Jails without Gatekeeping?: Evidence from the UK Prisons System
Or, what happens when unprovable and unfalsifiable dogmas take over state institutions
Today’s guest post is an exceptionally thorough, balanced, and meticulous fisking of the concept of gender self-id, using the recognition of gender self-id in UK prisons as a case study revealing the absurdities and harms that must necessarily flow from the adoption of such a policy by state institutions. It is written by a pseudonymous historian employed in the UK civil service. Expect more of the same in all domains and all territories wherever gender self-id is entrenched into law. That means the US and the whole Anglosphere.
by Greg Pope
A novel property of the burgeoning Trans Rights Activism (TRA) discourse is the valorization of self-declaration as proof of identity and group membership. Historically, identity and group membership have always required community verification, otherwise known as gatekeeping. Religion, race, class, education or age could never be established through self-identification alone. There is in each case a number of observational tests by which the others can reach a judgment on the subjective claim to identity. Sometimes these tests are enshrined in law, but ordinarily they are subject to informal verification based on a social consensus of the existing in-groups. Thus, if someone tells you that they are Catholic, black, rich, or young, you can take a look at them and potentially say, "I don't believe you.” If a critical mass of those already established in the identity group agree, the claim will not stand. There are of course lively and heated debates about what exactly the observational criteria for gatekeeping these identities are, but self-identification can never be dispositive in itself.
So too in the case of gender identity, which until the twenty-first century always had something to do with performance, and was informally policed by the regulars at the limited number of venues where gender nonconformity was the norm. The novel formulation of “gender identity” placed into circulation by Trans Rights Activism entirely breaks any observational moorings. The claim itself becomes synonymous with identity. This "self-ID" method of accommodating a constantly evolving and frequently inchoate concept of transness in the internet age has the apparent twin advantages of simplicity and - most importantly - inclusivity. But it virtually abolishes the concept of false claims where they relate to gender identity. The absence of any method of verification does not just make the identity group vulnerable to unwanted members. It makes it effectively impossible to define an unwanted member in the first place. Gender identity is thus the only kind of identity whose claims can neither be verified nor falsified by any external criterion, leaving every persistent claim, by definition, true. In this new world there are no liars and no fantasists, only people telling their truth, and this truth is absolute.
As more than a few critics of Trans Rights Activism have argued, self-ID is thus a potentially serious problem for members of the traditional gender categories straddled by trans identity, particularly women. But to imagine this issue purely as a conflict between defenders of biological 'cis' women and defenders of the trans community would be a mistake. The gravest danger that self-ID poses may be to the trans community itself, or rather to the trans communities whose existence pre-dates the idea of self-ID, and whose social verification processes are radically disrupted by the all-too-easy language game it establishes. In the worst-case scenario, the cohesion and reputation of those communities will find itself at the mercy of any lunatic or liar willing to say the magic words "I am trans," allowing anyone to dragoon adherents to self-ID into their service. Any wrongs or harms such people commit become the collective property of trans communities, resulting in a progressive debasement of the identity in the public imagination. Worse still, the principle that transition erases the previous identity of the subject means that even crimes committed by people with no claim to trans identity can later be retconned into the trans story, and reputable institutions and organizations - including the judicial system - are compelled to participate.
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Several such cases of dubious identity switches by criminals looking for leniency and support, have appeared in the press in recent years. One illustrative example concerns John Goodier, a serial sex criminal arrested for bestiality, whose gender identity claims were recognized by the courts after he appeared in women's clothes and expressed a wish to be addressed as "Claire." The 60-year-old Goodier was not a trans woman when he committed his crimes. He had transitioned between the time police seized his computer in 2019 and the time of his/her arrest in 2021. Goodier’s probation officer, who had been meeting him for some years, described him as "deceitful and manipulative." For the court, which guided by TRA discourse, neither the deceitfulness and pathological behavior of the person, nor the fact that he had apparently progressed from child pornography to bestiality before belatedly deciding that he was in fact a woman, was relevant to his gender identity claims. Instead, the general public was subjected to the spectacle of a dog abuser being retroactively integrated into the trans community by rightwing media, without challenge from Trans Rights Activists. Goodier was not, however, allowed to be incarcerated in a prison matching his gender claims. Like the great majority of self-IDers recognized as female by the UK judicial system, he was sent to a men’s prison.
