On March 30th 2019, a group of over 20 women arrived at HMP Downview in Surrey to protest the continued placement of men in women’s prisons.
On the night of March 29th, I was putting the final touches to a 7ft banner reading ‘NO MEN IN WOMEN’S PRISONS’. Most of the contents of the living room were pushed up against the wall to make space on the floor to stretch the banner full length. Shreds of cotton and fragments of white fabric surrounded me, it was getting late and I was starting to wish I’d been less ambitious.
It was just before midnight and I only had three letters left to stitch, when a little voice came from the hall, “I’ve been sick.”
Instead of finishing the banner, I spent an hour cleaning up what appeared to be five gallons of raspberry innocent smoothie mixed with cabbage purée, from the rug; the floor, the bed; the mattress; the blankets, duvet and pillows. Smallest- who had remained miraculously vomit-free and made a remarkably recovery- fell happily asleep clutching a stuffed cat, murmuring, “I think I’m hungry now…” and I returned to my banner.
I know, TMI. You’re welcome.
I finished my creation about 2am and hung it carefully over the banister, where the cats eyed it shrewdly, analysing its potential as a new kitty climbing wall. I shut them in the kitchen and went to bed.
On 4th March 2019,the Evening Standard announced that HMP Downview in Surrey would be opening a wing of the women’s prison to ‘female transgender prisoners’. (Of course, a female transgender prisoner would actually be a woman, a woman being an adult human female and all that, but the language of identity politics is frequently incomprehensible and almost as frequently misconstrued.) To clarify, HMP Downview would be opening a wing to men who had acquired a Gender Reassignment Certificate.
Currently, a few hoops have to be jumped through in order to get a GRC. You can apply for one if you’re over eighteen and have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. You also have to have ‘lived in your acquired gender’ for at least 2 years, promise that you intend to live in this ‘acquired gender’ for the rest of your life and pay a £140 fee.
Potential forthcoming changes to the Gender Recognition Act would eliminate the requirement for most of these criteria. For more about that, check here.
To clarify, a man does not have to have had his penis removed, a process that used to be referred to as ‘sex change’ but is now more frequently called ‘gender reassignment surgery’. Of course, it’s important to remember that is not really possible to be born into the wrong body, or to change sex.
“Old-time clinicians recommended sex reassignment because they thought it offered the best chance of alleviating a patient’s distress, not because they thought the patient had a neurological intersex condition that rendered them “essentially” the opposite sex.”
The Fair Play for Women prison campaign states:
“In 2017 we published new research showing that half of all known transgender prisoners require max security or specialist sex offender prisons. Despite numerous attempts to discredit our work the MOJ (ministry of Justice) has now confirmed that over half of all known transgender prisoners have at least one previous conviction for sex offences. Our important work in this area has highlighted the potential risk to women inmates of relaxing the rules that could allow this dangerous prison cohort access to female prisons.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said that the management of transgender prisoners was ‘a highly sensitive issue which poses unique and complex challenges’.
In September 2017, ‘Karen’ was transferred to New Hall prison in West Yorkshire. Over the following three months he sexually assaulted two other inmates.
“The decision to move White to a women’s prison” reported the Guardian in October 2018, “was made public after she (sic) admitted in court to the sexual assault and to multiple rapes committed before she was sent to prison”.
Downview assured the public that the transgender prisoners they held would be kept separate from the women and that “the three transgender prisoners at HMP Downview will not have access to other offenders”.
Nonetheless, many women are asking why the prisoners are not being kept in a separate part of the male estate. Why put them in a wing of the women’s prison at all?
Child rapist Martin ‘Jessica’ Ponting was moved to HMP Bronzefield in Sussex in 2017 where he mixed freely with the women until reports of sexual harassment and assault meant that he was moved into isolation.
“A society that cannot say even to a man convicted of rape, ‘you are not a woman’, is a society that has truly lost the moral plot.” wrote Brendan O’Neill in ‘Spiked’.
“Tonight a rapist is in a women’s prison,” observed Ruth Serwotka. “That’s how progressive your gender identity politics are.”
Returning to Downview and 2019, it seems that despite claims to the contrary the men are not being kept apart from the women at all times. The unit they are housed in, originally the Josephine Butler unit for young women, is small and enclosed by a fence. It does not contain its own gym, classrooms or a chapel. Some of our group had heard that women were sharing gym facilities with the men, or even being put in their cells at unusual times so the men could use the facilities.
We had arranged to meet at the bottom of the lane leading up to the prison. It was a warm spring day. The banner and I got a lift up with Anne, Venice & Anne’s amazing dogs. We parked in the prison car park and walked back down the hill to the meeting place.
We had discussed whether or not to make news about the protest public, or to keep it to just a small group of women. My initial feeling had been that we should have told more women and gone for a larger turnout, but others pointed out that if counter-protesting transactivists had become loud or aggressive, it could have caused problems and raised possible concerns about security. They were right. The last thing we wanted was to cause problems for those visiting the prison.
Later that evening, someone on Twitter commented that she would like to have come along and I explained why we hadn’t made the protest public, resulting in the following somewhat hyperbolic exchange on Twitter between myself and a transwoman:
But I digress.
