ACCORDING to the latest statistics, there are 322 women in Scottish prisons. That’s 322 lives and stories we cannot know, but it is safe to say that these will be some of the most vulnerable people in our country today.

The word “vulnerable” can be a vague and overused term, but in this case it applies.

The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research identifies that women in prison are more likely to have experienced trauma in their lifetime than men in prison or the general population of women, including “repeated physical and sexual victimisation”. The Prison Reform Trust has found that as many as 31% of women in prison have been in care as a child.

A study by the University of Glasgow published in 2021 found that four in five women prisoners in Scotland had experienced a significant head injury in the past, with two in three reporting repeated head injuries – 89% of which were related to domestic abuse.

Within this context, it is unsurprising that women in prison also face high rates of mental ill health, in some cases severely so – a circumstance which is often exacerbated by the experience of imprisonment. A survey by the Scottish Prison Service back in 2015 found that two-thirds of women in prison felt suicidal and more than half had self-harmed.

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In 2020, the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee raised serious concerns about the treatment of women in Scottish prisons who “clearly were in need of urgent care and treatment in a psychiatric facility, and should not have been in a prison environment”. A report by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland the following year highlighted the use of segregation for acutely mentally unwell women and found that this environment was only worsening their symptoms.

This is a disturbing picture and one that should unite all feminists on the need for swift and radical change. There is nothing inevitable about the imprisonment of women who have endured a life of abuse only to be let down time and again by the systems that should have been there to protect and support them. A better way, one which recognises the complex traumas of this population of women, is possible – and there are many who have admirably and tirelessly campaigned for just that.

Yet in recent weeks, months, and perhaps years, one could be forgiven for imagining that the greatest problem facing women in Scotland’s criminal justice system is the risk of being in prison alongside a trans person. At least, this has been the focus of high-profile figures like author JK Rowling, her loyal band of followers, and sections of the Scottish and UK media.

The National: Prison

Let’s get our facts straight: the latest data shows that there were seven trans women housed in women’s prisons in Scotland. Twelve trans women were in men’s prisons. Four trans men were in women’s prisons. And one trans man was in a men’s prison. The basis on which these decisions are made are individual risk assessments, to ensure that the least possible risk is posed both to the individual in question and the wider prison population.

Seeking to minimise the risk to all women in prison is absolutely vital, and not one that any could argue with – as far as I’ve observed, nobody has. With this goal in mind, it seems to me that case-by-case risk assessments are the fairest and most reasonable outcome for all parties – and given the small numbers of people involved, one which is realistic to achieve.

The truly disappointing part of all of this is that some have used this highly sensitive issue, relating to a highly vulnerable group, to further their own agenda on arguments that have little, if anything, to do with it.

Much of the outcry around trans prisoners in Scotland emerged last year after it was reported that Isla Bryson, a trans woman convicted of raping two women, was housed within a woman’s prison while awaiting sentencing and a risk assessment. During this time, Bryson was segregated from the other prisoners, and was then transferred to a men’s prison. Given the nature of the offences involved, this was the only reasonable outcome in line with the Scottish Prison Service’s existing procedures.

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Nonetheless, this case was repeatedly linked to the issue of Gender Recognition Reform, which had just been passed in the Scottish Parliament – even though the legislation was not in effect and had no bearing on the decisions of the prison service. Fast forward to a year later, and although the Scottish Prison Service has agreed to amend its processes so that all trans prisoners will be initially housed within a prison based on their sex at birth before a risk assessment is complete, there are those who still appear intent upon fearmongering around this issue.

Recent media reports have highlighted the fears of some women in prison, expressed in comments made within Scottish prisoner reviews, regarding the presence of trans prisoners. Those who are spending their days on social media or providing endless comments to the media about the risks of trans women in prison, or in toilets, or in schools, or in vital support services, will say that the fears of these women are their top priority. For some, this might be true.

There are certainly differences of opinion on this issue, and I would not dismiss everyone who disagrees with me as having ill-intent or lacking in commitment to the feminist goals which they might well have devoted their lives to. But there are many more people who have added fuel to the fire in this discussion and have shown little regard for the impact on traumatised women who need and deserve places of safety and support.

The National:

It is particularly egregious to watch when those on the right, from Conservative MSPs to The Telegraph newspaper, latch on to a debate about the safety of women in prison when they would usually be handwringing about the apparently lavish circumstances in which prisoners are living.

Of course, those of us with the least bit of decency or awareness know that prisoners are living in conditions that are far from lavish. Justice Secretary Angela Constance made a statement in parliament just yesterday this week about overcrowding in prisons and the urgency of addressing this, after concerns were raised by the prison service about its inability to provide rehabilitation to inmates while struggling to manage an impossibly high number of prisoners.

Positive intentions were expressed in the statement, but those who have been paying attention for long enough will be watching closely to see how well the actions match the words.

The Scottish Government had already committed to reducing the numbers of women held in prison, in recognition of the specific challenges and different offending patterns of women. Yet just this month, social care charity Turning Point Scotland has had to close a service in Glasgow which provided a holistic and supportive alternative to prison for women, because of local funding cuts.

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In 2021, the Independent Forensic Mental Health Review recommended that places for women best suited to a high secure psychiatric unit be made available in Scotland within nine months, because there were none. It’s now 2024, and this situation hasn’t changed.

There is much to be said about the need for greater support for women in the justice system, yet it’s all too easy to for this group to be repeatedly overlooked and disregarded.

So, forgive me if it saddens me that the surest way to bring the words “women” and “prison” into the spotlight are to make it just another opportunity to argue about trans people and keep the culture war ticking over. Women in prison deserve so much better than this.