How lobbying by trans activists helped a rapist end up in a female prison
When Isla Bryson was found guilty of two counts of rape, the warrant issued by the High Court in Glasgow recommended that the defendant be sent to HMP Barlinnie, a notorious male-only jail.
Instead, Bryson – who until 2020 was known as Adam Graham – was taken to an isolation unit at HMP Cornton Vale, the country’s only women’s jail, sparking a backlash that has engulfed Nicola Sturgeon.
The decision was taken by the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), and the Scottish First Minister has insisted she played no role in it.
However, sources with intimate knowledge of how the prison service in Scotland operates said it was inconceivable that SPS bosses would have taken such a monumental decision if they thought it would be strongly opposed by ministers.
Jack McConnell, a former Labour first minister, said on Thursday night: “Let us be absolutely clear. There are no circumstances where this rapist would have been sent to Cornton Vale without ministers knowing.”
Scotland’s prisons have quietly been a testbed for radical gender policies for years, following lobbying from the same trans rights activists who pushed Ms Sturgeon to introduce a controversial gender self-identification system, it has emerged.
The SPS overhauled its policies in 2014 to state that a prisoner’s accommodation “should reflect the gender in which the person in custody is currently living”.
The shift was heavily influenced by the Scottish Trans Alliance, a vocal cheerleader of the SNP self-identification law and an offshoot of the Equality Network charity that is almost entirely reliant on Ms Sturgeon’s Government for funding.
Of almost £600,000 in taxpayers’ cash handed to the Equality Network last year, £100,000 was ringfenced for the Scottish Trans Alliance.
James Morton, then the director of the trans group, admitted in an essay for Trans Britain, a 2018 book, that the group had deliberately targeted prisons as a means of persuading other public bodies to follow its agenda.
“We strategised that by working intensively with the Scottish Prison Service to support them to include trans women as women on a self-declaration basis within very challenging circumstances, we would be able to ensure that all other public services should be able to do likewise,” he wrote.
“The learning from our prison work has made it much easier to assist other Scottish public services, such as NHS wards and schools, and to also respect trans people’s gender identities.”
Concepts of self-identification have been adopted across the Scottish public sector, with health boards sending trans women to female wards.
Controversial schools guidance, also drawn up with the help of the Scottish Trans Alliance, told teachers to “be affirming” of pupils who wanted to change their gender at schools and to not automatically inform parents.
However, the Bryson case has exposed tensions in the concept of self-identification, with Ms Sturgeon refusing to say on Thursday whether she considered the double rapist a male or a female.
At Holyrood last month, the First Minister ordered her MSPs to vote against proposals that would have blocked convicted sex offenders, or those facing rape charges, from taking advantage of the self-identification system.
Maggie Chapman, the equalities spokesman for the Scottish Greens – a party with which Ms Sturgeon is in a coalition Government – denounced proposed safeguards as transphobic “dog whistles”.
However, experts said the Bryson case had proved that adopting self-identification risked “disastrous” consequences for women.
Had Ms Sturgeon’s system been in force, Bryson would likely have become a woman by the time of being convicted, said lawyers. This would have increased the likelihood of Bryson being placed in a female jail permanently and afforded new legal rights, preventing the disclosure of the defendant’s biological sex.
“The SPS policy was shaped by a small group of influential activists, without consideration for female prisoners or staff,” said Kath Murray, a member of the Edinburgh-based MurrayBlackburnMackenzie policy analysis group.
“The placement of a convicted rapist in the female estate is a direct consequence of this. For the Scottish Trans Alliance, the policy was deliberately pursued as a bridgehead to its wider aim of introducing self-identification across all public services.”
Dr Murray, who has investigated the development of the SPS policy, added: “The wholesale removal of sex-based protections, including sex separated services such as prisons, are proving disastrous for women and girls, as the Bryson case clearly illustrates.
“Public authorities need to rethink their policies and stop prioritising the interests of one group over others.”
Ms Sturgeon has insisted that her gender laws would not have altered the SPS approach to trans prisoners, which still allows for inmates to be placed in jails that correspond with their biological sex.
Barlinnie, where courts suggested Bryson should initially have been sent, is seen as Scotland’s toughest jail, famous for housing notorious gangland leaders and serial killers.
However, prison chiefs have previously admitted that gender recognition certificates (GRCs) – which would have become available to anyone over 16 willing to sign a declaration had Ms Sturgeon’s plans not been blocked by the UK Government – are an “important” factor when they decide where to send inmates.
While currently it is almost impossible for prisoners to change their legal sex from jail, this would have become a simple process under the planned reforms.
Prison chiefs have acknowledged that disregarding a GRC could leave them exposed to legal challenges, which would become far more likely if the number of biologically male inmates who are legally women is allowed to drastically increase.
During the passage of her gender Bill, Ms Sturgeon dismissed fears that allowing any male to easily become legally female would put women at risk.
At a women’s event in November, she was heckled by a protester who told her women had been “actually raped by males who have self-ID’d as women”.
She responded by saying it was “men who commit violence against women”, adding: “Most men who commit violence against women don’t feel the need to change gender to do that. Those who do, my argument is that we should focus on them because they are men abusing a system to attack women.
“What we shouldn’t do is further stigmatise a group of women who are already too stigmatised.”
It is obvious why opportunistic transition might be attractive to the Isla Brysons of the world. Even if we discount predatory motivation (which seems a little rash) it is obvious that a rapist will have a much easier time of it in Cornton Vale than Barlinnie.
— Jonathan Brown (@Broonjunior) January 25, 2023
But what if Bryson is both a transgender woman – as the double rapist could be legally under Ms Sturgeon’s self-identification system – while simultaneously posing a grave threat to biological women?
“It seems very likely that had the GRR bill been in force Isla Bryson would have obtained a GRC,” Jonathan Brown, a Scottish advocate, tweeted in response to the case.
“And would thereby have become a woman ‘for all purposes’ by virtue of her self declaration.
“It is obvious why opportunistic transition might be attractive to the Isla Brysons of the world. Even if we discount predatory motivation - which seems a little rash - it is obvious that a rapist will have a much easier time of it in Cornton Vale than Barlinnie.
“Fundamentally this resolves to a philosophical question: is Isla Bryson a woman? If she is what makes her a woman? Her own self-declaration it seems.”