offence, that’s a huge issue just on the grounds of gender equality. Are women not allowed to do things that are gendered masculine? I spent 5 years in the armed forces, am I and all the women I served with really men?

  • This is not a simple issue. There are legitimate safety concerns about allowing someone with male physiology to share a cell with a woman in a women’s prison. Since there are only a tiny number of examples of this happening so far, talk of ‘lack of evidence’ is a red herring. The state has a duty to look after the safety of its prisoners and this must be paramount- we do badly enough on that front already. The GRC may be excessively burdensome but there has to be some kind of qualifying standard- unless people are suggesting that anyone who declares they identify as female should immediately be eligible for a place in a women’s facility, which is clearly open to abuse. Therefore a sensible discussion would centre around what that standard should be and how it should be assessed in a sensitive way that protects the rights of all prisoners including the transgendered.

  • As I’ve said multiple times in this thread, Myra Hindley was in Holloway for thirty years. She was arguably a bigger danger to the prison population than Vicky Thompson or Tara Hudson were, but nobody ever demanded she be put in Wormwood Scrubs.

  • I’ve even dug out my care plan which discusses a possibility for a GRC, in particular, it says that I will have to either apply through my GP or a private provider because the GIC is underfunded.

    I could theoretically undergo genital reconstructive surgery before I’m even eligible for a GRC

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