Fixing Prison Safety – the Real Issues

With the debate over trans prisoners in the spotlight, Lauren Davison argues we risk missing bigger issues in prisons that need to be tackled

As we all know, for the last few months, there has been a fixation from the media, commentariat and politicians (sadly from both the Labour Party and the Tories) on trans people. Following the latest use of a section 35 to block reform of gender recognition certificates in Scotland, the debate has taken another ridiculous twist. Prisons. 

Now, as a Criminologist, I spend much of my time begging Labour to sort out prisons in this country, and I wish the average person cared more about what happens to people when incarcerated. But this is not the kind of attention that is helpful to anyone - trans or otherwise. 

What has followed is a few rare cases of transgender sexual offenders, being used to create a moral panic about not just transgender prisoners, but the wider trans community as a whole. 

Latest figures show that out of 82,538 prisoners in England and Wales, only 230 are transgender. Therefore trans prisoners represent about 0.27% of the prison population. That actually means they are underrepresented in the prison population. 

So why the disproportionate media attention to this? It’s quite simple, actually. It’s straight from the playbook used during Section 28 - conflating a section of the LGBTQ+ community with criminality. Fear-mongering and relying on emotive cases to convey a wider point that trans people are somehow inherently predatory. 

If trans people are inherently predatory because a tiny % committed a sex crime, what does that make the cisgender population, when far more are guilty of the same?

This is not good faith concern about the safety of prisoners. Because if it were, these so called prison reformists would be shouting loudly about the 13 years of Tory austerity which have decimated the living conditions in our prisons. They’d be talking about the fact that women are sent to prison pregnant, where they receive inadequate natal care, and in some cases have lost their babies. 

They would be outraged that offenders (mostly women due to the smaller numbers of women prisons) are being kept 100s of miles away from their families, children and support networks. 

They’d be talking about the unacceptable levels of self-harm, suicides, and deaths in custody. They’d definitely be talking about the rates of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults (across a population which is mostly cisgender). But yet they aren’t. 

It goes without saying - someone with a history of sexual offences against a specific demographic shouldn’t then be housed with them, giving them easy access to reoffend. But that should ring true whatever the gender identity of an offender. Whether a cis woman who has offended against women, or a cis man offending against other men. This is a conversation about how we house ALL sexual offenders with a specific modus operandi. Not about the gender identity of those involved. It’s a question of logistics, and safeguarding all offenders - not cherrypicking to suit an agenda. 

Sexual assaults in prisons are insufficiently researched and understood, but from the limited data available, we know that assaults happen most commonly in-cell. This leads me to believe that there needs to be a more robust policy in place to prevent sexual offenders from being housed in cells with others, and potentially calls for more wings that allow for the occupation of sexual offenders in single cells. Rather than allowing them to reside with others who may be at higher risk. It’s worth remembering that offenders can also be victims - so there’s nothing to suggest allowing sexual offenders to share a cell mitigates risk. How this works in practice whilst not impinging upon chances of rehabilitation (segregation makes it harder) is another story entirely. 

We know that those carrying them out tend to already be serving sentences for sexual offences. Many tend to occur when retrieving concealed contraband, such as drugs or mobile phones, as well as inappropriate touching and rape. Research carried out by the Home Office showed that 11% of assaults happened in womens’ prisons, even though only 4% of prisoners are women. Between 2010 and 2020, 122 sexual assaults were reported by women in prisons - only 5 were carried out by trans people. Cisgender women are demonstrably a higher risk to their fellow inmates. 

By honing in on only transgender offenders, we fail to protect the victims of cisgender sexual offenders who may be at risk - because we’re sidelining them, as some in society have an unhealthy preoccupation with trans people. 

In fact, the data shows us trans people are more likely to be attacked, than be the attackers. In 2019, 11 trans prisoners were sexually assaulted. This was in male prisons. 

We also risk peddling a narrative that only those assaulted by a trans person are worthy of compassion - if your attacker is cisgender, it’s not worthy of being dealt with. 

Speaking as a criminologist, my message is this: if you truly want to make prisons safer, particularly for women offenders who you claim to care so deeply about, I’ve just given you a list of prevalent, systemic issues to campaign on. Issues that have a far more detrimental impact on the lives of offenders than trans people. Whether you do so is entirely up to you, but don’t expect the rest of us to believe your concerns are anything more than an attempt to demonise trans people if you do not. 

Lauren is Womens' and Equalities Officer for the Young Fabians, and is a Labour activist and Criminologist in Stoke-on-Trent. She tweets at @LaurenD2212

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