Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Marie Dean story shows there’s no simple answer to how we treat transgender prisoners

Dean’s history of sexual offences was ignored in calls for her to be housed in the female estate.

It was presented, at first, as a simple case of injustice in the prison system. The Observer ran the story with the headline “Transgender woman in male prison ‘nightmare’ on hunger strike”. The facts given were these: Marie Dean, 50, is refusing food in protest at being held in HMP Preston on an indeterminate sentence for burglary without access to “hair straighteners, epilator or any makeup”. The report linked to a Change.org petition demanding that Dean be “moved into the female estate as quickly as possible”. Some detail, though, seemed to be missing. If you wondered why a burglar would receive an indeterminate sentence, the answer wasn’t here.

But a cursory Google explained it. Before she transitioned, Dean, aged 42 in 2009, was convicted of over 30 offences including voyeurism, aggravated burglary and assaulting police officers. Dean broke into homes, dressed in teenage girls’ underwear, and filmed herself in their bedrooms engaging in what the court reporting coyly called “sex acts”. “Your victims,” said the judge, “undoubtedly regard you as being a dangerous man within the community and the sort of dangerous person that will give them every reason to be careful or worry when things go bump in the night.” (Dean’s 2003 trial for charges related to an indecent video of children ended in a not-guilty verdict.)

That’s why the crimes came with an indeterminate sentence: because Dean was a sexual offender with an escalating pattern of behaviour against women. After complaints, The Observer updated its report with details of Dean’s crimes, but the fundamental outline of the story remains as it was, while the Pink News version still only mentions burglary. Alarmingly, it was only possible to learn this because Dean had made a relatively minor name change. One unhappy consequence of the well-intentioned taboo against “deadnaming” (using a trans individual’s pre-transition name) is that past actions are able to slip from the record.

At this point, I think it’s OK to ask where women figure in all this. This is someone who presents a manifest danger to women, someone whose victims live in the long shadow of violation in their own homes; yet media outlets have given an uncritical platform to demands for Dean’s transfer into the female estate. If being denied hair straighteners can be presented as a cruel and unusual punishment, one might imagine that housing female prisoners with a voyeur would rate somewhere even higher. But in prison, as everywhere else, the expectation appears to be that women’s safety comes last.

Where trans inmates are housed is, at the moment, a matter of discretion for prison authorities. And simplifying these cases (by, for example, obscuring the sexual nature of Dean’s crimes) does an immense disservice to the pressures on prisons, where resources are sparse, violence rife, and self-harm and suicide hideously prevalent.

Campaigners for prisoner self-identification usually refer to three trans women who died in custody in 2015: Vikki Thompson, Joanne Latham and Jenny Swift. But of the three, only Swift had asked to be moved to a women’s prison. An inquest found that Thompson hadn’t intended to kill herself, and hadn’t requested transfer. Latham had made a request to transfer to another prison, according to the report after her death, which did not record any request of transfer to the women’s estate. The report concluded that the prison she was incarcerated in “appropriately supported Ms Latham’s decision to live as a woman”. It is also uncertain whether such a move would have even been possible, given that Latham had been assessed as exceptionally dangerous and was being held in a close supervision centre, which only exist in the men’s sector.

All their deaths are an indictment of the prison system’s grotesque failure in its duty of care to the people it deprives of liberty. In no way is that duty of care going to be better discharged by moving to a system of unquestioned self-identification. Which is why it’s so dispiriting to hear politicians such as David Lidington and Jeremy Corbyn on Marr this weekend, saying things like “we should respect people however they identify” or “where you’ve self-identified as a woman, then you are treated as a woman.” These are easy, pleasant things to say. The detail is where it gets nasty.

