The case of Karen White has been the subject of bitter controversy in recent months. White is a convicted sex offender who identified as trans and was incarcerated in a women’s prison. White committed four sexual assaults while a prisoner. Campaigning feminist groups have seized upon White’s case as an embodiment of the challenge to women’s rights that thy argue is presented by self-identification. Trans activists claim that White had a previous history of sexual offending and thus, according to the Government’s own rules should never have been sent to a women’s prison.
The debate about gender identity seems to be driven by strong feelings, but “facts” are seized upon and used by both sides. In the spirit of “More or Less”, I wanted to examine some statistical aspects of transgender prisoners.
“48% of Trans Prisoners are Sex Offenders”
This extraordinary statistic was placed into the public domain by campaigning group Fair Play for Women, following a freedom of information request to the UK Government. To be precise, in the year to March 2017, 60 out of 125 transgender prisoners known to the Ministry of Justice are sex offenders. The BBC Fact Check web page offered a few thoughts on the statistic. First, the figure does not include any prisoners with a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), because they would be recorded as female prisoners. Second, the data only relate to prisoners serving longer sentences (ie. convicted of serious offences) – there are no statistics for the broader prison population. The BBC Fact Check web page suggested that the proportion might well be much reduced if those serving shorter sentences (ie. deemed to have committed less serious offences) were included in the figures.
This provoked a significant amount of bile from right-wing reactionary journalists like Andrew Gilligan, who accused the BBC of collaborating with transgender activists to promote their agenda. However, it’s a matter of fact (not opinion – although in UK newspapers the distinction appears often to be lost on journalists) that sex offences are by definition serious and thus tend to carry longer sentences. If we add to the total number of serious crimes the (much larger) total number of minor crimes, the numerator will remain the same but the denominator will be much increased.
The 48% figure is clearly a powerful rhetorical tool. It achieves two results at once: first it dramatises the debate about dealing with transgender prisoners; and second, it plays to a popular trope among many of those who have lined up against trans activists – that to be trans is by definition to be some sort of pervert.
Sex offenders make up 17% of the wider prison population (ie. including all types of crime). I must admit that I found this to be an alarmingly large figure. Bearing in mind that 48% was the percentage of serious criminals identified as trans who were also sex offenders, and the fact that crimes such as theft (2,009,697 offences in the year to March 2018 according to the UK’s Office of National Statistics) greatly outnumber sexual offences (150,732 in the same period), it may well be the case (although I have no hard data to test the hypothesis) that the number of trans prisoners who are sex offenders is no greater than 17% when the whole prison population is considered.
Of the 125 sex trans prisoners in 2017, only 22 were MTF prisoners who were accommodated in female prisons according to Fair Play for Women (25 according to the Independent). It is not clear from the ONS data, which were the source of information cited by Fair Play for Women, whether any of these prisoners were sex offenders.
In summary, it is not at all clear what significance we can draw from this statistic. The most that we can reasonably say is that sex offenders represent a somewhat high fraction of the prison population, and it seems that transgender prisoners are not significantly different from other prisoners in this regard. The use of these statistics by Fair Play for Women contributes nothing meaningful to the debate – it is a rhetorical device.
“This is about the feelings of male-bodied people”
According to the Guardian, Labour anti-trans activist Pilgrim Tucker says: “Almost half of trans women prisoners are sex offenders. We urgently need to start prioritising the safeguarding of women and girls over the feelings of male-bodied people.” As demonstrated above, the 48% figure is much less meaningful than it seems to be at first sight, and there are, moreover, no publicly available data that support the claim that trans sex offenders are normally accommodated in women’s prisons; on the prison service’s own admission, Karen White should never have been incarcerated in a women’s prison in the first place and represents a tragic anomaly. However, for many feminist critics the issue boils down to a simple conflict between the protection of women and, as Tucker puts it, “the feelings of male-bodied people”.
For trans prisoners there is in fact a great deal more at stake than hurt feelings. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has published detailed statistical information on a variety of aspects of the lives of prisoners, including rates of sexual victimisation. For the year 2011-12, 4.0% of prison inmates and 3.2% of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization. In the same year, the corresponding figures were 34.6% and 34.0% respectively for transgender prisoners. Thus the mean figure for transgender prisoners is approximately an order of magnitude greater than that for the prison population as a whole. Prisons are dangerous places, but they are disproportionately dangerous for transgender prisoners.
These data indicate that the problem here is not merely “the feelings of male-bodied people”: there is a real risk of serious harm. This is not to say that there is necessarily an argument for accommodating trans prisoners in women’s prisons; however the high risk of harm to transgender prisoners needs to be dealt with appropriately in the prison system.
Prison is a poor place to look for answers to complex societal problems
In the US DOJ reports referred to above, the rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual incidents were 1.7 and 7.2 % for male and female prisons, respectively. Thus it is clear that in all-female prison environments women are capable of exhibiting high rates of sexual violence. There are a great many things that one could infer from these data, but most important of all, they must surely suggest that prison is a rather unusual place where normal presuppositions about human behaviour may no longer apply.
The case of Karen White does not prove that transgendered people represent a specific threat to women, but it does show that a sex offender may make a pretense of transition in order to obtain access to women for the purpose of committing further offenses. The prison system plainly needs an effective means to deal with the threat posed by a sexual predator who “transitions” in order to access women prisoners. However, the US DOJ data also show that there are real and substantial risks to transgender prisoners. A solution is required for prisons that allows both of these concerns to be addressed.