Trans prisoners’ needs 'cannot come at a cost to the safety' of female inmates, former prison governors warn

Gabriella Swerling
·4 min read
The current policy is being challenged by a prisoner, who cannot be identified and is known only as FDJ, who claims she was sexually assaulted behind bars in 2017   - Anthony Devlin /PA
The current policy is being challenged by a prisoner, who cannot be identified and is known only as FDJ, who claims she was sexually assaulted behind bars in 2017 - Anthony Devlin /PA

Trans prisoners’ needs “cannot come at a cost to the safety” of female inmates, a coalition of prison governors, barristers and academics have warned.

The controversial comments come after a judicial review was held at the High Court this week over the Ministry of Justice's (MoJ) policy of placing trans women in women's prisons.

The current policy is being challenged by a prisoner, who cannot be identified and is known only as FDJ, who claims she was sexually assaulted behind bars in 2017.

FDJ claims that she was sexually assaulted in prison by a trans woman, known as J, who had convictions for "serious sexual offences against women". J was being housed in the general population of a women's prison.

However as the hearing came to a close, a group of barristers, Oxbridge academics, prison officers - including Ian Acheson, former prison governor at HMP Erlestoke and who also held a senior role at HMP Wandsworth - criticised the government over concerns “that the rights of women in prison to single-sex spaces are not being upheld”.

In a letter published in today’s Daily Telegraph, spearheaded by Kate Coleman, director of the campaign group, Keep Prisons Single Sex, they say: “All vulnerable prisoners have the right to be safe, but the needs of one group cannot come at a cost to the safety and wellbeing of women in prison.”

“We consider women’s prisons to be definitive examples of facilities used by women that should be single-sex,” they added.

“The vulnerability of female prisoners is well established and evidence demonstrates that female offenders require female-only settings. “

The intervention came as lawyers for the government told the High Court that they do not know, and are unlikely to ever know, how many transgender inmates there are in prisons across the country.

Under current laws, transgender men and women are not obliged to tell the authorities that they have a gender recognition certificate (GRC), a document which certifies that they have switched their legal gender.

The number of GRCs are therefore “actively not recorded” in the justice system, the High Court heard, meaning prison officers are left unaware that some inmates are transgender.

Sarah Hannett, barrister representing the government, told the court that “no centralised list is kept” by the Ministry of Justice. “It is entirely possible that there are individuals with a GRC that the prison system doesn’t know about,” she said. “Unless they choose to disclose that fact [that they have a GRC], and they are under no obligation to, we simply may not know about them.”

The letter’s co-signatories also include prison staff such as: Ian Acheson, a former prison governor at HMP Erlestoke and who also held a senior role at HMP Wandsworth, an anonymous senior prison manager, Susan Bennett, former principal psychologist at HM Prison Service, Sally Wainwright, a retired parole review manager and the retired former prison governors of Scotland’s outgoing female prison, Cornton Vale, Kate Donegan OBE and Rhona Hotchkiss.

It is also signed by: the former vice chair of the British Association of Social Workers, Maggie Mellon, and University of Oxford academics; Dr Michael Biggs and Professor Selina Todd, as well as the author and journalist, Julie Bindel, Robert Wintemute, professor of human rights law at King’s College London and Professor Kathleen Stock OBE, Department of Philosophy, University of Sussex.

The barristers Kama Melly, QC, Allison Bailey, Lucy Masoud and Merry Van Woodenberg also added their names to the letter.

An MOJ spokesperson said that it does not house all male-born prisoners who have since changed gender to female in women’s prisons, and that the policies do allow for some transgender women with GRCs to remain located on the men’s estate, and this has happened since the introduction of such policies.

They also claim that the prison and police investigated the allegations made by FDJ and no corroborative evidence was found to bring a charge.

Lord Justice Holroyde and Mr Justice Swift will reserve judgment to a later date.