UK: trans and in prison during a pandemic, a rare glimpse behind bars

Overcrowded, confined spaces are a nightmare for the spread of coronavirus. This makes prisons a potential hotspot for the disease.

Despite this, most researchers who study prisons have been locked out of them at this crucial time. In the UK, the prison and probation service has halted primary research in prisons, giving us scant information about how prisoners have been affected by the pandemic.

But our team obtained permission to continue existing research exploring the experiences of England and Wales’ transgender and non-binary prisoners – some of the most vulnerable people in any prison. This was on the basis that the methodology placed minimal burden on staff, and the continuation of correspondence was within Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service policy of encouraging letter-writing during lockdown.

When the pandemic struck, we wrote two letters to our participants: one to reassure them that the project will continue, and another with a series of questions regarding their experience of the lockdown. To date, we have received 12 letters, excerpts from which are included below. Through them, we can provide a rare glimpse into the lives of trans and non-binary prisoners in the shadow of COVID-19, in their own words.

Transgender and non-conforming gender people are a vulnerable minority that suffer widespread discrimination in society. However there is little academic research that has focused on transgender and non-conforming gender prisoners and their experiences of prison life. This article reports preliminary findings from what we believe is the first national academic study of this prison population in England and Wales.

23 hours in a cell

The UK’s lockdown policies apply to prisons as well as the general community. This means prisoners are currently locked in their cells for 23 to 23.5-hours per day and only allowed out for exercise in the yard, to collect their food and take it back to their cells, and to take a shower (in those prisons that do not have showers in the cells).

One study participant wrote:

I still get up around 7am, but instead of getting unlocked at 8am to go work, gym, etc we are only let out to pick up our food, twice a day, and have 30 minutes exercise outside. We are normally out of our cells from 8am to 8.15pm week days and 8.45am to 5.15pm on weekends. Now we get 30 minutes outside in the yard. The other 23½ hours are behind our doors.

Essential workers

Just as essential workers need to keep going to work in the outside world, so do their prison equivalents.

Many of our correspondents continue with jobs that are essential for prison maintenance and to stop COVID. One wrote:

Our first job was putting up perspex screens at the meds hatches to help protect everyone. I’ve also emptied the COVID PPE [personal protective equipment] store after bio bags were isolated for 72 hours. A bonus of being an essential worker is daily showers and a £10 a week bonus. The other essential workers are … laundry workers, canteen pickers and tea packers (these make our tea bag, milk, sugar, packs that we get daily).

Social distancing and the two-metre rule

Prisons run a complex roster to manage the 30-60 minute window of out-of-cell time, letting prisoners out in small groups in order to maintain social distancing. However, many of our respondents are sceptical about the feasibility of keeping prisoners and prison staff two metres apart:

Social distancing in prison is just a joke. I wonder how inmates in shared cells can keep 2m distance from each other? … Most of the corridors and none of the stairs in this prison are even 2m wide. This is simply ridiculous and officers agree with me.

Leisure time

Work, education, chapel and the gym have been cancelled, and libraries are closed. Yet, some prisons have managed to move the services closer to the prisoners. In one prison, the chaplaincy have started individual visits to the wings; in another, “the library has sent a box of books and DVDs to each wing that gets updated every couple of weeks”, a prisoner writes. Instead of going to the gym, prisoners are developing their own in-cell exercise routines.

To alleviate boredom, some prisons have started providing “distraction packs” including drawing, colouring, origami and crossword puzzles. Some are even running weekly quizzes and sudoku, poems or jokes competitions, for prizes of phone and canteen credits.

Access to the usual in-cell distraction, TV, has also improved: some prisons no longer charge the weekly TV fee; some have introduced more channels, including a new TV channel prisoners can watch to receive information.

Giving back to the community

Prisoners are also doing what they can in the fight against COVID-19 beyond the prison walls. Some prisons have provided an opportunity to donate to the NHS; some have started to use their workshops to produce PPE:

I told wing officer that I can set up a production of face masks in textiles workshop … a month later … together with one more prisoner … we designed and made few different styles of face masks, basic protective clothes and uniform bags.

Mental health

Despite being in a high-risk environment, most of our correspondents are not particularly worried about COVID-19. Since they have little control over their environment, they have adopted a rather fatalistic attitude. “I’m not concerned about my health, no point worrying until I have it”, one writes.

Others prefer life under lockdown. “I love this lockdown, no one upsets me as don’t see many people at all”, says another.

The main issue for our correspondents is that the lockdown has reduced access to medical services, including mental health care and support for their transition. Those who have already been prescribed hormone-replacement therapy are receiving their medication in prison. Yet, continuing prescription requires blood tests that have been on hold, and so medication such as testosterone blockers have been administered by injection. Appointments at gender identity clinics are also on hold.

“I was meant to start on T-blockers, but that hasn’t happened yet”, a participant writes. “I guess as it’s not critical it goes on the back burner. It’s not good for my mental state, but I’ve waited eight years so a little longer won’t hurt …”

Generally, the people who are part of this research believe that their prisons are managing well, “all things considered”. Some prisoners mentioned how prison staff and governors had been going above and beyond to support prisoners and alleviate their hardships.

Isolated before and after coronavirus

Despite COVID-19 changes leading to long periods locked up in their cells, our participants thus far have not experienced this in a negative way, and many have positive experiences of lockdown.

This shows two things: first, it says that our participants are resilient to testing circumstances; second, it hints at the social isolation that some of our participants already experience in prison.

This is clear in one particular account of life during COVID-19 compared to life before it:

I’m used to being isolated so this lockdown doesn’t bother me … I normally retreat and isolate myself in my cell to manage stress and anxiety so being locked up 23 hours a day is fine for me. My cell is my only safe space.

This is important to understand because while the restrictions and social isolation for most prisoners will ease as the pandemic progresses, the isolation that our participants experience will not disappear unless wider structural changes are made to ensure that prisons become a more inclusive environment for transgender and non-binary people.