Skip to main content

Transgender Prisoners

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Guy Opperman.)

I am pleased to have secured my first Adjournment debate on the issue of transgender prisoners. It is not a topic that I knew much about before my election in May, but in my seven months in this House it has certainly gained my attention.

As someone who was interested in equalities issues before entering the House, I was keen to be elected to the Women and Equalities Committee. The Committee’s first inquiry into transgender equality is expected to be published early next year and we have taken evidence on trans people in the prison system. It was at that evidence session that I first became aware of the issue that is before us in this debate. It struck me that trans people face barriers and complications at pretty much every point in their lives, but there is a particular problem in our prison system. The description that was put to me last week was that

“getting involved in transgender issues is like a reverse onion, the more you look to peel off layers, the bigger it gets!”

Research suggests that trans people are over-represented in the criminal justice system. The proportion of trans people in the prison system may be twice the proportion in the general population. Many of the offences for which trans people are incarcerated apparently involve obtaining money for privately funded gender reassignment surgery. That is an insight into the lengths to which some trans people feel they have to go to live life in their acquired gender. Other possible reasons for the over-representation of trans people in the criminal justice system include the involvement of sections of the trans community in sex working and substance misuse. However, throughout my involvement in this issue, it has been a constant struggle to find any reliable data.

The recent cases, which have been much discussed in the media, have focused attention on the policies of the National Offender Management Service towards transgender prisoners in England and Wales.

I thank the hon. Lady for calling this important debate. As a former colleague on the Women and Equalities Committee, I know that she is a great champion of trans issues. The Scottish Prison Service has worked closely with the Scottish Transgender Alliance to produce guidance on gender identity and gender reassignment to ensure that prisoners are placed in the estate that reflects their gender identity, regardless of whether they have a gender recognition certificate. Will she join me in calling for the UK Government to follow the Scottish example?

The hon. Lady has pre-empted the next part of my speech. There are huge differences in the placement of transgender prisoners between the Scottish prison estate and the English and Welsh prison estate. The policy guidelines for England and Wales state that prisoners should normally be located in the prison estate of their gender, as recognised by UK law. For transgender prisoners, that is normally decided by the gender stated on their gender recognition certificate. There is some flexibility to allow transgender prisoners who do not have a GRC to be located in the estate of their acquired gender, where a case conference and multidisciplinary risk assessment determine that it is appropriate.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important and sensitive debate. Joanne Latham was found hanged in her cell at HMP Woodhill in my constituency. She was at the very early stages of changing gender and, therefore, would probably not have been covered by the regulations. Does her case not highlight the need for a case conference to be convened at an earlier point in the person’s journey?

The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point and highlights the difficulties. A great number of people who have transitioned gender do not have a gender recognition certificate, so this does not just affect those who are at the beginning of their transition. Many trans people do not seek a gender recognition certificate for a great number of reasons, including financial reasons such as access to pensions. That puts them at risk, were they to enter the prison estate in England and Wales, of not being assigned to the prison estate of their acquired gender.

I welcome the Government’s review of the policy guidelines for England and Wales. The scope of the review was broadened recently to ensure that the care and management of transgender prisoners are fit for purpose.

There is a clear danger when trans people are placed in all-male prisons, as has been highlighted in this debate. In the light of that, does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as issuing the much-needed guidance, the Government should impose a legal responsibility on prison governors to ensure that there is safe housing for trans people, no matter what stage of the reassignment process they are at?

All prisoners should be safe on the prison estate. As a state, we have a responsibility to keep all prisoners safe.

I asked beforehand whether the hon. Lady would give way. Today in Northern Ireland it has been announced that a prisoner is alleging sexual abuse in Maghaberry prison. This is a devolved matter, I understand. He is taking action against the Prison Service. Does the hon. Lady feel that, while the Minister will answer for England, there is a need for legislation for human rights in prison for all prisoners across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

I believe it is clear that the whole of the UK has a responsibility to safeguard trans people in all walks of life and that no part of the UK has got this issue absolutely correct.

As I mentioned earlier, the guidelines state that the social gender in which the prisoner is living should be fully respected, regardless of whether they have a GRC. I would be interested to know whether the review will be comparing the experience of trans prisoners in Scotland with those of trans prisoners in the England and Wales model.

