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Council of Europe Report on Prisons, Male and Female Inmates

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

08 May 2024

The CPT, (the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) has just published its 33rd annual report for the year 2023.  This time it places a heavy emphasis on the issue of what it terms transgender prisoners and their rights in a prison setting.  It was an opportunity for a rational discussion on the issue, but the CPT seems to have squandered this on an ideological altar, seen even in throwaway praise for Ukraine, a praise not extended to other countries that the full report says also fully cooperated with the CPT.(1)  However, this article is about the main issue of their report: men held in women’s prisons.

The report starts out to describe prisons as a microcosm of society, and then goes on to ignore a major, even majority section of many European countries, who are not mentioned: women.  The report states “Appropriately tailored safeguards against abuse and ill-treatment may be necessary, and careful consideration should be given to the manner in which a broad spectrum of prison policies designed with cisgender prisoners in mind could adversely affect the lives of transgender persons living in prisons.”(2)  No mention is made of how polices adopted in relation to trans identified people might impact on the rest of the prison population.  It is presumed falsely that impacts go in one direction and one only.  It goes on to say that there is a need for the CPT to set out the standards due to the “relative paucity of specific international standards”.(3)  This lack of standards didn’t stop it mentioning in the vaguest terms possible those standards it thinks are good and should be applied, though we are left guessing as to what they are exactly, which countries they are applied in and what the outcome of those policies has been.

The report acknowledges problems with prison design that anyone interested in penal reform would be aware of.  “The majority of prisons are not recent and have been based or refurbished on designs and spaces often created without regard to the distinctive needs of different categories of prisoners, including transgender prisoners.”(4)  During the big waves of prison building in the 19th Century, the female prison population was small in comparison to the male population, as still is the case, and even smaller in comparison to the current prison population.  Women were held in basements, or special wings that were part of the male prison.  As the female population rose and the need for greater women’s facilities arose, they were often just male facilities adapted to the needs of women.  The male design is still a feature, even in relatively new prisons today.  For the CPT, women are subsumed in “different categories”.  Why couldn’t they just say prisons were not designed with women in mind, which is the case as there was no concept of trans at the time, and now there are new problems arising in relation to trans?  Women don’t exist, men do.

The report cites various policy documents and some lobby group documents that have no legal basis to them.  The oft cited Yogyakarta Principles were drawn up by trans activists and have no legal force.  A group of well financed influential activists met in Indonesia and drew up principles that reflect the policies they wanted implemented and would campaign for.  No heed is paid to the multiple statements and documents drawn up by feminists who do not want men to be held in women’s prisons.

It is not that the CPT is not aware of the problems that arise by housing these men in the female estate.  It explicitly acknowledges that problems do exist, particularly in relation to violent prisoners and sex offenders who committed crimes against women.(5)  But then goes on to dismiss these concerns stating that.

In the view of the CPT, there is no valid security reason why, in principle, a balanced individual risk assessment carried out when a transgender person is admitted to prison should differ from that which is carried out on the committal of a cisgender person.  In both cases, the dual objective should be the same: to make a placement decision that will most effectively protect the person being committed from others who may wish to cause them harm, and to limit the risk that they may be placed in a location in which they may cause harm to others.  The CPT would also note, in this regard, that while inter-prisoner violence between cisgender persons living in prisons remains a very significant issue in many member states, it is never suggested that this security issue is best viewed through a gender lens.(6)
Here the CPT ignores the question of rights to privacy, own spaces and protection from the threat of violence, which is a reality for all women from all men.  Women are being asked to run the risk that the particular prisoner does not actually represent a danger to them, when women know from experience that even the mild-mannered accountant in for fraud is capable of rape, as men from all walks of life have been convicted of that crime, and therefore are a potential threat to them.  The presence of males in a female space with the possible threat of physical or sexual violence constitutes psychological torture, something you would think a committee whose sole role is to prevent torture would be aware of.  They acknowledge the problem of male violence in prisons in the last two lines, but expect women to just brush it aside with the line that is never suggested that this security issue be looked at through a gender lens.  Here they ignore also that the cases in Scotland that brought down Nicola Sturgeon were of dangerous violent prisoners who had been assessed and were deemed suitable for transfer to a women’s prison.  Even in such cases where a man is deemed unsuitable for housing in the female estate the CPT just can’t let go of the man’s demands and states that even when for security reasons the man is held in the male estate, that such a decision should be regularly reviewed.(7)  Were this to be implemented in Scotland for example, that would mean that the double rapist Adam Graham would have unlimited reviews and attempts at gaining access to potential victims.  The underlying philosophy of prisons is that prisoners can change, that includes rapists and so he would have as much right to say he changed and demand a review of his situation as any other prisoner.  In fact parole hearings are all about that and in most, though not all jurisdictions, all prisoners can have their detention reviewed.  The CPT seeks to extend this practice to whether or not the man is deemed a risk to the women or not.

