Wing E, the 'transgender unit' at HMP Downview


In 2019, Wing E at HMP Downview, a women’s prison, was re-opened as a ‘transgender unit’ to house male prisoners with a GRC who presented a risk to female prisoners that could not safely be managed in the normal female estate. (Harry Howard, MailOnline, 3 March 2019)


Some saw this as a knee-jerk response to provide a rushed ‘solution’ to the growing evidence that women in prison were at risk from male prisoners and to calm the outrage that the scandal of Karen White in 2018 had provoked in the general public.


Setting up a transgender unit in the female estate would enable these dangerous male prisoners to be kept away from female prisoners in a way that did not violate the prison policy which states that all males with a GRC must be housed in the female estate.

Wing E, also known as the Josephine Butler Wing, is a 16 cell unit which had previously been used to house young female offenders aged 17.  Before it was repurposed to house male prisoners, there were plans to turn it into a unit to house women who are preparing for release. 

Clearly, there are serious implications for women in prison when resources in the female estate are repurposed for the needs of male prisoners.  For too long, the female estate has been seen as a resource that the male estate and male prisoners are legitimately entitled to use in order to ‘solve problems’.  We do not consider this to be acceptable: the male estate needs to use its own resources to meet the needs of these male prisoners.


Aside from this not insignificant issue, how successful is the transgender unit at Downview?  Are women kept safe?  Are these male prisoners who present an unmanageable risk to women kept separate from the 320 female prisoners housed in the main prison?  Questions of resource allocation aside, is this an acceptable solution?  The short answer is: no.


Click here to read the HM Prison and Probation Service document HMP Downview Wing E Policy.

Paragraph 1.1 states that the Unit is intended for:


  Transgender women holding Gender Recognition Certificates who have been assessed as presenting a high risk of harm to other women in custody… where the risk cannot safely be managed on normal location within the Women’s Estate.


However, Paragraph 4.1 states that placement at the Unit is not intended to be permanent, rather prisoners should be assisted in progressing back into the wider female estate.  Section 10.0 indicates that prisoners held at the Unit remain able to access activities within the main prison at Downview and to mix with the female prisoners for the purposes of those activities.


For all these reasons we consider that the unit at Downview does not provide an acceptable solution that keeps women in prison safe.

In May 2021, the campaign group Fair Play for Women published the Equality Analysis for E Wing.


You can read Fair Play’s report here.

Of note is the following:


•    In consideration of the options available to house male prisoners with a GRC, the perceived necessity for these prisoners to continue to associate with female prisoners, to have ‘equality of opportunity’ compared to female prisoners and the wish to ‘foster good relations’ between the two groups took priority over any concern for the safety of female prisoners.  For this reason a bespoke unit in the male estate was rejected.

•    Initially, it was proposed that E Wing should house both ‘non-trans and trans’ high risk women.  This would have eliminated discrimination between the two groups as ‘trans women’ would have been treated the same as ‘non-trans women’.  Again, this proposal was seen to offer the advantage of fostering good relations.  This was rejected as unworkable due to ‘the specific risks to other women which do in part derive from their transgender status’.  We believe it is more accurate to state that the ‘specific risks’ arise because these prisoners are male.

•    There is scant consideration given to the safety and wellbeing of female prisoners at Downview.  No account is taken to the budgetary, infrastructure or staffing costs to HMP Downview of repurposing E Wing and the consequent impact on the women held there.