Do Prisons Work?

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling came under a lot of fire back in March over his decision to effectively ban books in prisons. This decision has recently been found unlawful, and quite rightly too. But this is just a part of a wider pattern in which the prison system is made ever more inhospitable and cruel. This year we’ve heard about death from overcrowding in prisons, sexual abuse in prisons, and all of this in front of a backdrop of increased privatisation and cuts to legal aid, both of which serve to make the system less accountable when abuses happen.

Now, if you believe the justice system is primarily for hurting those who have done wrong, maybe you don’t see any issue with that. But I believe the purpose of the justice system should be to rehabilitate offenders, to help them get into a place where they are less likely to commit crimes in the future. I think that’s the best way to ensure what’s best for society. But are prisons compatible with the idea of rehabilitation?

Let’s look at some demographics. 11% of the UK prison population is black, compared to just 2.8% of the general population; in other words, there are four times as many black people in prison as you’d expect. When you combine this with the racism endemic in the police force (see Mark Duggan and events like Ferguson in the US), it’s clear that black people are getting a raw deal from every stage of the justice system.

For mental health issues, the situation is horrific: according to the Prison Reform Trust, almost half of female prisoners in the UK have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Now, mental illness is something I myself struggle with. I can only imagine how much worse it must be to have to deal with depression from the inside of a prison cell.

But maybe it’s worth it. Maybe prison is effective enough to offset this, right? Well, according to government statistics, almost half of people given prison sentences go on to reoffend – and half of those people just go straight back to prison. There’s also analysis done for the Ministry of Justice that shows that community orders, suspended sentences and court orders – all sentences that don’t involve going to prison – are all better than short prison sentences at reducing reoffending rates.

Now, the Ministry of Justice itself admits that an important factor in whether criminals reoffend is whether they have non-criminal social connections. In that respect it seems bizarre that our default response to crime is to put the offenders all in a building together. And contrary to what you’d hope, some people end up dependent on the prison system to survive, though this is hardly surprising when more than a third of employers deliberately avoid recruiting people with a criminal record.

All this evidence says one thing to me: that prisons don’t work. That means that beyond resisting efforts to make prisons crueler, we need to be working towards replacing the whole system with one built around an evidence-based approach to reforming offenders. We can’t let our instinctive response to wrongdoing be to simply lock people up in a system designed to rob them of their humanity. If we want a truly safe society, we have to be kinder than that.

How to (Actually) Be a Trans* Ally

Recently I’ve been seeing a poster making the rounds entitled "How to be a Trans* Ally". You can see the poster here. Now, this poster isn’t exactly new, but it does seem have garnered particular attention in the run-up to this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, which happens to be today.

Now, TDoR itself has its own problems, which I’m not going to touch upon here. What I will discuss is the idea of being an "ally", what it means, and what it ought to mean.

It seems that most people consider being a trans* ally as more-or-less equivalent to not being a transphobe. The poster I referenced above represents this position well; its tips on how to be an ally are simply the same basic 101 we give again and again to cis people to stop them from being actively oppressive, and to stop them from being counterproductive to trans* liberation. But getting pronouns right and not asking about "real" names aren’t magical amazing things that make you a wonderful person. They are the bare fucking minimum you should be doing if you don’t want to be an utter dick. That’s not being part of the solution, that’s merely failing to be a part of the problem. Being an "ally" should be a badge of honour, representing someting above and beyond the call of duty.

As a cis person, your mere presence may well make trans* people uncomfortable, as it is nigh impossible to create a space totally isolated from the oppressive forces of mainstream society. Thus, as an ally you should be willing to make yourself uncomfortable to make trans* people comfortable. Furthermore, rather than just not obstructing trans* liberation, you should bear some of the weight of the struggle, being a campaigner in your own right, while still allowing trans* people to take the lead in their own liberation. I’m not saying that everyone should do this. What I am saying is that if you want me to consider you an "ally", you must.

