HMP Belmarsh prison in southeast London. Picture credit: HOLLIE ADAMS/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Prisons must be single-sex spaces

The House of Lords has failed to pass an amendment to ensure female prisoners’ safety

Imagine a couple of prisoners. One is a single mother, serving a short sentence for shoplifting. Like many female prisoners, she has a history of domestic abuse and self-harm, and is desperately anxious about being separated from her young children. The other is a convicted of sex offender who has recently started to “identify” as a woman. He has asked to be transferred to a women’s prison, even though he still has male genitals, and his request has been granted. 

The tiny female prison population differs radically from the male estate

You might think it takes a species of tunnel vision to assert that the sex offender’s welfare takes precedence over that of the female prisoner. You might think that women in prison should not be expected to risk assault by men who are gaming the criminal justice system by claiming to be trans, or to provide a gender validation service to men with dysphoria. You might even think that none of this should have happened without public debate and a full assessment of the impact of the de facto abolition of women’s prisons — for that is what it amounts to — on female inmates.

You would be wrong. The controversial policy has been in place since 2016, although it was not widely known about until the egregious case of “Karen White” (of whom more later) made headlines. On Monday, peers had a rare opportunity to restore common sense and fairness in prisons when a former Tory MP, Lord Blencathra, tabled an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill. It reiterated the long-established principle that prisons should be single-sex, and called for transgender prisoners who would be at risk in prisons that match their birth sex to be housed in separate units.

It is both the obvious and the fairest solution, but the amendment was condemned before it had even been debated in the House of Lords. “Segregation & isolation of prisoners based on prejudice,” tweeted Lord Paddick, the Lib Dem spokesperson on home affairs in the upper chamber. When women tried to engage him in debate, Paddick dismissed their concerns about the impact on female prisoners with breathtaking arrogance: “All prisoners are risk-assessed and placed into an appropriate prison. End of story.”

End of story? Tell that to the two female inmates assaulted by the aforementioned White, a trans-identified prisoner who was remanded to a women’s jail while he awaited trial for GBH, burglary and sexual offences against women. White later admitted both assaults and two rapes committed before he was remanded, and was given a life sentence. The case represents a complete breakdown of the supposedly watertight risk assessment process cited by Paddick, and it isn’t a one-off. A couple of years ago, the Ministry of Justice had to admit that male prisoners transferred to women’s prisons had been responsible for seven sex attacks. 

Men are responsible for 98 per cent of sex offences

The tiny female prison population, which makes up only five per cent of the total, differs radically from the male estate. Women are overwhelmingly incarcerated for non-violent crimes such as fraud, theft or failing to pay fines. They arrive in prison with higher levels of mental illness and physical disability, problems with drugs and alcohol, and anxieties about housing and children. They are more than twice as likely to self-harm and most have suffered domestic abuse. A study of female prisoners in Scotland, published in May last year, found that 66 per cent had suffered repeated head injuries for many years, usually as a result of domestic violence. They are among the most damaged and vulnerable women in the UK, in other words.

What they are not, or only very rarely, is sex offenders; men are responsible for 98 per cent of sex offences, according to the Ministry of Justice. When the two prison populations display such widely different patterns of offending, it is hard to see why members of the sex that commits the vast majority of sex crimes should be locked up with women who are principally victims of male violence. But peers who spoke against Blencathra’s amendment seemed far more concerned with the rights of trans-identified prisoners than the female inmates forced to share bathrooms with them.

Lord Hope talked about the “intense emotional problem that people who believe that they have been both into the wrong sex undergo”. A fellow cross-bench peer, Lord Paddick, generously announced that he was “very happy to stand up for womanhood and motherhood” but considered it would be “demeaning” to put prisoners who “happen to be born in the wrong sex” in separate units. Labour’s Lord Cashman claimed that the amendment “perpetrates the stereotype of trans women and trans men as sexual predators”. 

A Green peer, Baroness Jones, expressed her annoyance that “the majority of speakers have been male, and they have spoken against the amendment”. She said she supported her party’s policy that trans women are women but pointed out that “there are occasions when women in women’s prisons experience sexual predation by men who have falsely identified as trans”. To no avail: in the face of so much opposition, Lord Blencathra’s amendment was withdrawn, and the stealthy replacement of women’s prisons with mixed-sex establishments continues apace. 

 Some male-bodied prisoners may be genuinely trans but a striking number of defendants have begun to “identify” as women only after being arrested and charged with violent offences. How is a woman who has experienced repeated domestic violence to know the difference when a prisoner with male genitals appears in the showers? It is hard to think of a riskier experiment than forcing vulnerable women to share facilities with convicted sex offenders who, uniquely, still have access to their weapon.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover