Tuesday , 18 January 2022

Is Tara Hudson’s prison ordeal over?

HMP Bristol, the all-male prison in which Tara Hudson was briefly incarcerated


Tara Hudson is now incarcerated in women’s prison HMP Eastwood Park, after the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reversed it’s decision to detain her in a male prison late on the afternoon of Friday 30th October. But don’t break out the party-poppers and champagne just yet. One stark fact stands in the way of celebration: women are just as capable of abusing transgendered people as men. Just look at what Germaine Greer gets up to.

We don’t know that Tara is safe yet; whether she was greeted by other inmates as a heroine who’s case forced the MoJ to U-turn, or as a man who cut his penis off and put on a dress. There’s no reason to assume she is safe until the MoJ demonstrates that beyond all doubt. This is not over yet. Look at what has already happened in this appalling episode.

Two days after the case of transgender woman Tara Hudson, unjustly incarcerated in a male prison, was reported as being discussed by her MP, Simon Howlett (sitting on the Women’s and Equality Select Committee Transgender Inquiry) and Caroline Dinenage MP (of the Ministry of Justice), reports emerged that Ms Dinenage’s evidence was apparently not in agreement with more recent reports of how Tara was being treated in HMP Bristol.

On Wednesday KaleidoScot reported that Ms Dinenage stated she, “Couldn’t comment upon the individual details of this case”, but went on to say she could discuss the matter, “…in general…”. She described the safety of any individual as, “fundamental”, described how a prisoner’s legal gender is determined by birth certificate or gender recognition certificate, and in the absence of such documentation how decisions are made on a “…case by case basis”. She went on to say that this is not the end of the process and that further discussions involving all stakeholders would take place upon arrival at prison.

She described how a prisoner perceived to be vulnerable in any way will be kept in a “protected state” away from other inmates.”

I’d greeted these words with relief. As a transwoman I can imagine all too well the utter nightmare of being trapped in an all-male institution. In any reasonable interpretation of “protected state” that would mean Tara would be kept away from verbal and physical abuse, not exposed to leers, aggressive or sexual body language, or misogynist taunts. A single-occupancy cell is still solitary confinement, but it’s better than the danger of the general prison population.

I was so wrong.

Overnight horrifying reports emerged of Tara’s first call home to her mother. On the 29th Oct, The Guardian quoted Tara’s mother, Jackie Brooklyn , as saying, “The prison allowed me to speak to her for about two minutes. She’s in a cell next to someone who has tried to commit suicide six times since she’s been there. She’s getting sexually harassed. Inmates are screaming from their cells: ‘Tara, Tara, Tara, show us your tits!’”

Pause and imagine that for a minute. You’re a very scared woman placed in a male prison being exposed to trauma after trauma. Not just the completely avoidable exposure to sexual taunts and unrelenting harassment, but also the trauma of seeing how another vulnerable prisoner is trying repeatedly to take their own life.

Forget the trans factor; it’s irrelevant here. Tara is a woman who was placed in a male hellhole managed by Her Majesty’s Government. Reports indicate she was subjected to constant sexual abuse and it’s not hard to see how trauma could have progressed to self-harm or suicide if nothing had changed. Were it me in Tara’s place, I’d have tried to slit my wrists any way I could, because hospitalisation following such a desperate and potentially final act would look like the only possible way out of the continuing  trauma of remaining in that environment.

And what of Caroline Dinenage, with her assurances that vulnerable prisoners are kept in that “protected state”? Well, either Ms Dinenage is woefully under-informed and incompetent in her Ministerial role, or she knowingly made an outright lie to the Women’s and Equalities Committee.

A former MoJ employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, told KaleidoScot:During my time working for the MoJ it became apparent that the organisation was incapable of dealing adequately with issues facing trans people. Sometimes this stemmed from ignorance on the part of senior staff, sometimes it was because there just aren’t the right structures in place and sometimes it was simply because it’s easier ignoring complex issues of identity compared to actually getting to grips with them.