To those familiar with the progress of self-ID through public institutions, the compliance of the courts with such claims in the name of inclusivity will come as no surprise. The real question is, why did the UK prisons system seemingly disagree? The answer lies in the strange recent history of gender claims in the UK prisons system, which bear out the implications of introducing a species of radical subjectivism as a basis of recognition into the real world. Prisons are venues in which dishonesty and delusions are endemic, and therefore pose an especially stern test of self-declaration as proof of identity. As we shall see, what this stern test illustrates is the total failure of even a qualified system of self-ID under the pressure of a real-world environment in which gender claims are associated with legal advantage, and the absolute necessity of observation-based gatekeeping to preserving both the safety of the public and the reputation of the trans community. It also illustrates how, even when the issue is understood, authorities demur from highlighting it, instead colluding with Trans Rights Activists to preserve the myth that self-ID is a functional system for validating group membership.
Self-ID in UK Prisons
The idea of self-declaration entered the UK prisons system in the 2010s. This development crystallized after a campaign against state policy by supporters of Tara Hudson, a transwoman prisoner who had been confined to a men's prison. Prior to this lawsuit, the only way to be recognized as transgender in law was to go through a formal two-year process to acquire a so-called "Gender Recognition Certificate" (GRC) from the state. This involved providing evidence of living in the chosen gender, long-term psychiatric evaluation and a commitment to undergoing gender reassignment surgery, including the removal of male reproductive organs. But early in 2015 this strict formal system of verification collided with the informal social verification system that long pre-dated it, and had existed alongside it for a decade. The awkward truth faced by the judicial system in this moment was that interactions with the state's verification system were peripheral to the actual transgender population. In real life, many males who were committed to living as women, and were treated as such for all intents and purposes by their social circles, did not have GRCs.
Tara Hudson was one such person. Despite not having had genital reassignment, she had undergone extensive reconstructive surgery, consistently presented as a woman for her entire adult life, and had been treated as such within the local community. Her feminine appearance and comportment lead to her being targeted for abuse by fellow prisoners. The state therefore decided that holding a GRC was an unfairly narrow definition of 'gender reassignment', which was a protected characteristic under the Equality Act of 2010, and that people without GRCs should be allowed into the female prison estate. But the judiciary had a problem: how do you formally define in law an informal community verification process that innately resists the hard and precise definitions that characterize written legislation? How do you form a legal concept out of the idea that “such-and-such sincerely believes that they are a transwoman”, or "everyone knows that such-and-such is a transwoman?" Into this breach between irreconcilable formal and informal verification systems stepped Trans Rights Activist groups with the concept of self-ID. And in the absence of any clear way to describe informal community verification, the legal authorities accepted this concept as the best proxy. Guidance was issued to prison authorities to respect and take serious any and all gender claims of prisoners.
This was a classic case of legislation relying on binary 'if-then' decision procedures reminiscent of computing, which could not embrace the complexity of real-world contexts. The old decision procedure - "if holder of GRC, then trans" - clearly excluded the majority of trans people as defined by local communities. The new procedure - "if self-declared, then trans" - went to the other extreme, potentially including people who were not viewed as trans by their contemporaries or even by themselves. Nonetheless it seemed to the judicial authorities to address the problem satisfactorily if imperfectly. After all, even if trans people were granted certain legal protections and privileges unavailable to other prisoners, they remained an oppressed group, and it did not seem likely that a significant number of people would opt into such an oppressed group for the sake of the relatively meagre advantages provided by the state.
Therefore a non-ideological judiciary under the guidance of Trans Rights Activist lobbyists enshrined in law the practice of recognizing gender self-ID and assigning prisoners to the facility corresponding to their self-ID for what seemed to be rational reasons. But the automatic acceptance of gender identity claims had to be balanced against the safeguarding concerns of the prison estate. The change in policy would have to be evaluated with respect to any effects it might have on the incidence of assault and abuse that prison administrators are charged with keeping low. The state created panels made up of probation officers, prison governors, social workers, psychologists, and experts in gender identity to evaluate the claims of those seeking re-assignment to gender appropriate facilities. The panelists were expected to be guided by the mandates of gender self-id and give credence to any and all identity claims. But they were authorized to reject them on the basis of deceit, or if the claimant posed such serious risks to female prisoners that they could not be allowed into contact with them under any circumstances.
Late in 2015, a parliamentary committee looking into the legal framework surrounding trans issues heard evidence from the gender identity specialists who sat on those panels. It is important to note that these specialists were very much in sympathy with trans prisoners, and were professionally dedicated to helping such people toward hormonal and surgical interventions as well as legal protections. Their leading figure, Dr James Barrett, was the subject of online attack by gender critical opponents for his earlier work, which helped build the case for admitting biological males into the female prison estate. And the majority of his submission to the 2015 enquiry was firmly focused on the discrimination and other challenges faced by trans people. But the evidence that he had seen in the prison estate could not be ignored. In the new system of self-ID, Barrett and his colleagues had witnessed an "ever-increasing tide of referrals of patients in prison serving long or indeterminate sentences for serious sexual offenses," which "vastly outnumber the number of prisoners incarcerated for more ordinary, non-sexual, offenses." A substantial number of men who had no history of dysphoria or gender-nonconformity, but who did have a history of serious sexual violence, were suddenly deciding that they were women and should be cohabiting with female prisoners.
The remainder of the submission deserves to be quoted in full - "It has been rather naïvely suggested that nobody would seek to pretend transsexual status in prison if this were not actually the case. There are, to those of us who actually interview the prisoners, in fact very many reasons why people might pretend this. These vary from the opportunity to have trips out of prison through to a desire for a transfer to the female estate (to the same prison as a co-defendant) through to the idea that a parole board will perceive somebody who is female as being less dangerous through to a belief that hormone treatment will actually render one less dangerous through to wanting a special or protected status within the prison system and even (in one very well evidenced case that a highly concerned Prison Governor brought particularly to my attention) a plethora of prison intelligence information suggesting that the driving force was a desire to make subsequent sexual offending very much easier, females being generally perceived as low risk in this regard. I am sure that the Governor concerned would be happy to talk about this."
While in the world of social media, at a safe distance from the harsh realities of the prison system, many continued to repeat the canard that no-one would pretend to be trans, the experience of gender identity specialists within the prison system was quietly destroying this myth. Not only were men pretending to be trans, but they were doing so in growing numbers as knowledge of the self-ID system became more widespread. Worse still, these fake trans people were inordinately likely to be violent sexual predators. There was also a substantial grey area, where gender identity claims, which may have been subjectively perceived as genuine, coincided and interacted with severe mental health problems, learning difficulties, and personality disorder. In short, prison authorities determined to respect self-ID in principle but concerned with safeguarding in practice were being forced to face up to the fact that gender identity claims were sometimes false or mistaken. Guidance on the treatment of identity claimants therefore perforce included instructions to investigate the possibility that those claimants might be unfit for transfer to women’s prisons, but still made the assumption that such abuses would be a small minority of cases.
In 2021, a lawsuit brought against the prisons system by a woman who had been raped by a GRC-holding trans prisoner brought data to the public’s attention that illustrated the scale of the problem identified in Dr Barrett’s evidence. The aim of the suit was to exclude all genitally intact males from women’s prisons, but the statistics produced by the trial related almost exclusively to self-declared transwomen without GRCs. This data was neither complete nor unambiguous, but the picture it painted was troubling. Between 2016 and 2017 the number of self-IDing males in the women’s prison estate cannot be firmly established, but given that the total number of self-IDers was in the dozens, and many were already being excluded, the total in women’s prisons cannot have exceeded thirty or forty. By 2018 the total was around twenty-five at most. This confined group, who represented probably not more than 1% of the total population, had been responsible for seven out of a total of 97 recorded sexual assaults, roughly 7%. Obviously, this is a tiny sample of data, not sufficient to draw firm statistical conclusions, and the judges in the lawsuit found it insufficient to alter the basic legal framework governing the assignment of biological males to the female prison estate. But the implications are nonetheless striking. Even when male prisoners self-IDing as trans women were verified and sifted, such that the most obviously dangerous and dishonest were systematically excluded, the remaining subgroup were still much more likely to sexually assault women than their fellow female prisoners.
