Where sex matters | Prisons


Keeping male and female prisoners in separate accommodation is one of the minimum expectations for the treatment of prisoners.

In the UK, Prison Rules state that male and female prisoners should be kept separate from each other. International standards also support this:

Men and women shall so far as possible be detained in separate institutions; in an institution which receives both men and women, the whole of the premises allocated to women shall be entirely separate

United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners

There are around 3,800 women in prison in England and Wales (under 5% of the prison population). Women tend to have committed significantly fewer serious violent offences or sexual offences than men. Over 30% of female prisoners report a history of sexual abuse, compared with 10% of male prisoners. Almost 60% of women reported experiencing domestic violence.

What’s the problem?

Convicted male prisoners are held in women’s prisons throughout the UK, based on gender identity. The policy on Care and Management of Individuals who are Transgender applies to prisons throughout England and Wales. It states that:

All individuals who are transgender must be initially allocated to part of the [prison] estate which matches their legally recognised gender.

England and Wales Policy

Males who identify as transgender women but who do not have a GRC should initially be placed in a men’s prison, but can apply to be transferred to a women’s prison based on evidence of “living as a woman”.

Freedom of Information requests by Fair Play for Women have revealed that there are 163 recorded transgender prisoners in England and Wales. Almost 50% have at least one conviction for a sexual offence. There is emerging evidence that the Prisons Service is failing to keep track of any of the data relating to transgender prisoners and in which is estate they are accommodated.

The rules for the Scottish Prison Service Gender Identity and Gender Reassignment Policy for those in our Custody go even further than the England and Wales policy. It makes no distinction between males with a GRC and those without one. It states

A male-to-female person in custody living permanently as a woman without genital surgery should be allocated to a female establishment. She should not be automatically regarded as posing a high sexual offence risk to other people in custody and should not be subject to any automatic restrictions of her association with other people in custody.

Scottish Prison Service policy

If a male prisoner transitions to “living as a woman” during their sentence they will be moved to a women’s prison. The Scottish policy is embossed with Stonewall and Scottish Trans Alliance logos, giving the impression that this has been developed in consultation with and endorsed by both organisations. 

Holding males in women’s prisons introduces multiple risks to women, including fear, trauma and lack of privacy. There have been instances of sexual violence against women in what should be safe private spaces. Rhona Hotchkiss, a retired prison governor previously in charge of women’s prisons in Scotland, reports that there have been numerous incidents of inappropriate sexualised and aggressive behaviour and threats towards women by transwomen. These incidents often caused real distress to women whose mental health is already vulnerable.

“I am asking [prison managers] to err on the side of caution, because there is emerging evidence that certain men are jumping on the trans bandwagon to access, and harm, very vulnerable women in prison.”

Frances Crook, Chief Executive, Howard League for Penal Reform.