Are transgender prison wings the answer?

Actions still speak louder than words. While I may claim that I am not a threat to women personally, it would be a courageous move for the prison service to arrange accommodation according to what offenders claims about themselves.

The management of offenders is difficult at the best of times, but Prison Service policy has been severely tested by the growing number of transgender-identified prisoners. The recent announcement by the Ministry of Justice that they had opened a transgender wing at HMP Downview marked a major change of direction.

A new approach was certainly necessary. The 2016 guidelines – influenced by transgender advocacy group Gendered Intelligence – failed spectacularly when a rapist called Karen White was accommodated in the female estate at HMP New Hall. The consequences were sadly all too predictable: two women inmates were sexually assaulted before White was transferred to a male prison.

A presumably hasty review led to the creation of a transgender wing at HMP Downview, a women’s prison. This is a superficially attractive solution. Transgender women continue to be located in the female estate – assuaging the concerns of transgender campaigners who claim that these people are women – but separate from the main population.

However, as a transwoman, I have serious doubts. Prisons are dangerous places for everyone, but transwomen – males who prefer to be treated in the same way as females – pose a particular headache for the authorities.

In the male population we are at risk from men who see us as an affront to masculinity; in the female population we pose a risk to women. But if people like White are too dangerous to be put with women, perhaps they’re too dangerous for me also, should we be housed together in a transgender wing.

The simple answer is not to get sent to prison, and that is one of my aims in life. Good intentions, however, are sometimes not enough. A momentary lapse of concentration on the motorway can lead to disastrous consequences and ultimately to a custodial sentence.

Should that happen, I would prefer to be accommodated within the female estate. I identify with women, my hormone levels are in the female range and my sex characteristics look female.

That used to be sufficient. As long ago as 1989, Stephanie Booth – a notable transsexual and the founder of the Transformation business – was held at Askham Grange Women’s Prison after being convicted for dealing in pornography.

However, times have changed and feelings and opinions are now in the ascendency. In a society that believes a woman can have a penis, why should such a person be incarcerated with men? But after the Karen White fiasco, it is clearly not a good idea to hold them with women either. One of the reports that emerged from New Hall prison described White’s penis, “sticking out of the top of her pants, covered by her tights.”

Such accounts leave me very reluctant to agree to be held with people like White. Indeed, the overall profile of transgender inmates is a major cause of concern: 48 per cent were incarcerated for sex offences, compared to 19 per cent of the male prison population as a whole. When it comes to offending patterns at least, it seems that transgender women are not at all like women – who account for only 2.2 per cent of sexual offences reported to the police. No wonder the prison service has a problem.

But my concerns extend beyond my prospective neighbours. Although the numbers of transgender-identified prisoners has risen in recent years, it remains small: in 2018 there were 125 from a total prison populations of 85,513 in England and Wales. Economics always being an issue, the nearest transgender wing may be far from home and in a higher security category than would otherwise be necessary.

Given the choice between a transgender unit and a low security male prison close to home, I would be tempted to take the latter option, especially if a risk assessment specified a single cell and separate toilet and washing facilities. I would prefer to be assessed according to my risk profile than my transgender status.

New and robust policy is needed in order to provide a basis for decisions to be made, and it needs to be based on more than feelings. It is not even satisfactory to rely on legal gender.  Under the present Gender Recognition Act, legal gender can be changed on the basis of conversations with two medical practitioners. Government proposals seek to abandon even those safeguards, so that a male person would be recognised legally as a female person purely on the basis of how they feel about themselves.

Actions, however, still speak louder than words. While I may claim that I am not a threat to women personally, it would be a courageous move for the prison service to arrange accommodation according to what offenders claims about themselves. Prisons are segregated according to biological sex for good reasons, and feelings are a poor reason for breaking that policy.

My request to be housed in the female estate would be based on my sex characteristics. Flesh and blood is more important than feelings – or even legal paperwork – when housing prisoners. However, should that request be denied, I would not want to be assigned with sex offenders to a high security unit and possibly a long way from home.

