Over the summer, I had lunch with a female former offender, who had recently been released from prison. During her sentence, she had moved around the female estate and had been housed in several different women’s prisons. One of the things we talked about was her experience of being held with male prisoners who identify as transgender. For those who don’t know, male prisoners have been held in women’s prisons in England and Wales since at least the early 1980s.
Although the criteria that permit this have changed over the years, the common factor permitting this is that these male prisoners identify as women. Another common factor is that the legitimate needs of women in prison to single-sex spaces for what should be obvious reasons of privacy, dignity and safety have been repeatedly and consistently minimised and ignored. I wanted to ask her what it was like being a woman held in prisons that are mixed-sex.
I’ve been ‘doing’ prisons for a while now and although much of what she told me was not a surprise, it was still shocking and upsetting. She told me about the sexual assaults she had both experienced and witnessed. She reported that sexually aggressive and physically threatening behaviour is run-of-the-mill and simply to be expected.
She said that all bar one of the male prisoners she had encountered, who were so much bigger and stronger than she, had been convicted of sexual offences. She told me that almost all retained their male genitalia: she knew that they did because they often liked to show them off, either by wearing tight clothing or by moving the shower curtain to one side when showering.
I knew this already, but it’s different hearing it first hand from a woman sitting across the table from you. Words on a page or numbers and percentages in a report are no substitute for hearing a woman describe what has happened to her and what she has witnessed happen to others. However, what shocked me the most was when she told me in a completely matter-of-fact voice, we have to call them ‘she’ and use their female names and if we don’t we get a punishment. Even the ones who are sexual offenders?! Yes. Even the ones who show off their penises in the shower with you?! Yes. If we don’t we get a punishment.
I am firmly of the opinion that the policy and practice of housing male prisoners who identify as transgender alongside women constitutes an unofficial punishment directed against female offenders and only against female offenders: whilst male prisoners who fulfil the necessary criteria are housed alongside women, no female prisoner who identifies as transgender is ever held in the male estate. Somehow when making decisions about who is allowed in men’s prisons, the prison service can see that sex is immutable and matters. In prison as in the outside world, men get to keep their single-sex spaces. It’s women’s spaces that become mixed sex.
However, what shocked me the most was when she told me in a completely matter-of-fact voice, we have to call them ‘she’ and use their female names and if we don’t we get a punishment. Even the ones who are sexual offenders?! Yes. Even the ones who show off their penises in the shower with you?! Yes. If we don’t we get a punishment.
Being held in a mixed sex institution is not a normal consequence of lawful detention. Neither is facing an increased risk of both sexual assault and sexual assault by a male. Nor is the psychological and emotional harm inflicted upon female offenders when they are housed with males. Throughout the criminal justice system, women in prison are recognised as being traumatised, vulnerable and are often the victims of far more serious, usually violent or sexual, offences than those they have been convicted of. This unofficial punishment has another dimension and a particularly sinister one at that. The punishment of compelled and coerced speech. The punishment of indoctrination.
I’m sure some will counter that if you are in prison you don’t get to complain. We all know the saying, if you can’t do the time, then don’t do the crime. To this I say, it is imprisonment, the deprivation of liberty, the removal from society, the loss of time that is the punishment. Imprisonment is not a means to enable a punishment to be inflicted. Convicted offenders who receive a custodial sentence are sent to prison as punishment, nor for punishment.
This process of indoctrination – and it is indoctrination: you are required to only speak approved words to describe a reality that conforms to an approved ideology – robs women in prison of their language, their concepts, their experiences. It is a particular cruelty to women in prison. The data consistently report that female offenders have experienced high rates of violence and sexual assault at the hands of men, often since childhood. Women in prison know all too well who is a man, who is male and which of the two sexes presents the greater risk. However, the male prisoner, the man, becomes the risk that cannot, must not, be identified.
The woman I met told me that female offenders generally don’t complain because there’s simply no point. If a woman did make a complaint about the actions of a male prisoner, she would have to use female pronouns and that prisoner’s chosen female name. But it wasn’t a woman who was aggressive to her, or threatened her, or assaulted her, or showed her his penis. It just wasn’t. It was an adult human male: it was a man. The language she is compelled to use means she is forced to describe an incident that involved a woman. She is forced to agree that this prisoner is a woman, is female.
This is not just the denial of freedom of speech. This is compelled speech. This is forcing women to affirm an ideology. If we don’t we get a punishment.
Since my lunch with the female former offender, the Ministry of Justice has confirmed that women in prison are expected to use ‘correct’ pronouns and may be punished for refusing to comply. In a reply to a written question asked by Lord Philip Hunt, Lord Wolfson explained that it is only where a woman makes ‘an honest mistake’ in using ‘incorrect pronouns’ that she can be assured that she will not suffer a penalty. An ‘honest mistake’? What about an intentional choice of language to refer to the adult human male she sees before her? What about a refusal to affirm gender identity ideology? Post Forstater, gender critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act (2010) and have been deemed ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’. What protection does this give the woman in prison?
Many who consider preferred pronouns to be a matter of courtesy and a kindness still draw a line in the sand and decline to use these to refer to a male who has been convicted of violent and sexual offences. Particularly if the very ability to commit these offences is intrinsically tied to the biological fact of being male. But pronouns are not prizes nor are they rewards for ‘good behaviour’. They are neutral with no value-judgement attached. Womanhood is not an honorarium to be bestowed on those males who are somehow ‘deserving’. Pronouns just are and womanhood just is.
It may not surprise you to learn that I won’t use preferred pronouns. Nor will I use the term ‘transwoman’ (nor any of the current variants). My reasons for this are informed by the requirements for safeguarding and my refusal to endorse gender identity ideology, even whilst expressing disagreement. Material reality matters and I make the choice that my language shall be free of concepts belonging to an ideology with which I disagree.
Now I have another reason. I have freedom of expression, but women in prison don’t. In standing by my choice I honour the fact that I, unlike them, have that freedom to insist on reality and reject ideology.
If we don’t we get a punishment.
Dr Kate Coleman is the Director of Keep Prisons Single Sex.
Keep Prisons Single Sex will be at the LGB Alliance Conference on Thursday 21st October.
For more information on Keep Prisons Single Sex go to www.kpssinfo.org
Illustrative photo of a woman prisoner in the UK: Andrew Fox/Alamy Stock Photo