Some of the women had arranged to meet in a local pub. When the rest of us had arrived we called them, and soon we were all together, assembling the banners at the bottom of the road. Anne gave us a pre-protest briefing, reminding us to be careful not to photograph any of the visitors. Give people lots of space, she advised, especially those accompanied by children. Visiting a prison can be stressful enough at the best of times.
A few cars drove by, passengers peering out of windows to see what we were doing.
Once we’d arranged ourselves in a satisfactory order, we headed up the hill, singing as we strode.
“Power to the women
Women got the power
Women in Downview
We’re here to support you
Put the trans in Highdown
Power to the women.”
We arrived at the prison gates (which were open) and settled ourselves on the grass by the Visitors’ Centre. I was delighted to discover that we were allowed to go into the visitors’ centre and buy hot drinks and sandwiches.
A few visitors were queuing to get their paperwork done, and scattered children played with books and blocks on the floor. I felt a little conspicuous in my ‘Adult Human Female’ hoodie but no one really gave me a second glance. One little girl nearly ran into me and I grinned at her mum who smiled back. The server scooped three spoons of Nescafé into a paper cup and I was good to go.
We stood outside the Visitors’ Centre for a few minutes and then moved further away, onto a nearby patch of grass.
One woman recognised someone she knew, an ex-prisoner, who was visiting her girlfriend. She was delighted to see us there and posed for a photo with us all.
Another woman passing by, talking on her phone, stopped and asked why we were here. She shook her head and took a leaflet. “I agree with you, that’s not on.”
We handed out a few more leaflets to passers by and we sang our chants a few more times. The area grew quieter as the visitors dribbled into the prison. We tied the banners to trees, a lamppost and a fence and sat down. Birds chirped in the trees. One woman began making daisy chains. The afternoon sun was warm on our heads as we drank water and coffee on the grass. Julia handed out some leaflets for us to offer passers by and visitors.
“Let’s have a bit of cake and relax,” said Julia and someone joked about how it was a good job it wasn’t pizza.
“You should sell T shirts,” I said. “With cartoon pictures of lesbians sitting on chairs, eating pizza.”
I checked my posts on Twitter and listened to Clare talking about Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker prison reformer who helped establish single sex prisons. I learned that Fry had also handed out sewing kits to the women boarding boats for Australia so they would have a trade on arrival.
A second design of leaflet was passed around and handed out.
A young man walked by with his dog. He scowled at the banners and shouted over to us before striding off down the hill. “You want women in men’s prisons but not men in women’s prisons? That’s not equality, is it? We need equality!”
“What? But we don’t want women in men’s prisons,” Emma turned to the woman next to her, who shrugged.
“Maybe he thinks we mean the guards?”
It was suggested that we go for a walk around the prison.
“It might be possible to call over to some of the women in the exercise yard. Visiting hours aren’t over for ages. We can go and come back.”
So, gathering up our banners, coffee cups and cake wrappers, obviously being very careful to leave no litter behind us, we headed off along a path through trees and undergrowth that followed a high brick wall around the prison.
The walk was longer than I expected and the scenery more beautiful. We passed clusters of bluebells and ponies grazing in green fields.
After about twenty minutes we reached an opening in the trees which allowed us to see the prison clearly in the distance. The juxtaposition of nature and freedom with stone walls and incarceration was powerful.
It seemed that we wouldn’t be able to pass by the exercise yard. Time was moving on and we wanted to be back at the prison as the visitors were leaving, so we turned around and headed back the way we came.
En route we passed a man with his young son. “It just isn’t right, is it?” he agreed, after his initial surprise in bumping into a score of banner-carrying women on a footpath through an isolated wood. Shaking his head he took a leaflet and continued with his walk.
Arriving back at the prison we reestablished ourselves on the grass for a short while before deciding we would be best placed if we stood on the road leading down the hill. Spacing out our banners and turning slightly towards the oncoming traffic, we were unintrusive but created an unmissable display. Cars and buses drove by and many people honked and whooped and waved. To be honest, I was surprised at how much support we received. I only noticed one negative reaction: a woman in her car who shook her head slowly and glared at us while moving her hand backwards and forwards above her shoulders.
After a while the flow of cars slowed and then practically stopped. The sun had gone in, the atmosphere was beginning to cool and I put my hoodie back on.
“I think they’ve all gone.” someone observed.
“Shall we go back to the pub?”
I was definitely up for that.
The pub was oak tabled, warm and inviting. We ordered drinks, and those of us who got our orders in in time were lucky enough to eat. I shared a few of my chips with Natasha, who had missed the food deadline, and we discussed the events of the day.
Some women had talked to visitors at the prison. One man’s girlfriend had spoken to a new transgender arrival who had told her how much he was looking forward to ‘being with all the ladies’. Another woman had told them that her girlfriend said the men were using the gym with the women and this made her uncomfortable.
We all agreed the protest had gone well and were glad to have been able to offer support to the women in the prison.
“People appreciate it when you say you care about these issues.”
“At least news will get to the women that we know what’s going on and we’re thinking of them and trying to protect them.”
“Some of the visitors have given us their contact details. They want to tell us more.”
“The public are on our side.”
“We should do this again.”
“Men shouldn’t be in women’s prisons, however they identify.”
I took a bite of my veggieburger and a swig of my lime soda.
“I’ll drink to that,” I said.