James Kirkup

Why was a transgender rapist put in a women’s prison?

Why was a transgender rapist put in a women's prison?
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If you were deciding where to house a convicted sex offender accused of repeatedly raping a woman, where’s the last place on earth you would put that person? How about a building full of vulnerable women, many of whom had previously suffered sexual assault and abuse? A building locked and secured so that those women could not get out and could not get away from that convicted sex offender?

This is not a thought experiment. This is not a clever debating point. This is a simple factual description of something that happened in England in the last year. This is the case of Karen White, a multiple rapist who was placed in a women’s prison. Karen White was born male, and was previously known as Stephen Wood and/or David Thompson. Karen White is “undergoing gender reassignment”, but has not had sex reassignment surgery, meaning Karen White has a penis.

In 2003, Karen White used that penis to commit rape. In 2016, Karen White used that penis to commit rape again. Twice. As a result, Karen White was last year remanded in prison awaiting trial for rape. It wasn’t Karen White’s first time behind bars. In 2001, Karen White was jailed for 18 months for an act of gross indecency with a child.

That sentence was served in a male prison. But last year, when Karen White was sent to jail pending trial for rape, Karen White “identified” as a woman. So the Prison Service allowed Karen White to be housed in the female prison estate. And in HMP New Hall, Karen White sexually assaulted women. Here’s a quote, via the Telegraph, from the prosecutor in the trial where Karen White admitted two indecent assaults against female prisoners:

“The defendant would stand very close to [the victim], touch her arm and wink at her. Her penis was erect and sticking out of the top of her trousers.”

Read that quote again, and consider that phrase “her penis”. It’s a linguistic consequence of the set of ideas and practices that saw English legal authorities put Karen White, a multiple rapist and paedophile, in a sealed building full of vulnerable women. For Karen White is a transwoman and to use a phrase intoned by trans rights campaigners of all sorts, “transwomen are women”. It is ultimately the ideas behind that phrase that persuaded some people in authority that Karen White, and Karen White’s penis, should be in a women’s prison.

Quite how did the Prison Service come to decide that it was a good idea to house the rapist Karen White in a jail full of women? Prison policy says prisoners should generally be housed in the estate that matches their expressed gender, subject to a review by a Transgender Case Board following rules drawn up after a review partly run by an organisation called Gendered Intelligence, one of a handful of small trans rights groups that enjoy an interesting level of access and influence in Whitehall.

Such a board apparently did consider the appropriate place to house Karen White, a person with a penis who was accused of rape and had previously been jailed for child sex abuse. And that board decided that the best place for that person was a jail full of vulnerable women. “We apologise sincerely for the mistakes which were made in this case,” the Prison Service told the Telegraph about the case of the rapist Karen White. “While we work to manage all prisoners, including those who are transgender, sensitively and in line with the law, we are clear that the safety of all prisoners must be our absolute priority.”

What to make of all this? What sharp, snappy, clever new point to draw from this dreadful case? Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve got one. I’ve written tens of thousands of words about this subject this year, all with the same basic theme: this is an area of politics and policy where people in positions of power and responsibility are failing. Failing to apply basic critical thinking. Failing to scrutinise, failing to analyse. Failing to speak, to debate questions that need full and careful discussion. Failing to do their jobs. Failing to listen. Failing women. This case, this stupid, awful case is just another part of that failure.

It was, after all, not just predictable but predicted. All sorts of people have been warning that prison rules written to accommodate trans offenders could have the consequence of putting vulnerable women at risk from male-born sexual predators. Some of those warnings, generally the ones made by men with clinical or legal expertise, were simply ignored.

Others warnings, made by women, were actively dismissed as hate-speech and bigotry. When Dr Nicola Williams of Fair Play for Women first suggested last year that around 40 per cent of the transgender prisoners in the female prison estate were sex offenders, she was scorned and accused of transphobia. When the BBC uncovered official records that showed the real figure was actually higher than that, it tried to bury its own story. (Incidentally, at the time of writing, the BBC has so far managed only six sentences of reporting on the Karen White case.)

When Ann Ruzylo, a former prison officer, said she feared female inmates were being put at risk of attack by male-bodied offenders, she was subjected to a sustained online campaign of abuse and vilification that continues to this day. And when the Sun first reported the case of the rapist Karen White, a Labour women’s officer called Lily Madigan dismissed the report – and thus the accounts of Karen White’s victims – as “transmisogynistic fearmongering”.

The prison service is ultimately overseen by David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, and Rory Stewart, the prisons minister. I know and respect both; they’re the sort of decent, serious people you can still find in all the main political parties. I suspect they’re as angry as I am about this case.

What happens if decent people like Gauke and Stewart are angry, are willing to look properly and critically at the management of trans offenders in a way that adequately reflects the interests of female prisoners?

That would be a start, a step towards restoring real balance to political and policymaking processes that have been skewed by the ceaseless demands of those groups and individuals who argue so forcefully for trans rights, even to the detriment of others. Make no mistake – that is what happened in the case of Karen White. The interests and wishes of a male-born sex offender were given priority over the wellbeing of women in New Hall prison.

Perhaps ministers will feel and express real remorse over this case. Perhaps MPs will do their jobs and investigate the failings of this case and the wider issues raised by the management of those transgender sex offenders in jail. Perhaps this case will persuade a few more politicians and journalists and others to speak up.

There are, I think, signs that a more reasoned, more ordinary approach is being taken to this issue. More politicians and more journalists are indeed paying attention; more still will do so in time. But there remains a long way to go.  The words “transwomen are women” still have power; the charge that anyone who questions that mantra and its implications must be a nasty bigot on the wrong side of history still scares many people into leaving their doubts and questions unspoken.

And all the while, the Government continues to consult on changes in the Gender Recognition Act, amending the law to make it easier for men with penises to acquire the legal status of a woman, and thus a near-unchallengeable legal right to enter female-only spaces. Spaces like women’s prisons.

“Transwomen are women” says the mantra. Those who repeat those words take great pains to ensure people who describe themselves in that way are respected and accommodated, their wishes and interests promoted. Among those who use the words is David Gauke’s Cabinet colleague Penny Mordaunt, the minister for women and equalities.

The rapist Karen White is a transwoman.

“Transwomen are women,” Penny Mordaunt said when she announced that plan to change the law. “That is the starting point for the GRA consultation, and it will be its finishing point too.”

The victims of the rapist Karen White are women. Who speaks for them?