In my case, being housed with men might be the least worst option.

Debbie Hayton

* This article was first published by The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies on 27 March 2019: Are transgender prison wings the answer?

By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

10 replies on “Are transgender prison wings the answer?”

There is a debate to be had about the housing of trans prisoners. But, I believe that debate needs to be focused more towards an individual prisoners offending patterns and history as oppose to defining them by the actions of outliers from their group.

I hear you say, they aren’t outliers, they are the 48%. However, your 48% figure doesn’t stand up to scrutinity. At least not if it was taken from the flawed BBC report that has often been misrepresented for political advantage. That it was taken from a study that only counted prisoners who were serving long sentences meant the figure was suspect from the start. I put it to you that the proportion of folk either trans or otherwise that are serving long sentences is likely to contain a higher proportion of violent and sexual offenders than if the prison population were counted as a whole. It is highly likely that most trans folk who are incarcerated are currently serving short sentences for crimes associated with socioeconomic disadvantage as is a high proportion of the prison population as a whole. As a result, along with any trans prisoners holding a GRC they weren’t counted in the study.

To use that figure which even the BBC’s own report claimed was unlikely to be an accurate reflection of the status quo with regards to trans offending is both misleading and in my personal opinion an underhand attempt to suggest a correlation between being trans with sex offending. A rather reckless thing to do in times of an emboldened right wing but, sadly something that really doesn’t surprise me. On the face of it, it seems to provide support for it just being too dangerous and uncertain a quantity to allow trans folk any leaway in progressing their rights. But, scratch the surface and the 48% figure doesn’t stand up to real scrutinity.

I shouldn’t be surprised at the ‘I am safe but I’m not sure about the others’ tone of the piece I suppose and I’d be sad to see anything else. Consistency is sometimes admirable, even if I’m leant to thinking some of it is nonsense. Happily spending time away from this toxic debate has reminded me that trans folk are going about their daily lives pretty much as before and society as a whole aren’t in large numbers being turned against them.

Trans folk on the whole will have their fair share of miscreants but, you’ve a long way to go before you will confidently convince me that their share is proportionally any greater than any other section of society. Unfortunately though, negatively judging or at least trying to judge or incite that negative judgement upon a section of society based on its outliers is ashamedly something that easily lends it’s self to the human psyche and obsession with what isn’t common being wrong. These judgements today in 2019 still appear to be reserved for minorities be they trans, Muslim or black I’m no advocate of sex offenders being housed with those they may pray on and firmly believe in robust, individual risk assessments to ensure safety. In this case the judgement I suspect you’re hoping for is based on the ‘48%’ figure. Pe sonar and professional experience leads me to suspect that the figure as a headline, doesn’t have the firmest of foundations.


Thank you Lucy for such a detailed response. I wonder if you might develop this into a piece you could pitch to the CCJS or other publishers? We need to hear different voices to get this right.


Firstly, I’d like to say that the safety of female prisoners should be the driving factor in prison policy. I think to get it right, it is important to look at individual issues. In the case of prisons, for me, it boils down to common sense. If we are to place sex offenders amongst a population of folk who are vulnerable to them, for example in the case of Karen White we are asking for trouble and the inevitable consequence was played out. However, she didn’t offend because she is trans and to suggest all trans prisoners are a potential risk is in my opinion an over simplification.

I don’t believe the answer lies in segregation for all trans prisoners based on a ‘just in case’ mantra nor do I believe in a liberal policy of the kind that led to the Karen White case. If we accept the segregating of prisoners based only on their diagnosed medical condition then there is surely a risk that what may follow is wider segregation in society. We still live in a society where many see us less than human. When I see young trans folk, many whom have known nothing of a dare I say it typical socialization in accordance with their biological sex I’m not overly comfortable with what segregation would mean for them. I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable with young trans people in the mould of Jazz Jennings being outed and segregated after a minor criminal conviction. Some of the horror stories I’ve read with regards to the treatment of trans prisoners in the US drive my thoughts on this.

