Listen to Sarah-Jane Baker's episode of the Crime and Consequence podcast: 'Transgender in the 21st century prison system'. Sarah-Jane Baker is an award-winning violinist, poet, artist, and author of Life Imprisonment: An unofficial guide and Transgender behind prison walls. She served 30 years of her life sentence, making her the world’s longest-serving transgender prisoner. In the episode she reads her essay from our recently published book Crime and Consequence: what should happen to people who commit crime?
Sarah-Jane's episode and fourteen others are available to listen here, or you can subscribe to Crime and Consequence wherever you get your podcasts.
Sarah-Jane's essay from Crime and Consequence:
Although the Ministry of Justice believes that the current transgender prison population is approximately 130, this number only reflects those prisoners who are confident enough to be openly transgender within a sometimes hostile prison environment.
My own extensive research uncovered a hidden transgender population in both male and female prisons that numbers almost 1200 with most admitting that they were too afraid to reveal their gender identity not only to other prisoners, but often their own families too.
Unfortunately, most openly transgender prisoners find themselves placed on vulnerable prisoner wings because their safety cannot be guaranteed if they are placed on ‘normal’ location. It is not just prisoners who frequently object to ‘living’ with us but some prison staff too. There are plans to open transgender wings within some female jails with one (half of the segregation unit) being in H.M.P. Downview in Sutton Surrey.
It would appear that ‘female to male’ transgender prisoners seem to encounter less transphobic violence in female prisons and choose to remain in the female estate instead of opting to male prisons to serve their sentences.
Before 2011, we were not allowed to be openly transgender within ‘macho’ male prisons and we would find ourselves hidden away on prison hospital wings or in segregation units. Since 2011 and the introduction of a Prison Service Order to ‘manage’ us, hypothetically, we were legally allowed to dress ‘in role’ which is a standard requirement of Gender Identity Clinics for those of us on the NHS Pathway.
Although our prisons have undoubtedly become more enlightened in recent years regarding the diversity of their prisoners, many transgender prisoners are still demonized, suffer from sexual abuse, receive transphobic comments and are sometimes seen as making a ‘lifestyle choice’. Some prison staff and prisoners, through no fault of their own, are ignorant or uninformed as to what it means to be transgender. The right-wing media outlets still make fun of us, portraying us as weirdos, deviants and a threat to the ‘natural’ order of prison hierarchy.
To date, three transgender prisoners are acknowledged by The Ministry of Justice to have committed suicide because of transphobic attacks from other prisoners and bigoted treatment from prison officers.
However, on a more positive note, the emotional support and kindness that I have received from the majority of prison staff and prisoners during my many years behind prison bars has been invaluable in reinforcing my faith in human nature. Being transgender in prison has not only been frightening on many occasions when I have been raped, stabbed, slashed with razor blades and scalded with boiling water mixed with sugar, it has often been spiritually uplifting and very funny at times. A good sense of humour is essential if you choose to wear a frock, make-up and heels in an oppressive prison environment where violence, fear and
hated is often an accepted norm. Love your life, love others and be kind to yourselves.
I would suggest that the process used to assess and place transgender prisoners within the British jails is, in theory, adequate – although a more hands-on input from gender identity specialists would be welcomed. The complex case boards are currently available to extensively examine the cases of transgender prisoners whose risk to the public was so high that they could not be managed in the community.
Unfortunately, a complex case board can only make a recommendation as to the allocation of a prisoner. A trans woman seeking a transfer to the female estate would need the approval of the Head of female prisons. Recently, because of sexual assaults/inappropriate behaviour by trans women transferred to female prisons, it is very difficult for any more of these transfers to take place, although at present we are offered the opportunity to be transferred to transgender wings in one female prison, HMP Downview.
However, there has been much opposition to placing trans women in female segregation units that have been split in half to make an extra ‘transgender wing’ where trans women must ‘live’ – although they will have access to many facilities used by genetic female prisoners e.g. gym, education, workshops, library etc. To date, outside HMP Downview, there have already been two public protests by placard carrying trans-exclusionary radical feminist groups who feel that ‘men pretending to me women’ are being allowed to infiltrate women’s safe spaces.
I fear that for many years to come the treatment of trans prisoners will continue to be both a political hot potato and a moral and ethical minefield.