The legal team defending the right of self-declared transwomen to be held in women’s prisons pointed out that in 2019 the number of sex assaults committed by self-IDers had been reduced to zero. And partly on this basis, the court ruled that existing policy was “capable of being operated lawfully.” But the court did not mention in its ruling that this had only been achieved by rendering the policy almost purely symbolic in practice. By 2019 the panels charged with assessing applications for transfer to women’s prisons had become considerably more exacting, gathering intelligence on the behavior of candidates that went far beyond their official criminal records, and the results of this change were emphatic. The number of males self-IDing as transwomen in UK prisons in 2019 had risen to one hundred and twenty nine. But the number being admitted to women’s prisons had been reduced to just four - that is, around 3% of the possible candidates. By 2021 this had declined to three out of 158 self-declared transwomen, less than 2% of the total. In other words, the experiment in allocating prisoners to female prisons on the basis of how they self identified, while being vocally supported in principle by the authorities, had quietly been all but done away with in practice.
It has to be stressed that this move toward a system of increasingly aggressive vetting was entirely driven by safeguarding concerns and had nothing whatsoever to do with an anti-Trans Rights Activist agenda. The state was still in court, defending the principle that males without surgical or hormonal alterations could be housed in women’s prisons, and its victory in defending that principle was celebrated by Trans Rights Activists. The problem was that in practice the system was no longer in operation at all. But that aspect of the issue was being neither touted by the Home Office nor noticed by most of those debating the issue in the public realm.
A few contemporary news stories illustrate the kinds of people who had been admitted to women’s prisons through self-ID, and were now being removed. The most notorious was Karen White (previously Stephen Wood), a self-declared transwoman without any physical alterations, who was placed in a women’s prison in 2017 after being convicted of burglary and grievous bodily harm. White also had a past record of sexual crimes, including pedophilia. Within three months of being placed in the women’s estate, White had sexually assaulted two women, and while in prison two other rapes committed by White in the outside world also came to light after victims came forward. It also emerged that White had requested female hormones from prison authorities, but bragged to one of his victims that he was not taking them due to the fact that they made it impossible for him to get an erection. The judge, sentencing White to life in a men’s prison, described him as “a predator and highly manipulative.” White was, in short, a classic example of the kind of unscrupulous and devious sexual predator highlighted by Dr James Barrett in his 2015 testimony regarding those who pretend to be trans. But these features of his personality had not been taken seriously by a gender review panel under orders to take all gender claims seriously.
Another case illustrates some of the other purposes for falsely self-IDing alluded to by Dr Barrett. In 2018 Scottish newspapers reported that self-IDer Sophie (previously Daniel) Eastwood was transferred out of a women’s facility to the male prison estate after fellow prisoners and staff alike became convinced that he was abusing the system. Among other things, he had entered into a pornographically ostentatious homosexual relationship with another self-IDer, and this was seen as the last straw after a litany of petty abuses of the indulgences and advantages granted him on the basis of self-ID. Eastwood, prior to his decision to identify as a woman, had been convicted of murder after strangling his cellmate with shoelaces, and was serving a 15-year minimum sentence. In a particularly telling incident before his decision to self-ID, Eastwood caused a female prison guard to quit after he revealed to her that he had obtained intimate details about her personal life, including the names of her children and her address. In other words, while not a sexual threat to female inmates, Eastwood was an unstable, unscrupulous, and devious game-player.