So here are some things I think you can do to be a true ally. I write this with particular reference to being a cis ally of trans* people, but it’s my intention that the items on this list be adaptable to deal with other axes of oppression.

  • Adopt and Internalise Anti-Cis Memes: You know stuff like Die Cis Scum? That’s about you. Until proven otherwise, you are scum to me, and you need to respect my right to see you that way. You need to be almost sorry for not being trans*, because that is what keeps your experience apart from mine and prevents you from being able to see the world through my eyes.
  • Always Consider Yourself Wrong Until Proven Right: If I disagree with you about a trans* issue? I’m right, and you’re wrong. If I disagree with you about whether something is a trans* issue? I’m right, and you’re wrong. You don’t get to argue with me. You get to ask questions about my position, and I get to decide whether to answer them. If I’m interested in a debate, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, you have to trust me on my ability to understand my own liberation.
  • Always Call Out Other Cis People On Their Transphobia: At the biggest estimates, there is one transgender person for every 99 cis people. That’s absolutely ridiculous. That means if cis people say something fucked up once a week, on average trans* people need to call them out on it 14 times a day each. That’s once every 100 minutes. I don’t have time for that. You do it.
  • Campaign for an End to Transphobia and Transphobic Practices: Again. My energy reserves are limited and I can’t do it all. You need to help. And if I tell you you’re doing it wrong, you need to listen and fix it.
  • Respect Trans*-Only Spaces: No matter how hard you try, you’re not ever going to succeed at making trans* people totally comfortable with your presence. Thus, you need to let us have our own space if we need it.
  • Be an Ally to Other Oppressed Groups: This should go without saying, but you can’t be an ally to trans* people without at least trying to be an ally to other groups. If you don’t care about feminist struggle, then you’re only going to be an ally to trans men. If you don’t care about race, then you’re only going to be an ally to white trans* people. And that’s fucked up.
  • Never Call Yourself an "Ally": You don’t get to decide if you’re doing enough. You never get to decide if you’re doing enough. That’s up to us.

Now, go forth and don’t be a shit. And if you think you can handle it, try to be an ally.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Guidelines: A Closer Look

Trigger Warning for pathologising transphobic bullshit.

Recently, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) published a new document, entitled "Good practice guidelines for the assessment and treatment of adults with gender dysphoria". These guidelines are intended to be read as an accompaniment to the NHS England Interim Gender Protocol. Ten years in the making, the guidelines are the product of a working group consisting of both clinicians and service users, though the former significantly outnumber the latter.

Zoe O’Connell has already reported on the guidelines, noting some issues but concluding "Overall, it’s a welcome document and certainly one that can be used by those in the process of medical transition to persuade their GPs and other medical and administrative staff to do the right thing." The RCPsych guidelines also carry endorsements from three major trans charities: GIRES, The Gender Trust and Press for Change, so you’d expect that the guidelines would be fairly positive for trans people. However, these guidelines may not be all they are cracked up to be.

Nat Titman has noted the lack of attention to non-binary identities. In fact, besides a brief mention that some people do not identify as a binary gender and that their treatment should reflect this, the entire document appears to be written from a highly binarist perspective. Treatments are specified in the language of "for men" and "for women".1

However, the problems are not limited to this issue. The guidelines state that:

The support of a GP who is prepared to be proactive in supporting referrals for treatment and to enter into collaborative care arrangements is essential.

This implies that the cooperation of a GP is assumed, which is reflected in the guidelines for initial assessment:

The GP should take a full history, including a mental state assessment. Any distress experienced by the patient should be acknowledged during the assessment. The GP has the additional advantage of possessing a record of the patient’s longitudinal medical history, which should be reviewed to aid diagnosis. Once a provisional diagnosis is reached, the GP should discuss with the patient any preference they may have for a particular way forward.

In other words, the guidelines empower GPs to provide (or withhold) a preliminary diagnosis of gender dysphoria. The suggestion that a patient’s medical history would be useful for this purpose is baffling, as it is hard to see what prior conditions would have any bearing here. The guidelines themselves make no suggestion as to what may or may not be relevant. The problem is clear: an uncooperative GP is essentially permitted to use a patient’s medical history to generate excuses to withhold diagnosis. This is simply unacceptable.

