Comment: what we can learn from the sad story of Tara Hudson

Housing transgender prisoners is but one of many challenges for pressured prison governors, writes Eric Allison


Protesters at a rally for transgender equality in the States. Photograph: Ted Eytan

After reading the sad story of a transgender prisoner, Tara Hudson, I found myself contemplating the sheer complexity of the problems the prison service faces on a daily basis.

Hudson, 26, though born male, had lived all her life as a woman and had undergone six years of gender reconstruction surgery. But legally she is still a man. And a Bristol court sentenced her on that basis.

The makeup artist was given a three month jail term for assault by magistrates and sent to HMP Bristol, a male prison.

Hudson appealed against the sentence. Her plea was turned down by the Crown Court, but the Recorder invited the prison service to reconsider their decision to hold her in a male prison.

She was later moved to Eastwood Park, a south Gloucestershire female jail.

By all accounts, Hudson had endured a torrid time at Bristol. Hardly surprising; she presents and acts as a woman and was bound to subjected to taunts and lewd comments. Male prisons are pretty macho places, where bullying is rife.

Prison presents a challenge even for ‘normal’ gay men. But those trapped in the wrong gender and undergoing change face an entirely different order of challenge.

But I have some sympathy with the prison service and in particular the governor of Bristol who had to deal with this problem. Hudson was sentenced as a man and jails have a duty to house whoever the courts send to them.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove has promised to give prison governors more autonomy. But I doubt the governor of Bristol would have felt confident enough to move Hudson to a female prison, even if the law had been on his side.

Since the Gender Recognition Act 2004 came into force, jails in England and Wales have been required to meet the needs of trans inmates who have received legal acknowledgement of their acquired gender, by virtue of a gender recognition certificate.

A special prison service order deals with the issue of gender-change prisoners and provides guidance for prison managers and staff. Establishments must provide prisoners who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria with the same quality of care they would expect to receive from the NHS.

Jails are instructed to permit prisoners undergoing gender change to live permanently in their acquired gender. This includes dressing in appropriate clothing and adopting new names and form of address.

The rules differ according to gender. Males wishing to transition to females may be refused permission to transfer to a female prison on grounds of security. But female-to-male prisoners may not be refused a transfer, because there are no grounds that can prevent location in the male estate.

It’s complicated. So spare a thought for the Bristol governor. Like all local prisons, Bristol takes in the prisoners the courts send. On any given day, these will include drug addicts suffering withdrawal symptoms, alcoholics, the homeless and those suffering mental health problems.

And that is not counting the elderly prisoners needing special care, of which there has been a huge increase in the last decade or so.

And last, but not least, in the myriad of difficulties facing prison staff are foreign national prisoners. According to the PRT, there are almost ten thousand foreign national prisoners in the system, around one in eight of the population, representing a 152 per cent increase in the last ten years. They come from 168 countries around the globe and many present with a communication problem when they land in jail.

Picture then the reception area at Bristol on a busy evening. All human life and misery will be there.

No wonder Tara Hudson did not get the immediate, individual, attention she deserved.

One Comment on “Comment: what we can learn from the sad story of Tara Hudson”

  1. Hello Eric,

    Thanks for using my photograph to illustrate the story above, from a transgender gathering in Washington, DC, USA, in 2013.

    I would, however, recommend a better understanding of gender – you said : “Jails are instructed to permit prisoners undergoing gender change to live permanently in their acquired gender.”

    Actually no one “acquires a new gender” – the gender that they are does not change. Proper medical care, sometimes including surgery, allows a person to live authentically in their gender identity, including presentation and physical characteristics.

    There’s a handy style guide you can always reference when reporting on issues related to transgender people:

    The United States does not have anything as comprehensive as the Gender Recognition Act, it is nice to learn more about these innovations through your reporting.

    Best wishes,

    Ted Eytan, MD
    Washington, DC


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