On Sunday, about 100 people gathered outside HMP Pentonville, one of London's grimmest prisons and better known for a notorious jailbreak last November, in which two inmates sprung the coop with the help of diamond-tipped cutting equipment. But those gathered on the weekend weren't there to celebrate an audacious escape attempt; they were holding a candlelight vigil to mark International Trans Prison Day of Action and Solidarity.
Chelsea Manning is free in five months, but the rare clemency offered by the Obama administration only serves to underscore the plight of all transgender people in the prison system. Over the past year in the UK alone, three trans women killed themselves while incarcerated in men's jails. Most recently, 49-year-old Jenny Swift was found dead in her cell in HMP Doncaster.
A friend told the Sheffield Star newspaper that Swift's request to be put in a women's jail had been denied, and that she had not been given her hormone treatment. "Jenny said that not having them was making her legs shake, making her feel sad and ill," she added. "She said it was like coming off drugs. It made her miserable."
The London vigil was part of an international day of action in solidarity with transgender prisoners. The Bent Bars Collective, an organization that fights for the rights of LBTQ prisoners, said on its Facebook event page that the vigil was held "to honour all trans and gender nonconforming people who have died in prison and all those who are currently incarcerated in prisons, secure hospitals and immigration detention."
Speakers at the vigil called on the prison service to improve its treatment towards trans prisoners, and noted the pernicious misgendering and transphobic bullying that they experience in prison—a state of affairs that can lead to intense distress, and, in some cases, suicide.
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"It is always incredibly difficult to lose a loved one, but there is a particular pain in losing someone inside prison," a speaker from Bent Bars Collective said, in comments reported by the Independent. "There are many layers to that pain. It is the pain of being separated by prison walls. It is the pain of knowing in most cases your loved one died alone. That they died in a cage. In cases of suicide, the pain of knowing being locked up was too much to bear."
We went down to the vigil to ask people about why they wanted to attend the vigil, and what their hopes were for change in the prison system.
As queer and trans people, we are so used to being objectified or ignored—it's one of those two extremes. With those of us who have passed away, it's really important that we honour those that have passed away, and that they are mourned. We need to be recognized as people who will be missed.
I write to a wonderful trans woman on the inside and we have a fantastic relationship. I think the cause as it is is personal and real to me in that sense. Also because of the work we do at Bent Bars, I'm very aware of its international scope. The reality is that this is being experienced in loads of different countries at once. Particularly this weekend with the Women's March, it's important to be fighting misogyny and patriarchy.
I'm a member of a group called Queer Strike. We've been campaigning in support of Chelsea Manning but also other trans prisoners. So I've known about this issue and I think it's important to campaign against injustice, [and] also because prison is so linked with poverty and other kinds of discrimination. The first thing [the government should do is] to actually acknowledge transgender prisoners in their current gender, and that they also acknowledge queer prisoners wanting to fight back against discrimination
Most of us present here have experience of trans or LGBT lives, and we feel that we have connection with the people on the inside through our experiences. We feel that we've got a very strong desire to see justice and we feel that one way of achieving this is to campaign to highlight the inadequacy of the system in general.
I have family members who have been imprisoned in the past. But all of us in Bent Bars Collective are pen pals, so we all have direct contact with prisoners across the UK. I would like to see the government address the issues we have discussed tonight structurally, rather than try to deal with them on a one by one institution basis. We'd like to feel that they would listen to the calls of previous home secretaries to reduce the prison population. We'd like to stop the expansion of the prison system. We'd like to see services outside of prisons expanded to take care of people and prevent them going into prison in the first place.
I'm part of Queer Strike. We're a campaign group, a part of the global women's strike and we're a group of women from lots of different backgrounds—lesbian, trans, black, white, etc. We're anti-racist, we're anti-capitalist. We're here to support trans women in prison; trans people in prison struggling with being put in the wrong place. They're ignored in who they are.
The best solution would be to not put people in prison—unless they're really violent or dangerous. Prison is not something that helps usually, that's in general, but then for trans people, [the government] needs to accept the gender they are and put them in the right prison if they are to lock them up. They should have all the provisions they need, all the healthcare they need, like everybody. They should be entitled to the same support.