“Gatekeeping” gets a bad rap in gender politics. I’m happy to go on record as saying that gatekeeping is a lesser ill than putting a someone with a history of sexual offences when they were a man in women’s prisons. When it comes to gender, we can’t always give the last word to someone’s subjective claims about their own identity. Not because they might be lying or mistaken (how could we possibly test someone else’s sincerity?) but because in a case like Dean’s, it’s not thoughts that count, it’s deeds. If the gender revolution means a voyeur’s right to be seen as a woman is being placed ahead of women’s right to be safe from a voyeur, something has gone very wrong.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

BBC
Show Hide image

Can Britain’s new powers to investigate unexplained wealth prevent real-life McMafias?

The government is waking up to the fact that global criminals are fond of London. 

The BBC’s McMafia, a story of high-flying Russian mobsters and international money launderers woven into the fabric of London, ended this month. Despite the dramatic TV twists, the subject matter has its basis in reality. As a barrister dealing with cases that involve Russia and former Soviet states, my experience is that politicians and business people use the apparatus of the state to put rivals out of business by any means possible.

In McMafia, previously straight-laced fund manager Alex Godman (played by James Norton) begins transferring money under the cover of a new investment fund. With a click of a button, he can transfer a shady partner’s money around the world. As the Paradise Papers underlined, money can indeed be hidden through the use of complex company structures registered in different countries, many of which do not easily disclose the names of owners and beneficiaries. One company can be owned by another, so the owner of Company A (in Panama) might be Company B (in the Cayman Islands) which is owned by Company C (in the Seychelles) which owns property in London. To find out who owns the property, at least three separate jurisdictions must be contacted and international co-operation arranged – and that’s a simple structure. Many companies will have multiple owners, making it even more difficult to work out who the actual beneficiary is.

I represent individuals before the UK extradition and immigration courts. They are bankers, business people and politicians who have fled persecution in Russia and Ukraine or face fabricated charges in their home country and face extradition or deportation and will often be tortured or put on show trial if we lose. Their opponents will deploy spies, who may pay visits to co-defendants in Russia for “psychological work” (aka torture). Sometimes the threat of torture or ruin against a person’s family is enough to make them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I have seen family members of my clients issued with threats of explicit violence and the implicit destruction of their life. Outside their close relatives’ homes in Russia, cars have been set on fire. Violence and intimidation are part of the creed that permeates the country’s business and political rivalries.

As in McMafia, London has long played a bit part in these rivalries, but the UK government has been slow to act. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent turned defector, was killed in London using Polonium 210 – a radioactive substance put into a cup of tea. Although Russian state involvement was suspected from the beginning, the UK government tried to block certain material being released into the public domain, leading his family to complain that the UK’s relations with Russia were being put before the truth. In 2016, a decade after his death, the inquiry finally delivered its verdict: there was a “strong probability” Litvinenko was murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Yet in the same breath as condemning the act, David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the UK would have to “weigh carefully” the incident against “the broader need to work with Russia on certain issues”.

The government of Cameron’s successor has however been quick to use McMafia as a spring-board to publicise its new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). These new investigatory powers are purportedly to be used to stop the likes of Alex from hiding money from the authorities. Anyone with over £50,000 of property who is politically exposed or suspected of a serious crime, will be forced to disclose the source of their wealth on request. While most British homeowners would own more than £50,000, the individuals are likely to be high profile politicians or under investigation already by the authorities. If they fail to respond punctually, they risk forfeiting their property.

The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has long campaigned for such measures, highlighting cases such as the first family of Azerbaijan owning property in Hampstead or senior Russian politicians believed to own flats in Whitehall. Previously, confiscating hidden assets has been a lengthy and complex process: when the High Court confiscated an £11m London house belonging to a Kazakh dissident, the legal process took seven years.

The new Unexplained Wealth Orders mean that the onus is shifted to the owner of the property to prove legitimacy and the origin of the wealth. The authorities will have much greater power to investigate where finance and investment originated. But in order for them to work effectively, they will have to be backed up by expert prosecutors. The government still has a long way to go before it makes London a less attractive place to hide money.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law.