Essentially, I’d like to see a more robust individual risk assessment process. This would include the question of has the prisoner ever been convicted of a sexual offence along with a consideration of their personal circumstances. The process clearly failed in the case of Karen White but, the mainly anti trans press in the clamour to use it to attack all trans folk let the prison service off the hook. If they have been convicted of a sexual offence then there is a reasoned argument for their segregation. If we are looking at a 22 year old trans girl who transitioned at a young age who has been convicted of a negligence based motoring offence then I think things are different. I’m a fan of folk being defined by their actions and not their anatomical presentation. But, to clarify I have no problem with segregating trans sex offenders to ensure the safety of women, ultimately that has to be paramount. With the numbers being so small, I just believe as I do with sports that there is another way to achieve safety and fairness on a case by case basis.

Ultimately, as a trans woman the answer for me personally is to do my best not to end up in prison. It’s easy to say that from my position of privilege with a reasonably paid job, caring partner who does his best to keep me on the straight and narrow and position of financial stability. I do though believe as a country we incarcerate too many people and we should really be looking to address the causes of crime in an effort to reduce offending but that is an argument for another day.


There is another problem with the 48% figure. Even inasmuch as it reflects something, it might not be “trans people do sex offences more”, but “trans people do other offences less” or “trans people get long custodial sentences for other offences less” (the figure does not include short sentences).

The first one might be a long shot but the second one appears reasonable.

A judge sees a trans woman who shoplifted. The judge sees an oppressed distressed person committing a crime of poverty, and is more inclined to give a non-custodial sentence.

But if a judge sees a trans woman who committed any sex-related offence (from violent assault down to “possession of extreme pornography”, which I do not believe should be an offence as long as the acts depicted are themselves legal), the “trans people are perverts” stereotype kicks in and a custodial sentence becomes more likely.


A friend who works in the sector tells me that the figure is much higher than 48% when other convictions were taken into account. The figures released by the FOI request indicated only the offence that led directly to the imprisonment. Anecdotal evidence suggests a group of troubled people with multiple paraphillas and personality disorders who then also identify as transgender.


I also do wonder. The UK, population 60m, has 125 trans prisoners. The Republic of Ireland, population 5.5m, does not have 10 trans prisoners as the proportions would indicate. It has none, and only had about one since self-ID was introduced in 2015.

I do wonder why there is such a big difference.


I also wonder. Personally I think we imprison far too many people in Great Britain. In some cases imprisonment is essential to protect the public from people who present an ongoing threat. But I’m not convinced by the arguments around deterrence and retribution.


Thank you Debbie for an informed, honest and searching investigation of this issue. I am a cisgender bisexual female and would like to tap into your wisdom and that of the others who have posted here. I am wondering if the possession of a penis is part of the problem? I shudder to even ask such a question as I know many wonderful people with penises who would never perpetrate a sex crime. Yet when I think of my friends with vaginas, whether cisgender or trans, I feel protective of them when I envision them being imprisoned with a person with a penis. I would like to think that genitals are not what is at issue here. But as a rape counselor I know all too well that most sexual assault is perpetrated by people with penises. That said, I would also like to highlight that as a sex worker rights activist I am also all too aware that transwomen are raped and murdered more than cisgender women. That is at least the facts as they apply to sex workers. Any comments are welcome. I am here to learn.


Thanks for your comments. Speaking for myself, I would not want to be imprisoned with a person with a penis, however they chose to identify, so I can empathise with the concerns of women. From a safeguarding perspective. I do not think “pre-op” or “non-op” transwomen should be incarcerated with women. “Post-op”, the risk is different and individual risk assessments may indicate that that the risk is tolerable. On your second point, I’m not sure that transwomen are raped and murdered more than women. Fairplay for Women would have the actual stats. However, both groups are at risk from male violence. And, sadly, that is all too acute in the sex industry.


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