Fans of the classic Australian soap, Prisoner: Cell Block H, may recognise this slogan: “If you think prison is hell for a man, imagine what it would be like for a woman?” Rhona Hotchkiss, a small, grey-haired woman, full of vim and vigour and with a biting wit, looks more like the NHS nurse she once was than the firm but fair prison governor she became.
Cornton Vale’s replacement – HMP & YOI Stirling – is nothing like the grim Cell Block H. Indeed, with its housing units named Primrose, Bluebell and Iris, it could pass for a boutique spa hotel. But look behind the flowery names and the soft furnishings, and it is still a prison. The women living there have no choice. They cannot check out until their sentence is served. Their comfortable bedroom cannot mask the fact that it is a prison cell. They are incarcerated. And Rhona Hotchkiss is angry on their behalf.
Her main contention, confirmed by a close reading of the policy, is that biologically male offenders who identify as transgender, including those who have committed sex crimes, will still have the right to spend their sentence in a women’s prison.
Or as one newspaper headline put it: “Trans inmates with history of violence against women to be mostly kept out of female Scottish jails.” “Mostly” being the operative word. The new policy will allow a transgender prisoner to be housed in the female estate where there is “compelling evidence” that they do not “present an unacceptable risk of harm to those in the women’s prison”.
“What is an acceptable risk to women?” asked Rhona Hotchkiss. “Is it a five per cent chance they will be assaulted, is it a 60 per cent chance they will be assaulted? The fact that they [the Scottish Prison Service] are willing to take a risk with women’s safety at all is just unacceptable.”
To be fair, the report did point out the prison service had considered the risk. It says: “Some external stakeholders were particularly concerned about the vulnerability of non-transgender women in prison and the need for them to be protected from further harm.”
Let’s pause there for a moment. The Scottish Prison Service has just re-classified female prisoners as “non-transgender women” and says that those who argue that no level of risk is acceptable may be guilty of prejudice.
Not all biological men who identify as transgender are violent, by any means. But they were all born male. Women’s prisons should be female only. Anything else risks male violence against women, which, as the Scottish Government tells us, has no place in our society. It has no place in women’s prisons either.