In prison canteens, waiting areas, and staff rooms around the country, quasi-court hearings are taking place every day, with members of the Parole Board gathering to decide whether certain prisoners are fit to be released and reintegrated into society.
While the prisoners are often legally represented, this is meant to be an informal process with the board answering a simple question: whether it is necessary for the protection of the public that a certain prisoner should remain in detention.
One of the main ways in which a prisoner can tip the scales in their favour is to genuinely engage with the multitude of courses and programmes available in the prison estate. These programmes range from drug awareness courses to anger management programmes and healthy thinking training.
However, the availability of each course greatly depends on a prison’s ability to deliver it. Many prisoners find they must move prisons multiple times to undergo courses that the Parole Board wants to see them complete.
The vast majority of prisoners who go before the board are men. Women make up around 5 per cent of the UK’s prison population. It is also rare for a woman to be sentenced for a crime which would bring her in front of the Parole Board.
The Ministry of Justice notes that the sample size of women coming before the board is too small for reliable statistical analysis. With this in mind, it is not surprising that very few courses exist to accommodate the few women that would need to evidence progress to the board.
This appears to be a problem. The importance of courses is evident from the fact that reports and conclusions from course coordinators make up the majority of each bundle that the Parole Board will see before a hearing. Although rare, a female prisoner who has committed violent crimes would have little prospect of evidencing progress in prison without access to the same courses available to men.
In the case of trans female prisoners the absence of courses becomes somewhat of a starker problem. Trans prisoners are left with a choice: remain in a male prison to undergo courses which would potentially speed up their release, or move to a female prison and find themselves having to explain their decision to a Parole Board.
Moving to a female prison is often a complicated process in itself, with many trans prisoners being denied the opportunity to move. This could also be at a time when the prisoner has decided to start transitioning and, therefore, is inherently vulnerable. It would be unthinkable to suggest that a ciswoman in those circumstances should live in an all-male prison just to undertake a course.
Although most Parole Board members are sympathetic towards trans prisoners, they are simply not equipped to assess such an individual’s risk without clear indicators, like attendance at courses. Further, the availability of suitable legal representation to assist the board in navigating trans issues cannot always be relied upon. More should be done to accommodate trans prisoners and the Parole Board will also need to be further educated about the issues they face.
Alex Cisneros practises out of No5 Chambers and specialises in public law. He is regularly instructed in hearings before the Parole Board and has represented trans prisoners asking for release