The legal system needs to respect transgender prisoners

By Sophie Ellis

This week, a transgender woman has come forward about her shocking experiences in an all-male prison, revealing that she had been raped more than 2,000 times. Speaking to Australian press, the woman said that the worst of the abuse took place in Queensland’s Boggo Road prison during the nineties.

Mary (not her real name) was singled out as being ‘different’ in the four prisons she went to, consequently making her a vulnerable target amongst the male prisoners. According to Mary, she was subjected to sexual harassment within mere hours of her arrival at Boggo Road. She served four years in total for stealing a car, with the same experiences being repeated again and again.

Mary explained how: “You are basically set upon with conversations about being protected in return for sex. They are either trying to manipulate you or threaten you into some sort of sexual contact and then, once you perform the requested threat of sex, you are then an easy target as others want their share of sex with you, which is more like rape than consensual sex.” These attacks happened almost every day of her sentence, but should have been stopped from the very beginning.

In order to escape the abuse, Mary attempted to escape three times, leading her to be labelled as a high-risk prisoner. This also meant she would serve the rest of her time in maximum security with violent prisoners. Her escape attempts were only to escape the sexual assault. The underlying reasons of Mary’s attempts to escape were not understood by the prison, with their actions likely to escalate the situation even more.

“It was rape and yes I was flogged and bashed to the point where I knew I had to do it in order to survive, but survival was basically for other prisoners’ pleasure,” she said.“Each time I said no and tried to push them away, they just force you and it’s not just one or two people, there’s a bunch of them”.

Mary was a pre-operative transsexual, meaning that she did not have the legal right to stay in a women’s prison, as a post-operative male-to-female transsexual would. Statistically, she would have been far safer in a female prison. Both the law and the prison system failed her. She was also denied to continue her hormone therapy during her sentence. This would have caused distress on its own, but combined with Mary’s other experiences, what she endured is unimaginable.

It may be easy for some to dismiss this as a problem that existed decades ago, in a different system. However, the problem still prevails today. As recently as last year, Bristolian Tara Hudson was sent to a violent, all-male prison. Despite going through six years of gender reconstruction surgery and being declared a woman by her doctor, she is still a male on her birth certificate. This meant, by law, that she was not allowed to carry out her sentence, for a bar fight, in a female prison. A petition set up by her family quickly gained tens of thousands of signatures, with her eventually being moved to a female prison.

Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall, and LGBT equality charity, said: “The treatment of trans people in the prison service is one that needs careful review, and while it’s encouraging that the current Women and Equalities Select Committee inquiry is looking into this, something must be done now.” These cases are still happening today – it is clear that urgent improvements need to be made.

In response, a British Prison Service spokesperson commented: “It is longstanding policy to place offenders according to their legally recognised gender. There are strict rules in place to ensure transsexual prisoners are managed safely and in accordance with the law.”

Rules regarding the rights and treatment of transgender prisoners need to be revised. Changes regarding such prisoners will be a huge step forward in the LGBT community, as current laws are outdated and do not safeguard the wellbeing of vulnerable people in prison. Mary may have been deemed a criminal by the law, but that does not mean that she should have gone through any of the things that she experienced in prison. It should not happen to anybody. It is easy to villainise those who have committed crimes, but when instances such as these are allowed to happen repeatedly, are others really any better? Luckily, due to the media attention surrounding more contemporary cases, it seems that attitudes have changed through the decades. The law is often rigid and too objective: a person’s birth certificate or passport does not define them. The law should reflect that.

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