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.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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.