The guidelines then recommend a full physical exam (including a genital exam which may be refused). The problem with this should be obvious.

The issues continue with the recommendations for the initial specialist assessment.

Initial assessment of patients with possible gender dysphoria includes a general medical and mental health interview, with specific attention to psychosexual history and current functioning. A record is required of lifelong mental functioning including any history of disorder. Recollections of childhood gender-typed behaviours, and childhood and adolescent cross- gender dressing with possible erotic accompaniment are elicited.

Once again, there is no reason given for the relevance of this information. The emphasis on childhood and adolescent behaviour privileges those who were aware of their trans status from a young age, and the emphasis on sexuality serves to muddy the waters further, being reminiscent of the transphobic theory of autogynephilia.2 It seems likely that this will perpetuate the situation in which many trans people who do not fit the expected narrative feel they have to lie to medical professionals in order to receive treatment. In the long run this will be incredibly damaging both to these people and to the cause of transgender rights in general.

Overall, I’m shocked that this document managed to receive endorsements from GIRES, The Gender Trust and Press for Change. These organisations claim to represent transgender people. Right now, I’m having a hard time feeling represented by any of them.

  1. Thankfully, these terms at least refer to gender identity rather than assigned gender.

  2. Sure, I’ve masturbated in women’s clothes. I wear women’s clothes a lot, being a woman.

I Don’t Want to be a Superhero

Recently, Flavia Dzodan wrote a blog post about neoliberal feminism. I have had the idea for this blog post for a while, but it was reading her piece, along with a previous one that allowed my thoughts to crystallise into the form that you see here.

Neoliberalism is a political philosophy based around the concept of individual freedom. The importance of the free market and the idea that political freedom requires economic freedom are both neoliberal concepts. According to Dzodan, neoliberalism has become seen as a "default" attitude within feminism, privileging a form of feminism focusing far more on personal advancement than on sisterhood and solidarity. As a result, mainstream feminism fails to serve the interests of any but a privileged few.

For this blog post, I shall focus on the concept of individualism, which lies at the heart of neoliberal philosophy. Individualism is the attitude that emphasises the importance of the individual over that of the collective. Individualist viewpoints analyse society as a collection of largely independent actors, rather than focusing on the interacting communities that include those actors. This is the aspect of neoliberal feminism that is the most dangerous, as well as the most ubiquitous. Individualism upholds kyriarchy by telling us that individual effort and personality matter more than traits like gender, race and social class. Individualism privileges "freedom of speech" above the welfare of marginalised groups of people. Individualism outright erases the systemic aspects of discrimination, characterising them as the aberrant actions of a select few.

Individualism is alive and well in our activism, both in how it is performed and how we view it. From an individualist perspective, activism consists of individuals performing individual acts, devoid of context. An activist is a superhero, bravely fighting alone against the forces of oppression. When change comes, it must be directly attributable to one of these superheroes, rather than being the product of a gradual shift in social attitudes.1 Some set out to be superheroes, to make a name for themselves. Others simply find that it is the best way to gather the resources and influence needed to do effective activism. Yet others find themselves cast into the role of superhero against their will. But I don’t want to be a superhero. I want to be part of a movement.

Acting as individuals, we can make small gains. More significantly, as individuals we can innovate. I am aware that setting out my views in this way is an individualist act. However, when we struggle as individuals, kyriarchy responds by allowing certain individuals a place within the power structure. Thus, a black man is President of the US, women can be CEOs and we have gay people in parliament, all as the result of individualist struggle. Individualist activism is epitomised by things like The Independent on Sunday’s Pink List, which this year is something of a who’s who of influential trans* people. Despite all this, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are all alive and well; this inclusion is little more than appeasement. We must recognise that the gains of individuals are not the gains of the group.