They continued: “Even the ‘diversity’ training, well-intentioned as it is, ties itself up in intellectual knots when it comes to trans people, losing sight of what should be the main thing – that trans people should be afforded the same respect and dignity as others.

“We were dealing with the case of a trans woman on one occasion – an immigration case in which we had to work closely with the Home Office. It was a frustrating experience and it became clear that following bureaucratic rules to the letter took priority over recognising the woman’s humanity and treating her accordingly. The MoJ should be about facilitating access to justice, but so often justice isn’t what you get – especially if you happen to be trans.”

International research into transgender inmates is equally chilling. The National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington DC, USA has published a document, the NCTE Blueprint 2015 which states: “Trans people are also at high risk for abuse in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention. The categorical denial of transition-related medical care is common, as is prolonged isolation of trans people, which has been shown to have devastating effects on mental health and has been declared by the courts to be a type of torture. … Addressing both the harmful policies that drive mass incarceration and the intolerable conditions of prisons, jails, and detention facilities are urgent issues for trans people and our communities.” It is hard to see how that is not also true of the British prison system given what we know of Tara’s ordeal.

The onus is upon the Ministry of Justice to take urgent and appropriate action to ensure the well-being of Tara and any other trans prisoners, and demonstrate that to the nation immediately. Justice must be seen to be just and what we witnessed was cruel and unusual punishment amounting to torture that has no place in any civilised society. The horrible truth is that Westminster has no idea whatsoever of how to treat transgender prisoners. It seems to be content to complacently do nothing until it must respond to the Transgender Inquiry before getting back to doing nothing.

The problem runs deeper than that though. It pervades throughout British society. The Sun, reporting on the failure of Tara’s appeal against her sentence, used the headline, “‘Tara, show us your t**s’ – Lags taunt trans woman in male jail. Sex-change Tara Hudson loses appeal to serve sentence in female prison.

Because the story isn’t that a woman was unjustly in a male prison. What The Sun thinks the public really needs to know is that a sex-change has happened. But Tara is a woman. Period. How she got there and what she went through on the way is irrelevant next to that fact. In perpetuating the lurid last-century headlines that being transgender is somehow risqué or scandalous, The Sun reinforces the wider conception of transpeople as different, as weird, even as being available for sex. It prostitutes us to society and it rakes in it’s takings whilst transpeople pay the price in being exposed to abuse and assault.

Jennie Kermode of Trans Media Watch told KaleidoScot: Many journalists are still getting to grips with trans issues and don’t realise that the phrase ‘sex change’ causes offence. Others do, yet still use it. It’s one of those handy little bits of shorthand that journalists love, yet it gives the wrong impression about how trans people see themselves. Nobody believes there’s a magical transformation going on. Who a person is remains constant; transition is about bring other things into line with that, and for most people, social changes are just as big a deal as physical ones. People reporting on trans issues need to listen to trans people and take the time to understand. It will all make a lot more sense then!

It’s not just the government that needs dragging kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. Transpeople also need legislative protection from a hostile media that automatically reports in the worst possible way about us. Tara Hudson’s life has been altered in hugely negative ways by a lack of willingness to simply treat her like any other woman, and the lessons that could be learned from this must be or we will see others abused as she has been.

About Johanna-Alice Cooke

Johanna-Alice Cooke
Johanna is a passionate equality and civil-rights activist. An 'out' transwoman, she focuses upon transgender issues from medical provision in the NHS and legislative equality, to fighting society-wide issues such as hate-crime. In her spare time she is working towards qualifying as a clinical-psychologist. A Scot by enthusiatic self-declaration, she's crawled over a lot of the country in a previous life as a geologist and loves knowing why our country looks as beautiful as it does. Currently fostering two cats, Johanna loves felines of all kinds despite being a recovering-carnivore herself.

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