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  • The women's prison HMP Downview will soon be the first in the United Kingdom to host a transgender wing segregated from the rest of the facility.

    The women's prison HMP Downview will soon be the first in the United Kingdom to host a transgender wing segregated from the rest of the facility. | Photo: Reuters

Published 5 March 2019
Opinion

"We are clear that the safety of all prisoners must be our absolute priority,” A Prison Service spokesperson said.

The first transgender unit in a United Kingdom prison will open this week at a British women's jail, the country's Ministry of Justice says.

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Three prisoners born male but who changed gender will be sent to the new wing in Surrey, England’s HMP Downview Prison and will be completely segregated from inmates from other units.

The measure follows government reviews and the prosecution of a transgender inmate who sexually assaulted two other prisoners in a female detention center in West Yorkshire in 2017. The Ministry of Justice said the move was not part of a wider policy for transgender offenders, but more to manage the "unique risks" posed by the three prisoners involved.

It said it would continually monitor the situation and any further relocations would be considered by a transgender case board chaired by senior staff from Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service. However, a transgender case board is where the 2017 case -- which is now informing prison segregation of transgender inmates -- slipped through the cracks.

In a rare instance, convicted sex offender Karen White, who self-identified as a transgender woman though was legally a man and had not transitioned at the time, assaulted two inmates at a women’s prison where she was sent for a life sentence. White has a rap sheet documenting aggravated assault, pedophilia, and violent sex crimes including drugging and raping a woman who was 2-months pregnant.

Chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, said grave mistakes were made in White’s case and women’s safety should be paramount.

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The placement of prisoners like White is decided first by a local transgender case board within three days of someone being taken into custody. If their decision is challenged, a local review board reviews the evidence. From there, if there’s still controversy, a “complex case board” is formed to handle certain cases, Jenny-Anne Bishop of the transgender rights group Transforum told The Guardian.

White’s assignment to a women’s prison passed the first board despite overwhelming evidence of high risk and sexual violence.  

A Prison Service spokesperson said after the incident, “We apologize sincerely for the mistakes which were made in this case. While we work to manage all prisoners, including those who are transgender, sensitively and in line with the law, we are clear that the safety of all prisoners must be our absolute priority.”

According to a 2018 report by the U.K. Ministry of Justice, there are 139 transgender prisoners across Scotland, England, and Wales. Policies for the protection of transgender inmates came into effect in the U.K. in January 2017 emphasizing the rights of prisoners to “self-identify” and be treated “according to the gender in which they identify,” The Guardian reported.

Previously, affected prisoners would have needed to provide a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) or a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria. More commonly, transgender inmates in male prisons are at higher risk of suicide and becoming targets of violence during their sentence.

In 2015, 21-year-old Vicky Thompson, a transgender woman sent to a male prison, committed suicide in her cell after telling prison and court staff that she was at risk in that environment. Her death came before the new policies were implemented.

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