Evidence presented to the Women and Equalities Committee suggested that there are problems with the way trans people are treated when they appear in court—well before they enter custody, therefore—with discriminatory behaviour such as misnaming and mis-gendering. The Gender Identity Research and Education Society stated in evidence to the Committee:

“Trans people are frequently ‘outed’ in court situations to create, deliberately, a negative view of them, whether their trans history is relevant or not. The Gender Recognition Act s22(4)(e) has been misused to achieve this.”

It also appears that a lack of understanding of trans experiences can lead to assumption, bias, potential breaches of confidentiality and other issues in the process of writing pre-sentence reports, which is undertaken by members of the national probation service.

In response to my taking up of this issue in the House on several previous occasions, I have received contact from prisoners, both trans and cisgendered. I want to share with the House some of the accounts I have heard.

From my contact with a trans woman prisoner currently held in a men’s prison, I was alarmed to learn that as well as feeling insecure and being a victim of rape and sexual assault, she is being denied the ability to continue the healthcare and medical appointments that she is having as part of her transition. Prior to entering custody, she had privately arranged final stages of reconstruction surgery to further progress her transition, and the National Offender Management Service is refusing to allow her access to this surgery and to the hormonal medication she has been taking to assist the process.

It is difficult to express how difficult that is making her life, so I will quote from her letter to me:

“The Governor’s blocked all my medical letters to my surgeons, the prison have no right to strip me of my care/hormone treatment. This is killing me as I am now in reversal.”

For any Members who are unclear, reversing is someone transitioning from male to female potentially growing a beard, for instance, while living as a woman, which would be distressing for any prisoner, I suspect.

She is a very vulnerable prisoner, with recorded serious attempts of self-harm, and attempts at suicide. She began the transition process in 2008, and formalised her intention to remain living as a woman for the remainder of her lifetime in 2012, via the making of a “statutory declaration” under the Gender Recognition Act 2004. Yet she tells me:

“There is no knowledge of how suicidal I am because they don’t care what impact”


“choices have on me physically and psychologically. I’m totally destroyed, not the woman I was. I feel I will kill myself soon. I cannot do this now. Please will you help me?”

She has told me that during her time in custody in a male prison she was raped twice and sexually assaulted. She told me:

“I cannot take no more—I’m a woman in a male prison. This is not right.”

Despite being successful on 29 October at county court in obtaining a judgment in her favour that the Ministry of Justice has responsibility for providing access to private medication and treatment outside of prison, and that that is a decision for the prison governor following a multidisciplinary meeting, this is yet to be facilitated, even though she contacted his office on 10 December 2015. While she continues to be denied the right to surgery and to be moved to a female prison establishment, she remains extremely vulnerable and at a very high risk of harm. Examples of her self-harm have included injecting bleach into her testicles and attempting self-surgery to remove her scrotum.

I will now make my last quote from this prisoner’s letter to me:

“I hope you can help me and get me out of this hell of a prison that’s not fit for transgender people or cares for them.”

I can reassure the House that her constituency MP is taking her case very seriously and doing her best to assist this prisoner.

Interestingly, NOMS has agreed that when she is released from custody, it will support her continuing supervision in the community in a female “approved premises”. There is no consistency in this case, and her story seems typical of that of many trans prisoners. Journalist and LGBT campaigner Jane Fae told the BBC:

“My serious concern is this is blowing the lid off something that is going on—that for a very long time trans prisoners have not been treated well within the system, that the rules that exist are being overridden... And this is leading to a massive, massive amount of depression and potentially, in some cases, suicidal feelings.”

I am sorry to have to agree with my hon. Friend and to point out that, at the moment, once every four days, somebody takes their own life in our prisons.

I thank my hon. Friend for sharing that upsetting statistic with the House.

In concluding, I will look for some optimism. Public opinion and awareness of this issue seem to be improving. BBC “Look North”, PinkNews, and many others have done a great job of holding the Government to account on it, as has The Huffington Post. It has launched the “TransBritain” campaign, which aims to raise awareness of transgender rights in Britain today. I urge the Minister to take a look at some of the work that it is doing.