What the statistics on the proportion of self-IDers imply is that the majority of males requesting transfer to the women’s estate were also playing the review panel system like a game, such that even some of those who had made it through the panels and were allowed into women’s prisons had subsequently to be withdrawn. And this was the situation under conditions where the more suspect and dangerous candidates for transfer to the women’s prison estate were already being systematically excluded. Which implies that there were people even less convincing and more dangerous than Karen White and Sophie Eastman requesting transfer to women’s prisons.
It must be emphasized that none of this suggests that the majority of real transwomen - that is, males who were dysphoric and/or committed to living as a woman - were attempting to abuse either the system or their fellow prisoners. One final piece of data helps to understand just how far the statistics on applicants for official transgender status fail to the reflect the real trans population in UK prisons. An anonymized survey of prisoners carried out in 2019 found that no less than one in fifty of the incarcerated male population - roughly one and a half thousand people - identified privately as trans or nonbinary. So the number of men who described themselves as trans in confidential surveys was ten times higher than the mere 150 or so who declared themselves to be trans officially and demanded special treatment. What the evidence of gender review panel statistics implies is that there may in fact be only very partial overlap between the larger and the smaller group. In other words, the system for reallocating transwomen to women’s prison may have been more regularly used by game-players than by actual trans people.
We are thus left in the strange position, whereby the majority of trans people in prison - who are generally willing for whatever reasons to remain among their own sex - are virtually ignored, while the majority of people in prison who openly identify as trans and are supported as such by Trans Rights Activists in their efforts to be transferred to women’s prisons, are in fact deceitful, delusional, and dangerous individuals exploiting the reality-constituting power lent to their claims by the state. Under any identity verification system more onerous than self-ID, many of this latter group would probably not qualify as trans at all. But by constituting transness on the basis of a language game, Trans Rights Activism has ended up defending and centering those most willing to play the game - whether out of unscrupulousness or insanity - rather than the majority of dysphoric and gender-nonconforming people in the prison system.
The period 2016 to 2018 offered a small glimpse into what would happen if all persistent self-IDers were allowed into women’s prisons. It also hinted at the pandemonium of scandalous stories that would emerge if self-IDers were allowed into the women’s prison estate willy-nilly. A Karen White every month would be a tragedy for the victims, and a travesty of the trans community. The irony of the situation is that both are being protected by a system of gatekeeping - of exactly the type denounced by Trans Rights Activism - from the harm and calumny that would inevitably result from full implementation of self-ID. Yet both Trans Rights Activists and their critics continue to repeat the canard that self-ID has been successfully implemented in British prisons. Thus, the prison authorities have ended up in the role of a dutiful and put-upon adult, quietly cleaning up after the spoilt children of Trans Rights Activism, without ever daring to scold them for their excesses.
What the experiment of the UK prisons system illustrates is the practical inoperability of a system of self-ID for group membership, where that membership carries any special benefits. That this has proved true even where the identity in question also carries so many challenges and risks is striking, but perhaps should not be surprising. The longstanding social downsides and more recent legal upsides of trans status are of entirely different species, such that they do not simply cancel each other out. The law of averages demands that there will be those who take the downsides lightly and prize the upsides highly. Doubtless, outside of the prison estate - a world where dishonesty and malice are uniquely concentrated - the abuse of the system must be much less pervasive, to the point where it would be marginal rather than central to the overall story, but unless the prison system could be relied upon to perfectly contain every liar and predator, the same issues would apply elsewhere.
Of course, one failed experiment will not be enough to shift such a thoroughly entrenched paradigm as self-ID. What it does do is point to the eventual fate of this utopian vision of absolute personal sovereignty against community judgment. The system will undoubtedly be abused, and eventually abuses will come to light that are so egregious that scandal and safeguarding concerns will force the abandonment of self-ID by public authorities. How long the penny will take to drop depends on how thoroughly the relevant data is obfuscated and underplayed. But given the tendency of self-ID to categorically annihilate the concept that anyone could ever falsely claim to be trans, it may be a long time coming.