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Scotland has learned nothing from the ‘Isla Bryson’ scandal

The new rules for Scottish prisons will still allow men to be housed in the women’s estate.

Jo Bartosch

Jo Bartosch

Topics Identity Politics Politics UK

When is it okay to house a male rapist in a women’s prison? To most right-thinking people, the answer would be ‘never’. But, according to the new transgender policy published by the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) this week, there are apparently some circumstances when this should be allowed.

It is currently the case in Scotland that most male lags who want to bunk up with the lassies need only slip on some lippy and declare themselves transgender. But from February next year, under the new SPS rules, he will also have to satisfy prison staff that there is ‘compelling evidence’ that he doesn’t pose an ‘unacceptable risk of harm’ to female inmates. What might be considered an ‘acceptable risk’ is not defined by the new policy, but the implication is clear: the rights and needs of female inmates are simply collateral damage in the crusade for ‘trans inclusion’.

The latest figures for Scotland show that, from January to March this year, there were 23 Scottish prisoners who identify as trans. This includes 19 men who identify as women, seven of whom were in a women’s prison, and four women who identify as men, although only one of these women was in a male prison. Curiously, many male offenders only seem to succumb to the siren call of their transwoman identity when they are about to stand in the dock.

The previous prisons guidance was already under review when, in January this year, the snarling, tattooed face of double rapist Adam Graham (aka Isla Bryson) hit the papers. By donning a blonde wig, fake breasts and a pink dress, he convinced the authorities to treat him as a woman throughout the court proceedings. After initially being remanded in a women’s prison, Graham was moved to a male prison after a public outcry. The scandal even precipitated the downfall of then first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The SPS then introduced an interim policy banning male prisoners with a history of violence from being housed in the women’s estate. This week’s new, updated guidance partly upholds this rule, but it also says there could be ‘exceptional circumstances’ when violent trans-identifying men like Graham should be allowed into women’s prisons.

When announcing the new policy, Teresa Medhurst, chief executive of the SPS, offered no apology for placing Graham in the female estate, despite the obvious risk he posed to inmates. Nor did she give any assurance that such a case would not happen again. Instead, she told the BBC that the new ‘individualised’ policy would ensure all prisoners would be ‘treated with dignity and respect, with their rights upheld, and any risks carefully managed’. She also claimed she was confident it would address public concerns surrounding trans prisoners.

Rhona Hotchkiss, former governor of women’s prison HMP Cornton Vale, where Bryson was briefly housed, is one of many to have spoken out against the new policy. ‘[The SPS has] tried to write a policy that takes into account the Isla Brysons of the world, but it is fundamentally uninformed when it comes to recognising the risks men pose to women in prison’, she told the BBC. ‘We’re talking about women who have lifetimes of abuse behind them, and their very reaction to a person they know to be male in close living space is one of re-traumatisation.’ In other words, far from treating all prisoners ‘with dignity and respect’, the SPS policy throws women under the bus.

Men and women tend to find themselves banged up for different reasons. Overall, 72 per cent of female prisoners have been sentenced for non-violent crimes. You don’t have to be a bleeding-heart Guardian reader to recognise that women inmates are often not only perpetrators of crime, but also victims of crime. Research shows over 50 per cent of female prisoners say they have experienced some form of abuse as a child and almost 60 per cent report experiencing domestic violence. As in the male estate, addiction is common in women’s prisons, though women in prison are seven times more likely to self-harm than men.

Ultimately, whatever their sex, prisoners aren’t always a cuddly or sympathetic bunch. But no matter what crime they have committed, women ought not to be locked up with men, regardless of whether those men wear wigs or call themselves Sandra. For over a hundred years, since HMP Prison Holloway in London became a female-only site in 1903, the need to separate prisoners by sex has been widely understood. But in today’s Scotland women in prison are being used as human shields by the state to ward off accusations of transphobia. With the stroke of a pen, the SPS has undone over a century of progress and has put vulnerable women at an unforgivable risk.

Jo Bartosch is a journalist campaigning for the rights of women and girls.

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Identity Politics Politics UK

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