On Tuesday, Prof Kathleen Stock did a media round, following a fresh row about her appearance at the Oxford Union that day and a Channel 4 documentary, Gender Wars.
It would berepetitive and a bit Pavlovian to react again and again to everything she says – I caught her on LBC – and I question how helpful it would be. But there was one line that went unchallenged, because it always does: that “there are very vulnerable females in prison in close quarters with male rapists due to these ridiculous policies”.
This isn’t exactly right: latest figures for England and Wales show there are 49 transgender prisoners across the female prison estate. Six of them are trans women, who will all have gone through a local case board, and they’ll all have been on the hormone regime that is a prerequisite for switching estates.
I’m interested in why trans rights in prison are so rarely defended; or, to be more specific, why I have never defended them. Transgender prisoners have been held up as the absolute exemplar of why trans-inclusivity is a bad idea, ever since 2018, with the case of Karen White who was convicted of two sexual assaults.
I’ve never encountered anyone from either side of the debate who didn’t critique the process by which she was moved into a women’s prison. But in arguments since, White has come to represent every transgender prisoner, and stand as an object lesson in why inmates should always be housed in the prison of the sex they were assigned at birth. She is often used to represent trans women generally, and indicate that they will always be a threat to cis women. This seems pretty obviously prejudicial: no cis man would accept his essential nature being extrapolated from that of a male sexual offender.
Part of the reason I never said that was personal: in 2018, I was still on the trustee board of a prison charity that celebrated staff excellence. I had been for some years and had met countless people – officers, psychologists, governors – who had insights into the experience of transgender prisoners, but it wasn’t the charity’s core business, and I didn’t want to create a perception of it as the establishment face of trans allegiance. I worried that it would be persecuted so relentlessly that it wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything else, which is what, in due course, happened to Stonewall.
The conversation, furthermore, already felt like quite a low-trust environment, and the tenacious focus on the White case looked like a trap. Anything you said to put into proportion the threat to female prisoners posed by trans prisoners could easily be construed as “protection from rape is less important than trans rights”, which I think is a false opposition. Low-trust debates thrive on those.
I also thought the furore was in such obvious bad faith that it would fizzle out: anyone with a sincere interest in the welfare of women in prison would also be interested in a host of other things, from staffing levels to self-harm and suicide, from mental health to the fallout post-Covid. The same year that White committed some of her offences, 2016, saw the highest number of female deaths in custody on record. If your only documented interest in the female prison estate is in transgender prisoners, surely it would be obvious that your real beef was trans rights, and your campaign would gain no momentum? That turned out not to be true.
Many of us were waiting for a more robust response from the Prison Service itself, and other stakeholders, who have been doing sophisticated and searching work on balancing the needs of prisoners since at least the 1990s. I remember my dad, who was a prison psychologist, doing a report on mothers in prison in the 80s, and finding trans male prisoners in Holloway who had gone completely unrecorded by the system.
The Prison Service, albeit slowly, responded as it did to prisoners as a whole: how do we support this person so they emerge from prison having gained something, better able to live in society? This time around the response never came: the Ministry of Justice is notoriously cagey, fearful of the disapprobation of the tabloids, which are happy to interpret almost any detail they hear as “soft on crime”.
I assumed, furthermore, that the figures would ultimately speak for themselves, but that was wrong. There were 97 sexual assaults in women’s prisons between 2016 and 2020 – seven involved trans prisoners.
Since the prison regulation on trans prisoners was reformed in 2019, (which made it more difficult for those convicted of any violent crime to switch between estates) there have been no assaults by trans prisoners on women in prison. It seems pretty obvious that if the majority of sexual assaults in the women’s estate are committed by prisoners who are not trans, then a relentless focus on trans prisoners is not going to keep women safe.
Finally, it just didn’t occur to me that the behaviour of trans prisoners would be used to tarnish the characters of all trans people and call into question their legitimacy in any single-sex space. You simply can’t infer anything broader from the behaviour of inmates: they are an outlier population. That’s why they’re in prison.
Arguably, the horse has bolted, and we’re going to live in this upside down, bad-faith discourse for ever, where trans female prisoners have become synecdoche for the elemental threat biological women will always face from biological men. Maybe there’s no closing that stable door; but it would be helpful for next time to figure out why we left it open. There will be a next time.