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Women’s custody unit could house trans prisoners

The Bella Centre has been designed with the needs of women in mind, focusing on “custody in the community”, says the Scottish government

Mary Wright Monday August 01 2022, 12.01am, The Times

A purpose-built community custodial unit “specifically designed with the needs of women in mind” could be used to house some trans prisoners.

The Bella Centre in Dundee will accommodate up to 16 low-risk offenders to better prepare them for life outside prison.

The newly completed unit, developed by the Scottish Prison Service, features house-style accommodation without high perimeter walls or bars.

Described as the first facility of its kind in the UK, it is said to mark a “step change” in the way women are supported in custody. It will take a “gender-specific and trauma informed” approach to better prepare women for reintegration back into their communities.

A prison service spokesman said decisions on the most appropriate location to accommodate transgender people were made on an “individualised basis”, adding that trans women would be considered for accommodation within the new unit.

Dr Kate Coleman, of the Keep Prisons Single Sex campaign, said the “inclusion of prisoners of the male sex will be to the detriment of women”.

Coleman, who has submitted evidence to the prison service’s review of its transgender prisoner policy, said: “All research points to the need for female offenders to have single-sex services and spaces if they are to have the best chance at meaningful and lasting rehabilitation.

“No service for vulnerable women offenders can be trauma-informed if it may also be used by offenders of the male sex.”

According to the Scottish government, the Bella Centre has been designed with the needs of women in mind, focusing on “custody in the community”.

Residents will be encouraged to take responsibility for their own reintegration through community contact, access to local services and the development of independence.

They will be supported to live independently and take responsibility for their own personal care, laundry and housekeeping.

They will also be able to meet visitors in the centre’s community hub and access support networks to help reintegrate into the community on their release.

All women at the Bella Centre will be able to access a range of organisations including the NHS, criminal justice social work, Women’s Aid and the Department of Work and Pensions.

The prison service said decisions on accommodation of transgender people within the prison estate were informed “by a multi-disciplinary assessment of both risk and need”.

It added: “Such decisions seek to protect both the wellbeing and rights of the individual, as well as the welfare and rights of others around them, including staff, in order to achieve an outcome that balances risks and promotes the safety of all.”

Transgender women would have the opportunity to be considered for accommodation within the units, it added.

The centre’s completion is part of a wider £600 million plan to improve Scotland’s custodial estate. The Bella Centre will have a sister centre in Glasgow and work is progressing on a replacement for HMP YOI Cornton Vale, near Stirling.

Coleman added: “Women in prison are entitled to single sex provision for the same reasons that all women and girls are; for reasons of dignity, privacy and safety.

“The SPS says a male prisoner is only held in the female estate if the risk posed to women in prison is ‘manageable’. We disagree that this is an acceptable threshold and believe no male prisoner should ever be held alongside women in prison.”