On the question of trans policies the CPT stated that.

Few states have specific policies and legislation in place to guide prison authorities on placement and often this is done on a case-by-case basis.  Instead, many states have developed a practice over time, which provides separate accommodation for transgender prisoners but promotes participation in some activities with other prisoners of the same gender.(8)
This is presented as some sort of compromise, but one where men still get access to the female estate regardless of the wishes of women.  We are not told anywhere which countries they are referring to in order to examine the reality of this.  According to the CPT “In the CPT’s experience, few countries have been able to meet fully the needs of transgender persons in prison.”(9)  This means some countries do and others partially meet their needs in the eyes of the CPT.  We are not told anywhere which countries or policies they are referring to and again have no way of evaluating them.  Banal vague statements are made as part of the ideological thrust to push this agenda with no way of countering their arguments as we are not quite sure what they are.  We have good reason to doubt the CPT on this point.  It refers to lobbyist documents, such as the Yogyakarta principles as international norms, which they are not and at no stage cites actual international norms such as the Mandela Principles or the Bangkok Principles.  In Ireland the Office of the Inspector of Prisons in its report on Limerick Women’s Prison elevated a UN literature review on trans identified prisoners to the level of international best practice.(10)  Sleight of hand is the order of the day.

Again, on where trans identified men should be held, the CPT states it has come across examples of good practice,(11) but we are not told what they are, beyond different showering times, where this is implemented.

In the entire document women are not mentioned.  Men are interviewed and cited as stating they feel unsafe in male prisons but no women are cited stating that they feel unsafe when these men are transferred to the female estate.  For the CPT it is all about men.  It is even about men when it comes to prison searches.  The CPT argues that staff have no say over the sex of the person carrying out the search.  It is the prisoner who can insist on the sex of the prison officer carrying out the search, though the CPT refers to gender.  The rights of female staff not to be exposed to male genitalia in this setting is ignored, though it does acknowledge that female prison staff had stated they were uncomfortable with this.  The question of who searches who features prominently in activist literature and also in official reports that have adopted trans ideology.  All of these reports, including the CPT report, point out that where trans identified men are kept in special regimes their access to education and exercise is more limited.  You would think that this would figure more prominently for those genuinely concerned about the welfare of prisoners.  But no, searches is far more common as an issue.  In the CPT report it appears earlier as an important issue than healthcare, suicide prevention and other issues.  Staff concerns, including the security concern of leaving female staff alone whilst engaging in searches with male prisoners are discounted.  It would seem that the biggest priority of such organisations is not prisoner welfare but of turning the prison into a flashers’ and frotteurist paradise.

The CPT report reflects other documents from official bodies, some penal reform groups and trans activists.  It accepts that trans women are a particularly vulnerable group, more vulnerable than gays or lesbians or people with disabilities and mental health problems and the way to resolve the issue of their vulnerability is to transfer them to prisons where they would be the group that can exercise control over another vulnerable group: women.  Like all other reports, no one argues that disabled people or people with a mental illness, both of which are important factors in prisoner vulnerability, should be transferred to a women’s prison.  This is only accepted for men who seek to invade female spaces.

The CPT report is a poor piece of research and poorly argues its case, though this is deliberate.  A well-researched and argued document would require detail and it is in the detail that we can see the failings of arguments for housing men in women’s prisons.  Instead, the CPT emulates other bodies and argues in general terms about rights, safety, identity and prisoner welfare without being specific as there are no real penal reform arguments that can be made for placing males, be they violent or not, in women’s prisons.  Prisons separate prisoners by a number of categories or try to: convicted/remand, violent/nonviolent, violent/nonviolent offence, sentence length.  Prisons around the world frequently fail to do this with violent offenders sometimes mixed with nonviolent offenders and remand prisoners sharing wings with convicted prisoners, depending on the jurisdiction.  One of the great advances in prison policy was the separation of prisoners by sex.  It is almost universally applied.  That an organisation that theoretically exists to defend the rights of prisoners now seeks to undermine that is a sad day for penal reform but an even greater assault on the rights of women in and out of prison.  The CPT is not fit for purpose in what is clearly an ideological assault on the rights of women to the detriment of the largest vulnerable group in prisons: women.


(1)  The deaths of prisoners in Ukrainian prisons did not deter the CPT from issuing its praise.

(2)  CPT (2024) Transgender Persons in Prison. Extract from the 33rd General Report. p.4

(3)  Ibíd., p.5

(4)  Ibíd., p.7

(5)  Ibíd., p.7

(6)  Ibíd. p.8

(7)  Ibíd., p.9

(8)  Ibíd., p.7

(9)  Ibíd., p.5

(10)  Ó Loingsigh, G. (2021) Limerick Prison: The Rights of Female Prisoners.

(11)  CPT (2024) Op. Cit. P.11

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