In what women’s rights campaigners are celebrating as a modern victory for women’s human rights, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice has announced that male inmates who are serving time in women’s prisons will be moved to men’s prisons.
Under a 2017 policy issued by the UK Ministry of Justice, inmates were granted the right to “self-identify” and be treated “according to the gender in which they identify,” if they express “a consistent desire to live permanently in the gender they identify with.”
139 men who identify as women are currently in UK prisons. The number of men who profess to be transgender women climbed 70% the year the policy was issued. Approximately half of male transgender inmates in the UK are convicted sex offenders, MOJ figures show.
Just over four percent of UK prison inmates are biologically female, with the majority of female inmates serving time on non-violent and non-sexual convictions.
Since the policy was implemented and male transgender inmates began to be transferred to women’s prisons, there have been reported incidents of male transgender inmates sexually attacking female inmates, including Jessica Winfield, formerly known as Martin Ponting, and Karen White, previously named Stephen Thomas.
Both men had a history of sexual violence, although Mr White’s history was unknown prior to his placement in a women’s prison. Mr Winfield, a father of three, had been sentenced to life in prison for the rape of two under-age girls. He had to be placed in isolation following complaints by female inmates that he had sexually attacked them. Mr White’s history of repeatedly and violently raping a woman who was under psychiatric care and drugging and raping a pregnant woman did not come to light until after Mr White was found to have sexually assaulted and sexually harassed female inmates. Prior to his incarceration, Mr White had a record of indecent acts against two schoolboys, one nine and the other 12, and a record of domestic violence against his female partner, his own son, and his then-partner’s daughter.
Justice minister Ed Argar declared in the House of Commons on February 5:
We take the Karen White case very seriously. In the light of that, we are reviewing both the content of prison service instruction 17/2016, which sets the policy on these questions, and its application. New guidelines will be published shortly, to ensure that it continues to strike the right balance between ensuring that all female prisoners are kept safe, that transgender prisoners have their rights respected and that we comply with our legal obligations under statute.
Several high-risk male prisoners have already been relocated to men’s prisons under these new guidelines.
One proposal the Ministry of Justice is considering is to move men who identify as transgender into special wings or sections of wings. This decision could maintain the safety and privacy of women and of male inmates who identify as transgender women, and meet the unique needs of both populations.
In a statement from the Ministry of Justice, a spokesperson announced:
The management of transgender prisoners, who all have different circumstances and pose very different levels of risk, is a highly sensitive issue which poses unique and complex challenges.
We are carefully reviewing our policy in this area so that it strikes the right balance between protecting transgender prisoners and their rights, and the safety and well-being of all prisoners, including some extremely vulnerable women.
We saw in the Karen White case the severe consequences of getting this balance wrong, and as a result of that case, we made the difficult decision to move a small number of transgender women back into the male estate where the risk they pose can be more safely managed.
Despite the Ministry of Justice’s aim of protecting the rights of both the female and transgender populations, transgender activists are up in arms, indicating that the validation male transgender inmates feel in their sense of gender while in women’s presence supersedes all other rights and concerns.
Women’s rights activists are cheering the decision, seeing a ray of hope in the modern battle for the human rights of women and girls. Some of the activists are already advocating further progress on this front. “This has a significance beyond prisons – it’s an admission that allowing males to self-identify as women and letting them into women’s space is dangerous.” Nicola Williams of Fair Play for Women told The Times.
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Transgender inmates could soon get prison wings of their own after the prison service received several complaints from female inmates. The Ministry of Justice has announced plans to change the system after complaints trans prisoners should not serve time alongside those born female.
The Prison Service is to stop many transgender inmates, including sex offenders, serving their sentences in women’s prisons. The justice minister Ed Argar said the government was “revising” guidelines that said the “great majority” of trans prisoners should be allowed to “experience the system in the gender in which they identify”.