My hon. Friend the shadow prisons Minister wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) last week to welcome the announcement that his Department’s review into trans prisoners will now be widened to consider what improvements can be made across prisons, probation services and youth justice services.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way because I am very conscious of the time. Reflecting what happens in Scotland might affect the debate, in terms of the additional access to care within a prison framework, such as access to items that may be necessary to relieve gender dysphoria and facilitate gender expression such as chest binders and prosthetics. That may add to what the hon. Lady is discussing.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention.

Will the Minister confirm exactly when she estimates that the review that I mentioned will conclude? In answer to my urgent question last month, and in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), the prisons Minister confirmed that, although the Government do not currently hold data centrally on the number of transgender people in prisons, they will start publishing them in future, and that they plan to introduce a self-assessment declaration at pre-sentence report stage. Does the Minister have a timetable for the introduction of those measures? Could she let us know what steps the Government are taking while the review is under way to ensure that recent tragedies are not repeated?

I want to finish with a brief point about the prison estate in general. We know that the right conditions need to be in place to allow prisoners the space to rehabilitate themselves and play a role in society. The outgoing prisons inspector’s latest report revealed that our prisons are in the worst state for 10 years. Overcrowding is up. Violence, against staff and prisoners, has increased, and self-harm and suicides are also up.

My noble Friend Lord Falconer has warned:

“Violent, under-staffed prisons will never be able to rehabilitate prisoners, challenge re-offending behaviour or protect victims of crime.”

That is especially true for trans prisoners.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) on securing the debate. She made some powerful and important observations in her speech, and I will be more than happy to look into any individual cases if she would be kind enough to forward them to me.

As the hon. Lady will understand, the care and management of transgender people in prison is not only a complex but a sensitive issue, which the Government and I take very seriously. As she knows, I hold not only a role in the Ministry of Justice, but the Women and Equalities portfolio. The subject therefore affects me in both roles.

We are committed to incorporating equality and diversity into everything we do and ensuring that we treat all offenders with decency and respect. Current policy and guidance on the care and management of prisoners who live or propose to live in a gender other than the one assigned at birth are set out in Prison Service Instruction 07/2011. The instruction states that all prisoners are normally placed according to their legally recognised gender. Legal gender is determined by the individual’s birth certificate or gender recognition certificate, if they have one. When someone has obtained a gender recognition certificate, they are entitled to a new birth certificate in their acquired gender. The guidelines allow some room for discretion, and senior prison staff will review the circumstances of each case in consultation with medical and other experts, in order to protect the physical and emotional wellbeing of the person concerned, along with the safety and wellbeing of other prisoners.

The prison estate, and the intervention and support it provides to all offenders, is highly complex. Offenders are more likely to suffer poor mental health, to have issues with substance misuse, or perhaps to have suffered domestic abuse or sexual violence than the general population. All those considerations must be taken into account when we decide on the most appropriate place for an offender to receive the right care and rehabilitation.

As the House will appreciate, the circumstances of individual transgender prisoners vary widely. It is therefore right that NOMS should take a case-by-case approach that is informed by advice from the relevant professionals. Under current arrangements, prisons must produce a management care plan that outlines how the individual will be managed safely and decently within the prison environment. That plan will have oversight from psychologists, healthcare professionals, and prison staff.

Where a lack of clarity about the most appropriate location for a prisoner is associated with their gender identity, the instruction states that a multi-agency case conference must be convened. That will determine the best way forward consistent with the policy, taking into account the individual’s protection and wellbeing, as well as that of other prisoners, and any other risk factors that are of paramount importance.

As the hon. Lady will know, we have received a number of representations that express concern that the current system may not sufficiently address the needs of transgender prisoners. As has already been announced, NOMS is undertaking a review of the relevant prison service instruction to ensure that it is fit for purpose. That must provide an appropriate balance between respecting the needs of the individual, and the responsibility to manage risk and safeguard the wellbeing of all prisoners.

In cases where the care management plan has obviously failed, what action has been taken against those responsible?

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me I will come to that point soon, and I will be more than happy to communicate with him after the debate if I do not cover everything.

