Reports have emerged this week that a transgender woman was been found dead last Friday, 13 November 2015, after being placed in a male prison. It is understood that Vicky Thompson, 21, was placed in HMP Armley in Leeds despite the fact she had identified as female since her teens.
Normally prisoners are placed in jails according to their legal gender, which is normally what is stated on their birth certificate. It is possible to obtain a gender recognition certificate which will show the individual’s acquired gender and these prisoners will normally go to a prison in accordance with their acquired gender. Even prisoners who do not have a certificate showing their acquired gender but have transitioned to a certain point are considered for placement in prisons where they will be housed with those of the same gender. Case conferences are also convened and risk assessments carried out to determine how a transgender prisoner should be managed.
The issue of transgender prisoners has also been recently highlighted in the case of Tara Hudson, a 26 year old transgender woman who had been placed in an all male prison, HMP Bristol. She was later transferred to a female jail following a campaign which called for her to be moved, highlighting her vulnerability in a male prison. It emerged that whilst Ms Hudson had undergone reconstructive surgery but was still legally classified as male.
Whilst the recent victory of Ms Hudson demonstrates that the Prison Service do exercise discretion with regards to the protection of transgender individuals in some cases, the sad case of Ms Thompson shows that ultimately the policy of the Prison Service is to assign offenders according to their legally recognised gender. Clearly, there are understandable reasons for this being the normal course of action in most cases. However, do the Prison Services guidelines do enough to protect the vulnerable, particularly transgender prisoners in our jails?
Many campaigners believe the answer to this question is ‘no’ and politicians have called for a review of the Prison Service’s policies on transgender prisoners in the wake of Ms Thompson’s death. Labour MP Cat Smith highlighted how terrifying it must have been for her to be transported to a male prison and went on to add that the MOJ’s transgender prisoner guidelines ‘are either not being implemented properly or they are not fit for purpose.’
Vicky Thompson’s death will be subject to an investigation by the independent Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, as in all cases where individuals have died in custody. No doubt those closest to Ms Thompson will seek answers at an Inquest into her death as to how her death came about, with a likely focus being on whether she was properly handled as a vulnerable transgender woman.
The author of this article is Rebecca Treece, who is part of the civil liberties team at Leeds based solicitors Lester Morrill. Gemma Vine and Rebecca Treece are Inquest Specialists and have developed a national reputation for representing bereaved families at Inquests.
Gemma Vine recently represented the family of Matthew Stubbs who died on 29 July 2013 after being found suspended in his cell at HMP Leeds on 27 July 2013. Ms Vine is currently representing two other bereaved families in Inquest proceedings linked to prisoner deaths in HMP Leeds (locally known as Armley Prison).
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