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Transgender prisoners routinely failed by the current system.

In an October 2018 article published in Mental Health Today [], attention is drawn to failings on a range of fronts suffered by the UK’s transgender prisoners.

The Trans Mental Health Study, referenced in the same article, suggested 50% of transgender people in the general population have attempted suicide.

The same study cites that 65% of those trans people outside of prison who had considered, or attempted, suicide had cited ‘trans-related issues’ as a driving force behind their thoughts and actions. One such issue raised was “judgement, prejudicial attitudes or treatment, hate speech, hate crimes”; in other words, incidents of transphobia.

There are no reliable statistics in the public domain to indicate how many of the UK’s transgender prisoners have attempted to end their lives in custody, but the Howard League For Penal Reform tells us that in 2016, suicide was 10 times higher in prison than in the general population []. The official Ministry of Justice statistics tell us the number of self-inflected deaths in prison custody for 2018 was 92 []. Prisoners who are transgender face a disproportionately high risk of self-harm and suicide, given their particular vulnerability to mental health problems and bullying whilst imprisoned.

Transphobic bullying is rife in the UK’s prisons and the Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) commonly receives complaints from prisoners who feel their concerns are ignored or not dealt with properly. A 2017 PPO bulletin states:

“In a number of cases concerning allegations of discrimination, bullying and harassment we found that, while steps were taken to protect the prisoner, such as moving them to a different wing or differently gendered estate, the establishment did not properly investigate the allegations raised.”

Indeed, little faith is had in the timely and effective processing of DIRFs (Discrimination Incident Reporting Forms) or indeed prison complaints in general. However, the new regulations governing the managing of transgender prisoners provide that all complaints filed by transgender prisoners must be dealt with transparently and robustly.

Whilst it may seem at first glance that the Ministry of Justice is updating policies to address the complex needs of transgender prisoners, there also needs to be the will to ensure that they are implemented effectively. Unfortunately, given that the prison service is often slow to respond to prisoners’ complaints and those responses, when they are provided,  can fail to address a prisoner’s concern satisfactorily, , there are fears that this new protection will be shown to be idle words rather than a rule designed to be a sea-change in the way the prisons protect inmates.

The inquest into the 2016 death of trans prisoner Jenny Swift at HMP Doncaster was one instance where the culture of transphobic bullying in prisons was laid bare. Structurally, prisons are gender binary establishments with little flexibility or accommodation for vulnerable people. This was all too clear when it was heard by the jury that Swift was bullied by the prison staff themselves, who insisted on calling her ‘mister’ and refused to act on her complaints of intimidation.

If you have experienced discrimination on the basis of your gender identity whilst in prison and wish to explore what legal remedies might be available to you, please contact our Civil Liberties team on 0207 632 4300 or make an enquiry online.


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