How can a transgender woman end up in an all-male prison?

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In the first week of January a transgender woman was found dead in an all-male prison, marking the third suicide by a transgender prisoner in just over one year in the UK.

In 2015, two transgender women, Joanne Latham and Vicky Thompson were found dead in men’s prisons within one month.

Prison suicides, however, are nothing new. In fact they are steadily increasing in number; approximately six occur every month in the UK alone. What has changed lately, though, is the type of demographic most at risk of suicide. A few years ago, for example, there was significant coverage of a number of imprisoned men whose mental health problems should have – in the opinion of doctors and the prisoners themselves – exempted them from the hardships of a life in prison; they would have been better off in hospitals.

One such example is that of Steven Davison, 21, who, according to a Guardian article published in October 2014, was sent to prison for possessing an offensive weapon. He suffered from a “serious personality disorder” and began to self-medicate in order to cope with his schizophrenia. He self-harmed twice in the few weeks prior to his death. Prison staff failed to tell his family about either incident. His mother received a call from Steven. She told the Guardian, “He just seemed really down.” Steven was found dead on the following morning, in part owing to several missed opportunities to save him.

His story and others are indicative of a national prison crisis. There is no doubt much to be done about the problem of male mental health, both in prisons and in wider society. The headlines about male mental health and suicide help bring awareness and remove stigma, which is of course hugely encouraging.

But while the media was, and continues to be, effective in demonstrating the plight of mentally ill male inmates, issues surrounding prison conditions for women and members of the transgender community have been comparatively neglected, especially when we take into consideration the increasing regularity of such events.

The media’s emphasis on male suicides might seem logical, given most prison suicides are committed by males. But the narrow focus of the coverage implies that prison suicides occur disproportionately within the male demographic. This is misleading. While more male prisoners kill themselves annually than female prisoners, that’s because the vast majority of inmates are men. The Ministry of Justice published the Safety in Custody bulletin in July 2016, which states that 11 female prisoners had killed themselves the past year, an increase on previous years. Women are only 5% of the prison population, but are involved in 23% of all self-harm attempts.

Thus headlines focussing solely on the ‘male prison problem’ prevent light being shed on other groups who are similarly, if not more, vulnerable. Rhona Hotchkiss, the prison governor, stated that, “70% of the women suffer mental health problems in prisons, and only 20% have received mental health care in the community”, Eric Allison reported in the Guardian in November last year.

Transgender people are an especially vulnerable group. A transgender woman spoke of the “hell on earth” she endured after being raped and abused more than 2,000 times in an all-male prison, the Independent reported on 18th April 2016. Another prisoner cut off her long hair and she was prevented from taking hormones. Prior to her imprisonment, Mary, despite being approved hormone therapy, had not undergone gender reassignment. An earlier operation and she would have found herself in a female prison.

Jenny Swift killed herself on the 30th December 2016 after being put in a male prison. Swift’s friends claim that she was denied access to hormones. Jane Fae spoke in The Guardian last week about how “once a body adapts to a particular hormone regime coming down from it is akin to a mini-menopause.” Tragically, new guidelines were released only a matter of days after her death.

These guidelines state that the cases of transgender prisoners should be reviewed within three days of arrival at prisons to see how their wishes and needs can best be met.

Let’s hope that this marks a necessary turning point in our discussion, understanding and treatment of all prisoners, whose poor mental health puts them at risk. Prisons are badly letting them down.

Photograph by Kim Daram via Flickr and Creative Commons 

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