This year I was planning to talk about why we mark the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (“TDoR”), and why it’s still important to the trans community but events have made that less necessary. This year we have a very high-profile and very easily avoided death just one day before TDoR and questions raised in Parliament as a result of that death.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance is the day when we remember all the trans people who have been murdered, driven to suicide or who have died in some other way because of anti-transgender actions, including hate crimes, bigotry and simple, old-fashioned institutional transphobia. It’s the latter that has caused this latest death.
Vicky Thompson was 21 years old when she killed herself in HM Prison Leeds, a male prison she had been sent to after breaching the conditions on her suspended sentence. That last part is for the most part irrelevant except as a background to why she was put into the situation where she ended up taking her own life.
She was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, and remanded to HMP Leeds. HMP Leeds is a Category B prison, the second-highest category of prison in the UK. It is where violent criminals (although not the most violent) are housed while they serve their sentences. It’s also a male prison, but Vicky was remanded there nevertheless.
This is the second time in a month that a woman has been remanded to a male prison because of her birth gender. Under the current rules for prisons (as laid out by Andrew Selous MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice who answered today’s questions in the House of Commons regarding Vicky’s death) anyone who doesn’t have a Gender Recognition Certificate will be sent to a prison corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate.
This is not actually what is supposed to happen. Prison Guidelines actually state that there is room for discretion, and that’s how the details of where a transgender prisoner is supposed to be housed are sorted out. Vicky had lived as female since she was a teenager and she was very clearly presenting as female. Tara Hudson, the woman who was only moved to a female prison after a media uproar, was in the same situation. Both were sent to a male prison despite the clear guidelines that their cases had to be assessed and a decision made on whether to house them in a female prison or not.
Both of these women apparently do – or, in Vicky’s case, did – not hold a Gender Recognition Certificate (“GRC”). This is not surprising, given that Labour removed most of the reasons to have one when they attacked trans rights in the so-called Equality Act 2010. A GRC is an expensive piece of paper that does nothing but allow you to amend your birth certificate to show your acquired sex. That’s it, nothing more. It requires a mount of paperwork and a lot of money to get this piece of paper and therein lies the problem.
Many trans people are poor. We are routinely discriminated against in education, housing and employment. As a result, many of us are poor and many of us find ourselves turning to sex work or other illegal means of making a living, simply out of desperation. If you see a trans person on TV, or in politics, or simply holding down a minimum wage job, you’re seeing one of the lucky ones. We are the exception to the rule. We are the ones who can afford a GRC but you’d can be damn sure that the majority cannot.
So it’s no wonder that trans women are being thrown into men’s prisons – the trans people who go to jail are usually the ones who have been kicked and beaten down by the transphobia that is so rife in our society that they’ve been forced into desperate means just to get by. That’s not always the case of course – some trans people are just pricks (there are arseholes in every community, after all) and some drink too much and get into fights – but in many situations, it is.
When they get to prison, they find that the useless piece of paper they couldn’t afford even if they wanted one (or knew about them. How many people without a trans friend/family member knew Gender Recognition Certificates existed?) is the one thing that could have saved them from being locked into a building where they will suffer sexual abuse 24 hours a day if they are let into the general population; so they’ll be locked in solitary confinement (or with “trusted” prisoners, who really can’t be trusted) “for their protection”.
The Prison System has the means to stop these women from being subjected to this inhuman and degrading treatment, and it’s not using it. This is institutional transphobia. Either the people in charge of the prisons are incompetent, or they don’t care. Neither of these is good for our prisons.
Prisons are there not just to punish people but to rehabilitate them so they won’t reoffend when they are released. You can’t rehabilitate someone who is subjected to sexual abuse every hour of every day they are incarcerated, and who will come out of jail scarred for life, if they ever come out at all. You can’t rehabilitate someone who is dead.
We need a fundamental overhaul of how the prisons service deals with trans prisoners and it needs to begin with a clear change of the rules so that we presume a prisoner is to be housed in a prison corresponding to the gender they present as, unless evidence is provided to the contrary. Not only would this make prison safer for trans people but it would also be more cost-effective.
After all, moving a prisoner once they are locked up is expensive, and a coroner’s inquiry is even more costly.
This year, the roll of the dead for TDoR is the longest in recorded history. The world is not getting any easier for trans people and public awareness of us is making the existing transphobia in our institutions and our society even worse. I want to see a year when TDoR marks no new deaths and if we are to reach that goal, we need to start making changes in how we deal with trans people in all walks of life.
Sorting out the fundamental problems of the prisons service is not hard. It doesn’t require massive changes, just common sense changes. It not expensive; in fact it saves money. There is no good reason not to make these changes.
So let’s do it, and let’s make Vicky’s death the last suicide of a trans person in a British prison because of this stupid, easily avoided decision to house a woman in a building full of men.