prisons are not, and never will, be feminist

a dark case of sexual assault in a prison is being weaponised to incite transphobia – instead, we should rethink our penal system as a whole.

tw: sexual assault

this week, the daily mail published a new article in regards to a cis woman who was sexually assaulted by a trans woman in prison. the piece relates to the case of karen white, who was placed in a female prison in wakefeild, hmp new hall, in 2017, while on remand for rape and with a history of sexual offending. whilst there, she assaulted four female inmates. one of those inmates was cheryle kempton, who has come forward to the press to discuss her experience.  

back in 2017 and 2018, there was a lot of media coverage on karen white, and the abuse she carried out, in the context of possible reform to the gender recognition act. proposals to make the gra process more streamlined for trans folks were met with outrage and opposition by gender critical feminists. the objection stemmed from the belief that suggested changes allowing individuals full freedom to legally change their gender, without invasive and pathologizing medical tests, would be abused by men to gain access to women-only spaces. at the time, white’s case was used as an example of the danger of allowing trans people easy access into women-only spaces. the recent article is now being used in a similar way to question trans legal rights.

what happened to kempton is justifiably the cause of anger and she should be applauded for coming forward with her testimonial. what she has been through shouldn’t have happened. 

however, the public’s consequential anger, embedded in transphobia, is misdirected. it is possible to discuss the injustice of what has taken place in ways that acknowledge and honour the victims, whilst at the same time refusing unprincipled transphobic explanations. 

it is possible to discuss the injustice of what has taken place in ways that acknowledge and honour the victims, whilst at the same time refusing unprincipled transphobic explanations.

prisons are intrinsically dangerous and violent. sexual harassment is an endemic issue of the prison system: between january 2016 and march 2020 there were 130 reported cases of sexual harassment by prison staff, with almost two-thirds of those committed maintaining their post.

the abuse white committed accounts for nearly all of the sexual harassment ever committed by trans women in prisons in the last decade (four out of seven instances). her case is so often cited as an example of the dangers of trans people because there are barely any others. “the total number of transgender victims far exceeds the number who were suspected of carrying out sex attacks, with only one such case in 2019” – stated baroness brinton in parliament on the 15th of november 2021 – “a further set of figures from the ministry of justice states that 11 trans women had been sexually assaulted in the men’s prison estate in 2019 alone. all this tells us that trans women are far more likely to be victims of assault in prisons than perpetrators and that many more women are assaulted by cis women in prison than by trans women.

yet these statistics get a lot less column space and traction than statistics relating to offences committed by those who belong to minority groups. abuse and violence in prisons, sadly, are not issues that the public tends to care about too much – until the perpetrator is a trans woman.

trans women are far more likely to be victims of assault in prisons than perpetrators.

there is no evidence that access to single sex spaces for trans people increases instances of harm towards cis women in those spaces. in the US there are a number of reports that show that gender-inclusive public accommodation and non discriminatory laws are unrelated to the number or frequency of criminal incidents.  

here in the uk, evidence shows that allowing self identification to guide access to single sex spaces largely works. representatives of fifteen of the largest regional and national women’s organisations in the uk (eg women’s aid, rape crisis scotland) recently spoke of there being no evidence of problems stemming from accommodating trans women in women only spaces. the services they provide work on the basis of gender self-identification and have done for some time without any issues. 

this devastating event should not be used to argue for the roll back of the rights of a very oppressed minority group but should instead make us challenge a prison system that not only perpetuates and incubates violence but also fails to carry out its purported purposes of rehabilitation and deterrence. prisons do not work. the uk prison population has risen steadily in the last three decades yet instances of violent crime have seen no reduction. prisons are overcrowded.  sexual abuse of prisoners is widespread as is suicide and self-harm. mental health issues exacerbate in prisons and re-offending rates once prisoners are released are high. the uk is currently going through an accelerated program of prison expansion, with talks of trans-only or non-binary prisons being in development. most prisoners in trans-only facilities in other countries were convicted because of drug-related offences or prostitution – which result directly from their criminalisation and precarious financial conditions. punitive measures do not aim to improve people’s behaviours – more prisons will just equal more prisoners. 

how we deal with harmful acts ought to have the purpose of creating a less violent society. our current prison system does not do this. rather than focussing our discussion on access to single-sex spaces, the case of karen white should be seen as exposing problems in the whole system. instances like this should be used to encourage people to think what successful rehabilitative processes, which stem from a place of care rather than punishment, could look like – as these are what would have protected these women from experiencing the violence they did.