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How The Prison Service Is Failing Trans People

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Vicky Thompson was found dead in her prison cell on Friday the 13th of this month. The transgender woman was described as “vulnerable” by those who knew her; she had threatened to kill herself if she got sent to a men’s prison. She was sent to a men’s prison. She shouldn’t have been sent to a men’s prison. She shouldn’t be dead. She was 21 years old.

What went wrong in Vicky’s case? We’ll have to wait for the coroner’s report for more information – and prison procedures are already under review – but that won’t bring her back to life.
Vicky Thompson, pictured right, with her boyfriend, left. Photo: Rex Shutterstock
Vicky’s death was announced just hours before Transgender Day of Remembrance, a global event to mark the shockingly high number of trans people murdered or driven to suicide each year. Just weeks earlier, a similar case made headlines in Britain when 26-year-old Tara Hudson was placed in a men’s prison because her paperwork said she was male – despite the fact she has been living as a woman for several years and has undergone various feminizing procedures. A petition calling for Tara to be moved to a women’s facility gained over 150,000 signatures, backed by several public figures. Tara got moved. Tara is still alive.

The widespread support for Tara’s transfer to a women’s prison stood in contrast to bigoted comments made by academic Germaine Greer the week before, asserting that trans women are not really women. Clearly, if Tara’s case was anything to go by, the public are quite prepared to accept trans women as women when presented with a real person and not the gross caricatures invoked by Greer to justify her exclusion of trans women from women’s spaces.

It helped that Tara looked feminine. That shouldn’t matter, but it does. In the same way that a pretty girl from a middle class family might get more media attention from a news story, so, too, will a feminine trans woman gain more sympathy when lumped in with a bunch of violent men. Trans people call this “passing privilege”.

Despite the outpouring of support for Tara, I saw some people on Twitter – and Mumsnet – question whether a woman like her, who still has a penis, should be placed with other women because she "will be a danger to vulnerable female prisoners who are biologically smaller and weaker." This is fear mongering based on stereotypes. Some trans women I know are tiny, and weak as kittens after years of hormone replacement therapy. And another thing. According to the US Department of Justice, the rate of inmate-on-inmate sexual assault is at least three times higher for women than men in America. That's right. Women abuse other women in prison. A lot. More than men do. People are the problem. Not penises.

The frustrating thing is that the Ministry of Justice already has guidelines on what to do with trans prisoners. They are supposed to be placed in the prison that matches their documentation – i.e. their birth certificate or their Gender Recognition Certificate, the means by which trans people can legally change their gender. Not every trans person has a GRC, though, and the rules allow that some trans people will be "sufficiently advanced in the gender reassignment process" that they could be placed "in the estate of their acquired gender, even if the law does not yet recognise they are of their acquired gender".

As trans campaigner Jane Fae notes, prison officials should also take into account: “where the prisoner would feel most comfortably housed and the reasons for this: the guidance specifically references the suicide risk for individuals placed in the estate of their birth gender”. In the case of Vicky Thompson, this was clearly ignored.

What about trans women who get sent down before they are able to express their true gender? There are many reasons trans people may feel trapped in the closet. I would have come out at least two years earlier had I not been studying at a rough college in Nottingham during my teens.

Over in the States, Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning is being held in Fort Leavenworth, a military prison for men. Not wanting to distract from her trial, Manning came out as trans after she was sentenced. A spokesperson for Leavenworth confirmed that: “The Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder”. Gender identity disorder is an internationally recognised medical condition – denying Manning appropriate health care seems like a cruel and unjust punishment to me.

Tara, Vicky and Chelsea’s stories highlight the problems trans prisoners face, but what I haven’t seen discussed is the fact that trans people are more likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Not because trans people are inherently criminal. Study after study shows the effect social exclusion has on mental health, poverty and crime, while family exclusion increases trans people’s risk of becoming homeless. Desperate people commit crime. Trans people are routinely kicked out of their homes by their own families and pushed to the margins of society, discriminated against at work, attacked in the street and failed by health providers. Is it any wonder so many trans women end up in risky professions like sex work, living on the street, or banged up in jail?
Vicky Thompson was in trouble for head-butting a barman. I don’t know the ins and outs of what happened and nor do I excuse violence, but I do know that as a trans person you are constantly placed in conflict with society. Just walking into a bar and ordering a drink can be a deeply hostile and stressful experience. I know because I was at war with the world once too. When I was 16 I was involved in a robbery and ended up in a young offender’s institute for boys. It was horrible. I did the crime, though, so it was only right I did the time. It happened before I transitioned. Back then, I couldn’t tell you why I did it, but now, years of therapy in my twenties has taught me that I often resort to impulsive behaviour as a means of dealing with my anxiety. That's something I’ve been lucky enough to learn about myself, because I have the resources, but I can't go back and change the past. I expect many other young trans people are dealing with psychological difficulties they don't yet understand too.

At school I was bullied mercilessly and violently for years. The word ‘bullying’ gets thrown around a lot these days, but it doesn’t convey the complete social ostracism I endured. Sitting alone in class. Walking home alone. Getting kicked in the face for acting like a “poofter”. And more of the same at home. My father was my biggest bully. He knocked me about for being too 'girly’ and constantly put me down. This is not a sob story. This is the reality of many young trans people’s lives. Shoplifting. Fighting. Sleeping around indiscriminately. I was a bad child and an even worse teenager. I was angry. I had low self esteem. I struggled with boundaries. Is it any wonder I fucked up and found myself going to sleep in a prison cell?

The prison service needs to get its act together and ensure that current guidelines are understood and implemented by everyone working with prisoners – from court staff to prison workers and the probation service. Ignorance is no excuse when you are responsible for the safety of prisoners. But we also need to ask ourselves why so many trans people face such dangerous levels of discrimination and what the likely consequences are for them, and the rest of us, if we let it continue. Hatred and ignorance can be overcome if we all make a genuine effort to educate ourselves and challenge bigotry wherever we see it. The prison service is failing trans people – so is society.

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