Trans row: Let prison service work free of political noise

First Minister's Questions was dominated by row over transgender woman rapist.

Bernard Ponsonby on political row over trans woman rapist Isla Bryson Spindrift

The issue of a trans prisoner who has been convicted of raping two women being incarcerated in a female-only jail is such an obvious point of controversy that it took no powers of foresight to predict that it would dominate FMQs.

Today, the leader of the opposition Douglas Ross, railed in exasperated and indeed angry tones that the decision was plain wrong.

Moreover, he demanded to know why ministers had not intervened to ensure that “this absolute beast” was not sent to a male prison?

Although the issue at hand was ostensibly the decision to send this prisoner to Cornton Vale, the Scottish Tories believe that this is an example of what could happen if the Scottish Government’s gender recognition reform act ever sees the light of day.

Seeking to change gender for reasons of manipulating the justice and penal systems is one of the concerns that was raised during the passage of the recent bill which has yet to receive royal assent because the UK Government has intervened to effectively block its implementation.

The First Minister, in a deliberately downbeat series of responses, said that the prisoner in question was currently the subject of a risk assessment and was isolated from the other prisoners.

However, given the anxiety that has been expressed since yesterday’s conviction, she announced that the prisoner in question will not serve their sentence at Cornton Vale.

Nicola Sturgeon added that there was no automatic right for a trans woman to go to a female prison and indeed some trans female prisoners were in male jails.

I did wonder, if the risk assessment is not yet complete on this prisoner, why has a definitive decision been taken in relation to not serving the sentence at Cornton Vale?

The obvious suspicion here is that the normal protocols have been compromised by this case becoming a cause celebre.

The uproar of the last 24 hours and the fact that one case has become the hottest of political potatoes would seem to point to decisions being taken in haste.

Now the Tories would no doubt argue that a rapist should never serve a sentence in a women’s jail. Ever. Period. That as a principle is easy to understand and pretty clear cut.

It is also one that the FM indicated she broadly shared when citing comments by the chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland.

The prisoner in question Isla Bryson only decided to change her gender after she was charged by the police.

The Scottish Conservatives believe that minsters should have acted sooner and are dismayed that the prisoner still resides at Cornton Vale. 

Ross roared: “This double rapist, this beast is in a women’s prison right now.2

He accused Sturgeon of hiding behind the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), but she hit back saying that predatory men are the main threat to women and that the SPS must be allowed to process prisoners in the normal way.

The First Minister is clearly cognisant of public concern around this and of the possibility for it widening the issue into the broader matter of gender recognition, an issue that has proved highly divisive within her own party and which is currently going to the courts on whether Holyrood’s new law can ever be brought into force.

I have no idea if this offender sought to change sex to avoid serving a sentence in a male jail. I have no idea if this prisoner poses an immediate threat to other prisoners irrespective of gender.

I do know that someone within the SPS will have to risk assess this prisoner based on knowing what I don’t know and for that matter what Ross and the First Minister don’t know either.

I have nothing against the proposition that no rapist should serve time in a women’s prison.

I would also prefer that people acquainted with the full facts of a case be allowed to do their job free from this kind of political noise.

That crossfire inevitably has them looking over their shoulder and perhaps coming to conclusions aimed at reducing the noise rather than conducting an untainted assessment of the potential dangers posed by an inmate.

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