The death of Jenny Swift while on remand at HMP Doncaster, a category B male prison described by inspectors in 2016 as “very poor” and “violent”, has once again highlighted the need for the ongoing strengthening of transgender rights in the UK. Ms. Swift, whose death was announced last week, was the fourth transgender woman to kill herself while being held at a male prison in Britain in just 13 months.
While a Ministry of Justice spokesperson acknowledged Ms. Swift was transgender, she had been charged by South Yorkshire Police with attempted murder under her birth name. Confirming the charge of Ms. Swift in a press notice, the police service also used masculine pronouns throughout. She had been at HMP Doncaster for five weeks, without access to hormone therapy, when wardens found her dead on 30th December. No explanation as to why Ms. Swift was charged as male rather than as a woman has been provided. However, a friend of Swift told the Sheffield Star she had been on hormone therapy for more than three years, but hadn’t had access to her hormones during her time at Doncaster.
What is clear is that the behaviour of South Yorkshire Police and Serco (which runs a number of UK prisons, including HMP Doncaster) has been utterly abhorrent, offensive, and shocking. Ms. Swift was clearly placed in a vulnerable position and should never have set foot anywhere near an all-men prison.
Ms. Swift’s death occurred a little under 48 hours after new guidelines from the National Offenders Management Service (NOMS) came into force. The new rules state from 1st January this year, transgender prisoners, “must be asked their view of the part of the prison estate (i.e. male or female) that reflects the gender with which they identify… If the prisoner’s view accords with their legally recognised gender this must be recorded and they must be located accordingly.”
What does “legally recognised gender” mean? For transgender people, that means obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate to correct an individual’s birth certificate. Not only is this a complex, expensive, and time consuming process – making it socio-economically discriminatory – it only recognises binary genders. This means that agender, gender fluid, and non-binary people, while still trans, are excluded from legal recognition.
In the case of prisoners looking to be placed at prisons that do not reflect their legal gender, the decision is made following a local Transgender Case Board, where evidence of them living in the gender with which they identify must be provided. The new NOMS guidelines also make it clear that while the Board is making its decision, offenders, “must be allowed to live in the gender they identify with.”
Prisoners diagnosed with gender dysphoria, “must also have access to the same quality of care that they would expect to receive from the NHS if they had not been sent to prison.”
These latest NOMS guidelines may be a step in the right direction, it’s frankly too early to tell, but they are too late to help Jenny Swift and the other women who killed themselves after being held at men-only prisons in the UK since November 2015. It’s clear the Government must take steps to hold trans rights in the UK to the same level of regard as the wider cis-gender population. Twelve months ago, a report by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, following its Transgender Equality Inquiry, stated there was a long way to go before the transgender population of the UK would secure equality, with both the NHS and prison service cited as requiring urgent reform. Furthermore, the report said gender recognition should be based on “self-recognition” rather than “assessment”.
That two major government services, health and justice, do not provide equal protections has to change – and quickly. It’s been just 15 years since the government stated that the now antiquated descriptor of ‘transsexualism’ was not a mental illness, However, the deaths of these women are clear and tragic indicators that more must be done. For instance, police forces across the country must do more to protect people from the current explosion of trans hate crimes, which has seen reported incidents increase 170% in the five years to 2015. Data published by the MoJ also reveals while there were 605 reported incidents of trans hate crime in 2014/15, less than 10 percent (56) led to prosecutions with just 37 convictions.
Such shocking statistics can only mean one thing: The fight for trans rights has to become more visible, and members of the LGBT community and its allies must not rest of the laurels of past victories. The hard work must continue, and deaths like Jenny Swift’s must be prevented.
A vigil for International Trans Prisoner Day of Action and Solidarity will take place outside Pentonville Prison in London between 6pm and 7pm on Sunday 22nd January, organised by the Behind Bars Collective. Further information on the vigil can be found at https://www.facebook.com/events/1249575065136988/.
Thanks to Anna Chivers for her support and contribution to this blog post.