By Lin Taylor
LONDON, Jan 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Transgender prisoners in Britain need more support and greater protection from bullying and harassment, a government watchdog said on Tuesday, more than a week after a transgender woman was found dead in her cell.
Transgender prisoners are especially vulnerable to discrimination and sexual violence, and they have a higher risk of mental disorders such as depression and suicidal thoughts, according to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO).
"Prisons are always difficult environments ... but they have a fundamental responsibility to keep prisoners safe and to protect and support those with particular vulnerabilities," PPO Nigel Newcomen said in a report.
"When a person enters prison, they leave behind what support they had in the community. The prison environment can be particularly difficult for transgender prisoners, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities," he added.
The PPO is appointed by Britain's justice minister to carry out independent investigations into deaths and complaints in custody.
The Ministry of Justice was not immediately available for comment.
There are around 80 reported transgender prisoners in Britain, Newcomen said, though the numbers are likely to be higher as such data are not accurately recorded and because some prisoners might not reveal their gender identity for safety.
He said transgender deaths in custody have been relatively low, but warned that "these numbers have been climbing".
Four transgender women committed suicide in their prison cells last year, sparking national headlines and debate over the wellbeing of the transgender prisoner community.
Prisoners are housed according to the gender on their birth certificate or, if available, their gender recognition certificate, the PPO said.
But this decision should be made after individual assessments, with the prisoner's gender identity taken into account, the report added.
Newcomen said prisons should implement policies to investigate transphobic bullying and harassment, and for transgender prisoners to have better mental health support.
The government in November issued new prison regulations outlining the care that transgender prisoners should receive.
"This is an issue which has come of age and I hope (the report) will contribute to helping transgender prisoners live safely in their gender identity," said Newcomen.
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women's rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)