The future of activism is in collectivism, the attitude that emphasises the connectedness of all people. Individualism is the backbone of kyriarchy, and we must reject it if we are to make headway. We must not idolise individual activists, nor allow ourselves to be idolised. Instead, we must create an activism that invites and supports cooperation. We must resist the temptation to compromise on our positions to make individual gains, because to do so is to give up on our siblings who have yet to break their own glass ceilings. We must not cooperate with kyriarchal power structures; they must be forced to submit to our demands. Because if we do not have solidarity amongst ourselves, then we have nothing.

  1. For example, the Pink List implies that the change in the Daily Mail’s attitude toward trans* people (if there has been such a thing) is a direct result of the work of Paris Lees and All About Trans, rather than being the product of a gradual change in social attitudes.

The Problem with “Inclusivity of Viewpoints”

A while back, I was a member of a Facebook group of feminists in a certain area. The group had a stated policy of being open to all "self-defining women" [1], which I took to mean that the group was intended to be welcoming to trans women. I joined the group in the hope of meeting fellow feminists in the area, and possibly participating in local feminist action.

As well as being open to all women, this group took the attitude of welcoming all feminist views. As a result, I often found myself arguing with one particular member of the group, who held the position (common to many radical feminists) that some feminist spaces should not include trans women. As a trans feminist, this view is not only abhorrent to my beliefs but hostile to my very identity, so I felt unable to let these views go unchallenged. The resulting argument came up a number of times in a number of forms, and I found that while only a couple of women would side with her, very few would side with me either. As a result, I rapidly found the space very draining to participate in.

After one argument became particularly heated, a new moderation policy for the group was drawn up. The woman who held trans-exclusionary views was promoted to admin, presumably to ensure "balanced" moderation. This decision made me feel extremely uncomfortable as it implicitly validated her trans-exclusionary views, and I left the group shortly thereafter.

Discussions and debates are an important part of any social justice movement. Unless we expect to get everything right the first try, we must be willing to allow dissent in our activist spaces. However, supposedly in the name of permitting dissent, a number of feminist organisations and spaces have taken an attitude that I call "inclusivity of viewpoints".

Inclusivity of viewpoints is the attitude by which one allows any feminist viewpoint to be aired in a feminist space in the name of open and honest debate. I have no issue with the concept of inclusivity in general; in fact, as a trans woman with an autistic spectrum condition, I benefit massively from inclusive feminist spaces. However, feminism does not have the most inclusive history, and this history is unfortunately alive and well in a number of nominally feminist schools of thought. As a result, having a space inclusive of all feminist viewpoints necessarily permits viewpoints that are not inclusive, which can make a space hostile and unwelcoming to those marginalised by those viewpoints.

Bad enough as this is, the problem is compounded further. By allowing the space to become hostile to members of marginalised groups, viewpoints that tend to come from members of those groups are shut out as well. For example, economically left-wing viewpoints are more likely to be held by working class women than middle class women. A space that allows classist viewpoints to be aired will be unwelcoming to working class women and hence unwelcoming to leftist views. Thus, "inclusivity of viewpoints" fails even to be inclusive to all viewpoints, totally failing at its one stated aim.

We must not allow our feminist spaces to become unwelcoming to marginalised women [2]. We must be clear from the start that oppressive attitudes of any kind, even (perhaps especially) those with a veneer of feminism, are completely unacceptable. Put simply, "inclusivity of viewpoints"? Isn’t.

[1] As a side note, I dislike that the phrase "self-defining women" is used like this, as it suggests that less trans-inclusive definitions of womanhood are equally valid. However, this phrase serves as a concise way of making the intention of trans-inclusivity explicit, so I’m willing to tolerate it.
[2] Or they will be bullshit, clearly.

A Reading List (Work in Progress)

I’ve recently been asked to come up with a political reading list. The following are articles or blogs that I feel fit with my political thinking fairly well. This is not a complete list, and in some ways is incomplete: for example, I would like to include some articles about disability and mental illness. I intend to add to this list as time goes on.

