With letters and lipstick, a transgender prisoner helps those left inside

Wednesday, 11 March 2020 18:01 GMT

Sarah Jane Baker poses for a picture in London, Britain, February 26, 2020. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Cormac O'Brien

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Sarah Jane Baker was held in a male prison for 30 years and now helps other inmates who identify as transgender

By Tom Finn and Cormac O'Brien

LONDON, March 11 (Openly) - Six months after Sarah Jane Baker - Britain's longest-serving transgender inmate - was freed from a Victorian-era jail, she is busy preparing to get back behind prison walls.

The 50-year-old violinist spent 30 years behind bars for attempted murder and is now on a mission to improve the lives of about 160 inmates in England and Wales who identify as trans.

"I was a woman held in a male prison and it was so isolating," said Baker, wearing a black dress and a leopard-print belt in a London cafe opposite Britain's parliament.

"Fellow prisoners either desire you or hate you, or both. When people found out I was trans, I became a human punching bag," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A government pledge to house trans prisoners in jails that correspond with their lived gender has stirred heated debate in Britain, under pressure to reform a prison system beset by rising violence and drug-taking.

Trans inmates face heightened risks of physical and sexual violence and can fail to receive adequate care due to staff shortages brought on by budget cuts, according to LGBT+ advocates.

Growing up in and out of foster care, Baker said she felt like a woman trapped in the wrong body. She was imprisoned in 1989 aged 19 for kidnapping and torturing her stepmother's brother.

She spent her sentence in male jails where she said she was stabbed and, on one occasion, raped by fellow inmates.

A justice ministry spokesman said he was unable to comment on individual cases but that "credible allegations of mistreatment will be investigated".


Baker was allowed make-up in prison, but she did not receive regular oestrogen - to create feminine characteristics such as less body hair and breasts - until she removed her testicles with a razor blade in 2017 and almost died.

While in jail, she said she learned to read and write and then studied economics and wrote a book, "Transgender Behind Prison Walls", which recounts the mundaneness and cruelty of prison life, from sewing dresses in her cell to being beaten up.

Kept separate from other inmates out of concern for her safety, Baker was occasionally brought books and women's clothes by sympathetic prison officers. Others refused to call her Sarah.

"Not being recognised for who you are for so long does something to your spirit," said Baker, who was freed in September.

Since her release, she has exhibited artwork in galleries and set up an advocacy group, The Transprisoner Alliance, which writes letters and delivers cosmetics and wigs to trans prisoners.

"A stick of lipstick, a haircut ... it's hard to sum up what those can mean to a person in that context," she said, adding that she also hopes to visit prisoners herself.

Sarah Jane Baker poses for a picture with her artwork, in London, Britain, February 26, 2020. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Cormac O'Brien


While conditions have improved since Baker was jailed, she is adamant that more needs to be done.

Following the suicides of two trans women in male prisons, the government updated its guidelines in 2016 so as "to respect someone in the gender in which they identify" with appropriate names, toiletries and clothes.

Less stringent rules mean trans prisoners no longer require a certificate proving that they have legally changed from male-to-female, or vice versa, to be housed in their acquired gender. They can now provide evidence of living in that gender instead.

This policy came under fire in 2018 after Karen White, a trans woman prisoner, sexually assaulted two female inmates after being transferred to a women's prison, which one critic compared to "locking a fox in a henhouse".

"The only way forward is dialogue," said Baker, adding that male-on-male and female-on-female sexual assault is rife in prison and rarely elicits the same public scrutiny as cases involving trans inmates.

The justice ministry said it reviewed its rules again in 2019 to allow more time to risk assess new prisoners.

"We have carefully revised our policy to strike an appropriate balance between protecting transgender people in custody and their rights, without compromising the safety of other prisoners," said the spokesman.

Baker, meanwhile, is struggling to build a new life and find work outside prison.

She cannot get a passport with her female name and gender until she receives a gender recognition certificate that shows she has lived as a woman outside prison for two years.

Without a passport, she cannot get a bank account. Without a bank account, it is hard to find work.

"Prison was cruel but being out of prison is just another form of cruelty that I'm trying to deal with," she said.

"The amount of choices and decisions you have to make - prison doesn't prepare you for that."

(Writing by Tom Finn; Additional reporting by Cormac O'Brien; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

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