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Wisdom Wednesdays: The Challenges of Being Transgender in Prison

There are challenges for everyone in prison, but for trans people, they often face a lack of support, and struggle to maintain their gender identify.

16 June 2021

Current guidance on transgender prisoners going to gender-specific prisons

In 2016, the Ministry of Justice reviewed how transgender people are treated in prisons, producing new guidance: Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 17/2016 The Care and Management of Transgender Offenders. Some of the key points from the review included that trans people could “express the gender [they] identify with at the earliest opportunity” and have that respected.

To decide where trans people are placed in the prison estate, the PSI introduced multi-agency ‘Transgender Case Boards’. There are three types of Transgender Case Boards: Initial Local Transgender Case Board, Local Transgender Review Boards, and Complex Case Boards. The first board considers legal gender, evidence of living in the gender identified with, and all known risks. The Initial Board should also:

“form a local agreement for the initial care and management plan.”

The Local Transgender Review Board reviews these plans and addresses the concerns of the person imprisoned. If the case is complicated and the prison needs support in its decision, it can be referred to a Complex Case Board. This includes people outside the prison and can include the offender manager, a healthcare lead, and a Regional Lead Psychologist. The PSI says:

“the offender must be provided with an opportunity to participate in and/or make their views known to all Transgender Case Boards.”

What are some of the problems that trans people face in prisons?

Trans people can face many challenges in prisons including a lack of support, exclusion, and being discriminated against.

These challenges can stem from staff in prisons who don’t feel equipped to support transgender prisoners, possibly because of a lack of training, staff support, and resources. Staff can often be unaware of the issues that trans prisoners face such misgendering, complex family situations, high risk of homelessness, and abuse upon release. This can result in trans offenders feeling isolated and distrustful of the criminal justice system.

The challenges faced by transgender people in prison are highlighted by a service user in a male prison who was supported by one of Catch22’s Resettlement Caseworkers, Talya. She says:

“Transgender inmates are at risk from other prisoners and therefore it is the staff’s responsibility and duty of care to ensure her safety and to adapt their ways to fit her needs.”

The service user needed support with housing; this was her main concern as it needed to be LGBT+ friendly. She also felt isolated in her cell and needed access to education or library resources while studying towards a law degree. She found it difficult to get to know other inmates, was lacking confidence, and wasn’t feeling safe.

In an assessment interview, she requested the interview was conducted through her cell door as she was worried about sitting in the wing with other prisoners that she did not know. Tayla adapted the interview for the service user’s comfort and safety.

Talya followed up on the service users’ request for access to the library and educational resources, but due to COVID regulations, she couldn’t attend any classes or go to the library. Tayla knew this would be difficult for the service user who was dedicated to studying and was now in her cell alone with nothing to do. As this could be detrimental to her mental health, Talya provided legal case study exercises for her to do in her cell, as well as crossword puzzles and games, all of which helped distract her from ongoing isolation. For the housing situation, Talya made a referral to DePaul, the youth homelessness charity, and ensured the request was for a LGBTQ-friendly accommodation. Talya gave her regular updates to reassure her of the situation. Talya said:

“As her resettlement caseworker, I knew I had to provide as much support as she needed for her release.”

During their review, the service user stated that her mental health was better than it was at the beginning of her custodial sentence and that the in-cell resources helped keep her busy and distracted. Without Talya, the service user would have received less support and felt very lonely during her time in custody – both of which could have deeply affected her mental health.

How can prisons better support trans people?

There have been steps taken by the government to protect trans offenders, for example, all the trans offenders that go to HMP Leeds are kept on the vulnerable offenders’ wing and have their own cell to limit the risk of harassment or abuse by others.

To better support trans people in prison, there must be dedicated spaces and support for them. Additionally, supplying them with information on charities and support services in the community when they are released is essential as part of their resettlement.

Those who work in prisons can request support or training to feel better equipped to support those who are LGBT+. Along with this, it must be made clear to the staff why misgendering is harmful and undermines other people’s identities.


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