In April 2012, I began a new job working for the Howard League for Penal Reform. In my first week, I attended the launch of the report of the Commission on Women Offenders, led by Dame Elish Angiolini. The report was hailed as a watershed moment for the way in which we treat women who become caught up in the criminal justice system in Scotland. Although, in truth, there had been studies and reports beforehand that had reached the same conclusions, not least following a spate of suicides in the prison we are standing beside today.
The conclusion of the report was that women in prison in Scotland, for the most part, were more troubled than troubling. Most had histories of sexual abuse and domestic violence, with low levels of educational achievement and lives blighted by poverty. In short, it could be said that they are some of the most marginalised women in our society.
The Scottish Government agreed that in Scotland we imprison too many of these women and their needs would be better met by investing in services in the community.
In the wake of the Angiolini report, it was proposed that Cornton Vale be closed and a smaller prison built in its place, with the aim that it would hold far fewer women.
The buzzwords then were about what are called ‘trauma-informed’ services and care. That is to say, a recognition that the cohort of women who end up in prison have invariably experienced trauma of a physical and sexual nature, usually at the hands of men. These women become hyperviligant and display a well-evidenced array of responses to the presence of anyone who is male.
Almost exactly two years after the Angiolini report was published, in 2014, the Scottish Prison Service published its policy for the management of transgender prisoners. The presumption underlying the policy was that any male prisoner who self-identified as a woman should be accommodated in the female prison estate and that female prison officers were expected to perform intimate body searches on male prisoners who self-identified as women.
I recall receiving occasional calls from the press about this policy for the ensuing few years that I worked at the Howard League. It seemed as incredible to me then as it is to me now.
By 2018, I had left that role but remained troubled by the policy and decided to investigate how it had come to be. In the summer of 2018, I submitted a freedom of information request to the Scottish Prison Service to ask for the equality impact assessment that had been carried out on the policy prior to introduction.
When it came back, I was shocked. It was blatantly obvious that prison service managers had not taken into account the potential impact of the policy on female prisoners or even female prison officers. It had only considered the needs and interests of transgender prisoners.
My colleagues and I continued to research the genesis of the policy and, in a book published in 2018, the manager of the Scottish Trans Alliance – a group consulted on the development of the policy – admitted that they had “strategized” that if they could embed the principle of gender self-identification in prison policy, it would be easier for them to do so in other areas of public policy. Later a feminist researcher noticed that the metadata on the policy document revealed its author to be the manager of the same lobby group.
By the end of 2018, the Scottish Prison Service was stating that it intended to review the policy, and this was confirmed at various intervals by government ministers. That review remains ongoing.
The defence of this policy made by prison managers and government ministers is that the policy is managed on a ‘case by case’ basis. That they make judgments about the ‘risk’ posed by the transgender prisoner to other prisoners. But it’s very clear that when they talk about ‘risk’, they are talking narrowly about the potential risk of a physical or sexual assault. They are not talking about how the presence of someone male might impact upon group of vulnerable traumatised women, held in spaces from which they cannot escape.
Nowhere is there any sense in which those women’s psychological safety, or their privacy and dignity, is uppermost in the mind of the prison managers. So much for the hallowed talk of ‘trauma-informed’ care.
And in the Scottish Parliament, MSPs are gearing up to vote through a bill that will cement into law the principle that if a man says he is a woman, society should see and treat him as such. If the Gender Recognition Reform Bill passes, as is expected, what hope is there that the existing prison policy will be reversed?
There could be no better example of how little policymakers and lawmakers care about some of society’s most vulnerable women. This shames us all.