  • Introduction to Anarchist Communism This document sets out the case for revolutionary communism, explaining the concept of class struggle and arguing for revolutionary rather than reformist methods. It’s long, but well worth reading if you have the time. I don’t personally use the word "anarchist" to describe myself, but I do support a number of anarchistic ideals.
  • Combat Liberalism This article was written by Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-Tung, so should be taken with significant quantities of salt. I include this because it explains very well the concept of "liberalism" as the word is used by anarchists and communists, which differs from the general understanding of liberalism in mainstream society. Left-wing activists tend to look down upon liberalism, seeing its "live-and-let-live" attitude as an essentially flawed philosophy.
  • The Tyranny of Structurelessness This piece is more about political organisation than about politics per se. I include it because I think it’s essential reading for anyone involved in political activism. The idea of a structureless group may seem appealing, but frequently removing structure from a group serves only to make the power structure less visible.
  • Whipping Girl This one isn’t freely available, but I encourage those who can afford to do so to buy it. Julia Serano does a very good job of explaining feminism, misogyny and patriarchy from a trans perspective.
  • nihil de nobis, sine nobis: trans women of color and Remembering Your Dead I read this some time shortly before writing my own piece for last year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, and it was a big influence on me. Remembrance for the dead is important, but equally important is acknowledging the intersectionality [1] of those deaths.
  • The Myth of Policing By Consent This article attacks the idea of "policing by consent", arguing that the police as they exist now cannot be apolitical. It’s a little outdated, having been written before the 2010 General Election, but the points it makes are just as, if not more, relevant today.
  • White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack This article explains the concept of "white privilege". It’s a useful skill to be able to recognise the privileges we may not even realise we benefit from, so this article is useful reading for any white person who considers themself anti-racist. Which should be all of us, right?
  • The F-Word A website hosting articles about UK feminism.
  • Another Angry Woman Stavvers’ blog. As she describes: "Part anarchist. Part feminist. All angry."
  • Useful Nuisance Emma Brownbill’s blog. Mainly about student politics and trans* issues.
  • The Thang Blog Not, strictly speaking, a political blog, but I find it interesting so I thought I’d plug it anyway. Rebecca Kling is a trans female performer from Chicago whose works involve trans* identity.

[1] Intersectionality is the idea that individual oppressions cannot be viewed or dealt with in isolation, but exist as part of an interconnected system of various oppressions. In this case, I mean that we cannot view the deaths of trans women of colour as being purely the result of transmisogyny, as race and class both play a role.

No News is Good News: On the lack of news coverage of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act

So, same-sex marriage is now law in England and Wales. We fought long and hard for this, and now marriage law is totally equal [1] and the oppression of LGBT people is finally a thing of the past [2]. UK-based LGBT activists are generally pretty happy about this. All is not well, however. It seems that Whitehall does not feel it is getting adequate praise for its generosity.

One wonders what they were expecting. I mean, as a story it’s something of a non-starter: the law got passed, and that’s more-or-less it. Having watched some of the debate I feel fairly confident in saying that there isn’t really much to say. Just homophobes being homophobes while supporters of the bill repeat the same arguments, time and time again, as my hope for discussion of the aspects of the bill that I care about slips away to nothingness. Not exactly riveting news.

Then again, perhaps it makes some sense for the government to complain. After all, the BBC hasn’t exactly been shy about producing thinly-veiled propaganda supporting other government positions, so why not? Perhaps a good fifteen minutes of high-profile LGB [3] people singing the praises of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Maria Miller on prime-time BBC One would do? It’s only what they deserve.

Frankly, I’m not going to lose much sleep over this. I mean, ideally I would like a critical discussion of the problems that still exist in the act, but given the BBC’s attention to detail on this point, I wouldn’t expect much. I say let’s not give the government too much fanfare. After all, a good deed is its own reward, right?

[1] Sarcasm.
[2] Further sarcasm.
[3] The omission of the T is deliberate for a number of reasons here. See if you can guess them all!