Care Not Cages: International Day of Solidarity with Trans Prisoners

[The following article deals with prisons, policing and systemic oppression of LGBTQ people; as such the article and its linked sources will include references to violence including police brutality, racism, incarceration, prison deaths, self harm, suicide, poverty, assault and sexual violence.]

January 22nd is International Day of Solidarity with Trans Prisoners. At a time when the government is cutting funds for hospital beds in favour of prison beds, Pazuzu Gaylord argues the need for action.

“The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.”

- Critical Resistance

The first week of 2022 brought the tragic news that Jenny Swift had lost her life to suicide in HMP Doncaster, making a total of 4 known deaths of trans women prisoners in 14 months. [1] Three of these - Jenny Swift, Joanne Latham and Vikki Thompson - were in men’s prisons, whilst Nicola Cope died at Foston Hall women’s prison in Derbyshire last November. Jenny Swift and Vikki Thompson both had their requests to be placed in women’s prisons denied - Vikki had warned that she would kill herself if sent to a men’s prison. [2] Jenny entered prison naked rather than being forced to wear male clothing, was called “mister” by guards and refused hormone medication she had been taking for three years. [3] Both were on remand, Jenny awaiting trial and Vikki awaiting sentencing. Joanne Latham had expressed distress over HMP Woodhill withholding make-up brushes from her in the lead-up to her death. [4]

Whilst there are clear aspects of transmisogynist discrimination in the above cases, they must be placed within the wider context of record numbers of suicides in prison, with self-inflicted deaths and incidents of self-harm both rising by almost a third over last year; [5] a disproportionate level of deaths and self-harm incidents were by women. [6] Prison suicides over the last year amount to one every three days. [7] The UK’s largest private healthcare provider, Care UK, were criticised for promoting self-harm incidents as part of the “exciting life of prison medical staff” in one of their staff recruitment videos. [8]

When looking at solutions to these harms, we must be wary of reforms which seek to expand the prison industrial complex rather than reduce the suffering and number of people incarcerated. The £1bn government plans to build nine new mega-prisons, capable of caging a total of 10,000 people, are cause for concern. [9] A better response to overcrowding would be to reduce numbers of people in and sent to prison - a good start would be releasing all IPP prisoners who have served their sentences as well as those held under faulty joint enterprise convictions, remanding less people into custody and lowering probation licence conditions. [10] A penal reform charity revealed that £230m was spent needlessly caging people on remand, with remand prisoners also being at the greatest risk of self-harm and suicide. [11] This money could be more productively spent on the NHS to fund mental healthcare and benefits to help people stay fed and housed without resorting to survival crimes. The current government policy of slashing NHS budgets and sanctioning vulnerable people whilst sinking billions into locking people up is cruel and blinkered to the reasons that people end up in prison.

“As queers we know the terror of scrutiny, disgust, and isolation; for trans people in prison, those problems are doubled by the physical and emotional restraints of a literal cage”

- Marius Mason

This is equally relevant when looking into the case of transgender prisoners. Following the deaths of Joanne Latham and Vikki Thompson in November 2020, calls were made to create specialist transgender or LGBT prisons. [12] Given the history of transgender internment, this is a worrying suggestion, particularly when the UK has the most privatised prison system in Europe and there are profit motives for imprisoning people. Transgender and other LGBTQ people already have disproportionate rates of incarceration, exacerbated by a cycle of parental, education, employment and housing discrimination which leads to LGBTQ people being criminalised for surviving through sex work, drug use, petty theft and self-defence. Police profiling and racism also play a part, particularly for black people - 10% of the British prison population are black, compared to 2.8% of the general population. [13] As Cece McDonald, a black trans woman who was imprisoned in the US for defending herself from neo-Nazi attackers, said, “Prisons aren’t safe for anyone, and that’s the key issue.” [14]

The existence of prisons is traditionally justified for offender reform and public safety, but with around half of prisoners reoffending within a year of release it’s clear that this is not accurate. Rather than being better adjusted to society, isolation in these fundamentally violent institutions leaves many prisoners with poor mental health and drug addictions, lacking financial support or job prospects once outside. That’s for those who make it out - high suicide rates in prison essentially mean an unofficial death sentence for many: 113 in the last year alone. [15] It’s hard to see how that’s justifiable.

The cruelty and vastness of the prison industrial complex can seem insurmountable, but it’s important to celebrate our hard-won victories and the hope that they bring. This week came the incredible news that Chelsea Manning had her sentence commuted to time served and will finally be free in May, following seven years of hard campaigning from her supporters and her own successful protests including hunger strikes to gain medical treatment for her gender dysphoria. [16] In 2020 Tara Hudson was successfully transferred to a women’s prison after media pressure including a petition signed by 150,000 supporters. [17] We must also salute important long-term work by organisations such as Bent Bars, who dismantle the isolation of prison through letter-writing projects. [18]

Last year, along with delivering workshops and talks to engage with communities around the effects of the prison industrial complex on LGBTQ people, I took part in an action at Manchester Pride where a dozen of us blocked over 230 police from marching, calling for justice for trans prisoners and an end to prison expansion. [19] We gained international media coverage, successfully raising the profile of trans prisoners, making sure police presence is not normalised and our criminalised siblings are not forgotten. [20] This week friends from Recovering A Future and No Prisons Manchester occupied the offices of Lend Lease, the company who have been building and profiting from new mega-prisons. [21]

We hope you will join us today in actions across the country to call for stronger communities, an end to systems which keep us in poverty and the abolition of gender police. Check out these events for International Day of Solidarity with Trans Prisoners and find one near you:

Noise Demo at HMP Doncaster:

Letter Writing in Edinburgh:

Vigil at HMP Pentonville, Brighton:

See for international events