The crisis of transgender women in prison

8th May 2018

By Christabel Johanson

In January 2018 trans woman Marie Dean went on hunger strike after being sentenced to serve time in a male prison. It was reported that Dean, 50, was denied make-up, hair straighteners, and epilators, leaving her feeling dehumanised, and denied of the freedom to express her gender.

Dean’s story does not exist in isolation. In recent years, more stories have emerged of transgender prisoners receiving a sentence in a prison inconsistent with their gender identity.

On the surface, Dean’s story reads of social injustice, an archaic judicial system, and transphobia, but there is more to it: when opening a dialogue on trans criminals, we must approach with an understanding of the social bias that gears them towards incarceration in the first place, and the unique set of problems they face on the inside and outside.


In recent years, two transgender prisoners have died in custody, Vicky Thompson and Joanne Latham. Their stories, like Hudson’s, highlight the issues around legally identifying one’s gender, which is pivotal to the sentencing outcome.

In the case of Marie Dean, her sentence fell under an imprisonment for public protection (IPP). With 30 offences comprising of burglary, assault, voyeurism and sexual acts, including dressing in teenage girls’ underwear in the homes she broke into, there was an assumption that Dean was a sexual threat to females, including, perhaps, wardens and other inmates.

However, the question remains: should her offences have been taken into consideration when deciding whether to send her to a women’s or men’s prison, or should her gender rights be paramount?

If Dean were a cis-female sex offender with women as her victim group, she would not have been sent to a male prison, but rather a higher security facility. Her case, along with similar cases, has rendered the terrain of transgender people’s rights a difficult one to navigate.

Other trans women in prison

In 2015, Tara Hudson spent a stretch in HMP Bristol after being charged with assault. She had lived as a female for nearly ten years when she was ordered to serve her sentence in an all-male prison. Despite living and working as a woman, Tara had not legally changed her gender, which left her helpless against the sentencing. She was eventually moved to a women’s prison after a petition was launched.

In recent years, two transgender prisoners have died in custody, Vicky Thompson and Joanne Latham. Their stories, like Hudson’s, highlight the issues around legally identifying one’s gender, which is pivotal to the sentencing outcome.

How are trans women are left vulnerable to unfair sentencing?

In Hudson’s case she did not own a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), which requires a lengthy application process, medical information, and comes with a price tag of £140.

However, initiating, completing, and paying for the GRC is challenging for many, especially given that many transgender criminals are reported to experience poor mental health, with 41 per cent of transgendered people believed to have attempted suicide because of the “discrimination, stigma, lack of acceptance, and abuse” they face on a regular basis.

Other social factors, such as discrimination faced in housing and employment, and family disownment, mean that 21 per cent of trans women have spent time in prison.

There is an argument, therefore, that the process of obtaining a GRC is unfairly weighted against these individuals and, without this protection, coupled with the exacerbating factors pushing them towards incarceration, this drives a worrying number of trans women into the custody of male prisons.

Ireland allow trans people to self-identify online making the process speedier and cutting the need for a GRC. British campaigners began a petition for the UK to follow suite but the campaign fell short of the 100,000 signatures needed for parliamentary discussions, perhaps indicative of Britain’s de-prioritisation of trans rights.


“She now opts to go to male prisons with the intention of getting a “boyfriend” to take care of her,” says J. “But this has not always gone to plan, and she has sometimes been passed around between gang members for sex.”

On top of this, one report shows that many transgender women view the sex work industry as their “only viable career option” and reports from victims suggest that trans women, especially those of colour, are often arrested for, or on suspicion of, sex work.

What happens when you fall into the grey area of the law?

Katie (not her real name) is an example of how difficult the situation of trans women is with regards to the prison service. Someone who has worked closely with Katie, we’ll call her J, provided an account of her story.

“Katie was recognised as female and has been in both female and male prisons after a long stint in mental healthcare,” says J. “She has been homeless and sex working on the streets of London for several years.” Because of her alcoholism and drug use, Katie is seen as an easy target and regularly picked up by police.

When it comes to custodial sentences, she is able to suggest whether she would like to be placed in a male or female prison, and has served time in both. “However,” says J, “her experience of female prisons as a trans woman has been extreme levels of violence, where she has been hospitalised, and, for her own safety, she has been moved into male prisons.” Due to her lifestyle, she has not been able to engage in services that will aid her physical transition. The reaction of the women in the prison, therefore, has been aggressive.

As a person who is released from prison without housing options, Katie often re-enters the cycle of arrest and detainment. “She now opts to go to male prisons with the intention of getting a “boyfriend” to take care of her,” says J. “But this has not always gone to plan, and she has sometimes been passed around between gang members for sex.”

Most recently, during an eight month sentence in a male prison, Katie was forced to don a more masculine appearance, which added to her depression and trauma. “This resulted in her falling off the radar for female-specific services to rehabilitate her, due to her more masculine appearance,” explains J.

And thus the cycle of disenfranchisement and discrimination continues.

What can we do to help?

As with all rehabilitation, the story never ends with an inmate’s release, but rather this is when the aftercare and re-socialisation should begin. In this way, trans women can be protected from falling into these cycles and the institutional abuse that goes hand in hand with them.

From a grassroots perspective there is still a lot of work to be done in order to educate the general public, and get rid of the stigma surrounding transgendered people. Perhaps the route for trans rights would follow similarly to gay and lesbian lobbying history with petitions, Pride marches and a platform of advocacy in the media, as well as increased representation in popular culture.

The most pressing thing in order to reduce the death and abuse of so many trans women, however, is to stop dehumanising them. To this end, organisations such as SWISH, cliniQ and Bent Bars are important in advocating well-being, sexual health and support for trans people in and out of prisons.

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Christabel Johanson

Christabel graduated from University College London with a BA in English Literature and an MA in Film Studies. Since then she’s been interested in capturing the narratives of everyday life. This has led to an interest in feminism, social issues, storytelling, philosophy, and cinema. She is currently working on writing projects, workshops and freelance ventures.