First UK transgender prison unit to open

An anonymous female prison officer locks a door at Wormwood Scrubs

The UK’s first prison unit for transgender inmates will open this week, the Ministry of Justice has said.

The wing, within a women’s prison in south London, will initially cater for three offenders who were born male but have since changed gender.

Officials say the three prisoners, who have Gender Recognition Certificates, will not have access to the other women at HMP Downview, in Sutton.

The Ministry of Justice said prisoner safety was “our biggest concern”.

The move comes after the case of Karen White, a transgender prisoner, who sexually assaulted two women while on remand at New Hall jail in Wakefield.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Karen White was born Stephen Wood

White, who was born male and now identifies as a woman, was described by a judge as a “predator” who was a danger to women and children.

She was given a life sentence for sexual offences.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Prisoner safety is our biggest concern and any decisions we take will seek to best manage the risks posed by each offender.

“The wider management of transgender offenders is a highly sensitive issue which poses unique and complex challenges and we are determined to get it right.

“That’s why we are reviewing the way we manage all transgender offenders.”

They added that the work was ongoing.


Analysis: ‘A sensitive and fast-moving policy area’

By BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw

The creation of a special unit for transgender inmates is the latest development in a sensitive, controversial and fast-moving area of prison policy.

It is only 16 months since the Ministry of Justice reviewed its procedures and drew up new guidelines to ensure the “great majority” of transgender offenders “experience the system in the gender in which they identify”.

However, the department was clearly shaken by the case of Karen White – the court which dealt with her case heard she’d used her “transgender persona” to put herself in contact with vulnerable women prisoners.

And, in February, ministers said they were carrying out another review of the guidelines they had only recently announced.

The Downview unit, it seems, is one of the outcomes of this latest review – an attempt to strike the correct balance between the rights of transgender inmates and the safety of other prisoners.


The number of transgender inmates in the prison system is hard to calculate and constantly changing.

But last August the BBC’s Reality Check team said figures showed there were 17 in Scotland and 125 in England and Wales. No figures were given for Northern Ireland.

HMP Downview has been a women’s prison since 2001.

It closed for three years for refurbishment, reopening in 2016 with capacity for 355 inmates, and is currently building up its population.

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