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Isla Bryson: Trans prisoner policy and media hysteria. What's the deal?
Explainer Transgender

Isla Bryson: Trans prisoner policy and media hysteria. What's the deal?

Rowan Gavin
QueerAF, Rowan Gavin
TL;DR: There was controversy in the press this week around whether Isla Bryson, a trans woman convicted of two counts of rape before she started her transition, would be held in a women’s prison in Scotland. It comes as changes to UK policies on transgender prisoners are about to take effect.

Isla Bryson is a trans woman who was this week found guilty of two rapes. It's thought to be the first time a trans woman has been convicted of raping women in Scotland. Bryson transitioned while awaiting trial - BBC

However, the case has hit national headlines amid a UK-wide media obsession over Scotland's recent change to its Gender Recognition Reform Bill. This made it less arduous for people to change gender, in line with UN standards and those of many other countries.

The press outcry was sparked after she was initially sent to a segregated area at a women's prison in Stirling. That quickly changed.

In response to the media, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made a statement in the Scottish parliament confirming that Bryson would not serve her sentence in a women’s prison. She was moved to the men’s wing of HMP Edinburgh on Thursday.

But Sturgeon did stress the decision was made by the Scottish Prison Service according to existing policy, not a ministerial decision - The National

That's because in October, the UK government announced changes to its transgender prisoner policy framework.

“Transgender women with male genitalia, or those who have been convicted of a sexual offence, should no longer be held in the general women’s estate.” - Government policy framework

The full updated policy framework has been delayed - Independent

But crucially, this change affects a tiny minority of the prison population, just 0.2%. In England and Wales there are 230 trans prisoners, including just six trans women held in women’s prisons - Ministry of Justice

Why does the media suddenly care about prisoners?

The laser focus on this case is a symptom of the wider spotlight on transgender people in Scotland. It comes just a week after the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill was controversially vetoed by the UK government.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said Bryson’s case reflected his party’s claims that the GRR Bill would allow sex offenders “to exploit loopholes in the law” - BBC

However this claim is far from the truth. The Gender Recognition Certificate legislation does not affect prisoners, where they are incarcerated or their rights. It simply determines birth, death and marriage certificates.

The Scottish Prison Service's policy says that trans people should “usually” be allocated to institutions according to their gender identity, irrespective of whether they have a GRC.

But it's worth noting, amid all of this focus on transgender rights - whether that's in sports or human rights - that policy is currently under review - Guardian

However, civil society organisations like Rape Crisis Scotland see the recent bill and the situations in prisons as separate matters.

Even though they said sexual offenders shouldn't be housed in the general female population, they also co-signed a statement last week condemning the veto of the Gender Recognition Bill - Rape Crisis Scotland


In both Scottish and UK policy, it is recommended that decisions about trans prisoners are made on a case-by-case basis. And that efforts must be made to respect their gender identity.

That’s exactly what happened in Bryson’s case. Though her crimes may be shocking, from a policy perspective there is nothing unusual about how Bryson has been treated.

Nonetheless, much of the mainstream media leapt at the chance to publish controversial headlines about a trans people. Much of the coverage largely misrepresented the minimal links between this story and the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.

But it's worth noting that the government’s new trans-prisoners policy also perpetuates anti-trans narratives that a person’s genitalia is a determinant of their gender identity or behaviour.

It also wasn't lost on commentators who understand the prison system that the media has suddenly 'cared' about prisons only because it's a way to hit out at trans people - instead of because of an ongoing staffing and welfare crisis.

Jamie Wareham, he/him, gay queer disabled - A note from me:

Sometimes the mainstream media's disdain for trans lives is pretty transparent.

We're transparent too. Transparent in our commitment to bringing you the truth about what's happening for LGBTQIA+ people in this country. Transparent in our work to support LGBTQIA+ people to tell their own stories - like with our Queer Gaze scheme.

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