Last week I announced during Justice questions that that review will now be widened to consider what improvements we can make across prisons, probation services and youth justice services. The review will develop recommendations for revised guidelines that cover the future shape of prison and probation services for transgender prisoners and offenders in the community. It will be co-ordinated by a senior official from the Ministry of Justice, who will engage with relevant stakeholders—including from the trans community—to ensure that we provide staff in prisons and the probation service with the best possible guidance.

Has any consideration been given to those who identify as non-binary or non-gendered in that review and guidance?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. The terms of reference for the review have been published, and that refers back to the point made by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood about the evidence learned from experience in Scotland. The review will ask for evidence and submissions in the new year, and we want that to be an open and engaging process. Everything and anything will be taken into consideration at that point.

We want to ensure that we provide staff in prisons and probation with the best possible guidance. NOMS, the Youth Justice Board, the national health service and the Government Equalities Office have already started to provide the professional and operational expertise necessary to get this right. In addition, Peter Dawson and Dr Jay Stewart will act as independent advisers to the review. Peter Dawson is deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust and has served as deputy governor of HMP Brixton and governor of HMP Downview and HMP High Down. Dr Jay Stewart is a director of Gendered Intelligence, an organisation that aims to increase the understanding of gender diversity.

An aspect of the review to which the Government have given a firm commitment is defining how we can properly record the number of transgender prisoners and offenders in the community. There are a number of sensitivities associated with this, of which the hon. Lady, who has served on the Select Committee, will be aware. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 places constraints on the recording of information about individuals who have applied for or been issued with a gender recognition certificate. Individual prisons are of course aware of those prisoners in their care who live or propose to live in the gender other than the one assigned at birth, in order properly to provide a care management plan for them that is consistent with the policy guidelines.

NOMS is currently looking at ways to facilitate the recording of information relating to transgender status through the introduction of an equality self-declaration form—to which the hon. Lady referred—to be completed by all defendants as part of their pre-sentence report. As well as obtaining other equality-related information, the use of such a form as standard would enable us to monitor the amount of self-declared transgender individuals who have received a custodial or community sentence. The resourcing and operational impact of introducing the form is being looked at right now, and I hope we will have more news on that shortly.

There has recently been considerable media interest in a number of individual cases, the reporting of which has, sadly, been rather wide of the mark in some parts. As the House will appreciate, operational issues relating to the effective management of risk and the protection of offenders mean that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on individual cases. A key issue is the privacy of individual offenders and their families. An individual’s history of offending constitutes “sensitive personal data” for the purpose of the Data Protection Act 1988, as can information on their possible transgender status. Such information can therefore be released only when it is fair and lawful to do so. The threshold is high and requires a strong countervailing public interest for the information to be disclosed. Factors relevant to that assessment will include whether the individual has given their consent for the information to be released.

In addition, under section 22 of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, it is a criminal offence for someone who has acquired information in an official capacity—including civil servants, holders of public office and employers—to disclose information about a person’s application for a gender recognition certificate or where the certificate has been issued that discloses the person’s previous gender.

Section 22 of the Gender Recognition Act also defines any information relating to a person’s application for a gender recognition certificate or to a successful applicant’s gender history as “protected information”. In most instances, it is a strict liability offence to disclose protected information to any other person if the information has been acquired in an official capacity. The exemptions to when it is an offence to disclose protected information listed in section 22 are very tightly drawn to avoid abuse and protect individual privacy. If the hon. Lady has examples of where that has not been upheld, I would be keen to know about it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) raised the death of his constituent. I have explained why there are limits to what I can say about individual cases. None the less, I wish to place it on public record that both myself in a personal capacity and the Government consider each self-inflicted death in custody a tragedy. We are committed to reducing the number of deaths in prisons, and every death is the subject of investigations by the police and the independent Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, as well as a coroner’s inquest. The safety and well-being of all prisoners in our care is of the highest priority.

I am mindful of the wide-ranging evidence put to the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into transgender equality. It has taken some fascinating and really valuable evidence and I very much look forward to hearing its recommendations in due course.

I wish to reassure the hon. Lady of my utmost commitment to the care and management of transgender prisoners. The planned review will allow us the opportunity to focus on their needs and their well-being against the backdrop of social reform, and as part of our wider investment in the rehabilitation of all prisoners in our care.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving us the opportunity to debate this very important subject and look forward to discussing it further with her in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.