Rebekah Wershbale’s speech – HMP & YOI Askham Grange, 23rd April 2022

Prison, by its very nature, is an inescapably intimate place. Askham Grange even more so by virtue of its small size and status as an open prison. I know this personally because I served two thirds of my sentence here. I had friends, some of whom I kept for years after release, and I have memories both good and bad from the time I spent here, ranging from botched dental work to building snowmen (snowpersons?) to sharing cigarettes freezing on the lawn during midnight fire drills. Again, the intimacy is INESCAPABLE. The prison houses around 100 inmates at any given time. There is little privacy, many intense personal connections and there are NO secrets.

Askham Grange has the dubious distinction of being the first prison in the UK to admit a male transsexual prisoner. Back in 1989 a man calling himself Stephanie Booth, charged with creating and distributing illegal pornography and operating a brothel was transferred here. Askham Grange has a rigorous assessment criteria to determine low risk prisoners so I find myself wondering how a man, convicted of not one but a string of sex offences, was deemed suitable to be housed here, whether surgically and chemically castrated or not.

1989 was a lifetime ago, and Stephanie was an outlier then. An experiment. Possibly a litmus test to determine whether under the ‘correct’ circumstances transsexuals should be placed in the female estate. This action set a precedent that has reached critical mass today, with the definition of trans now so broad that any man can be moved here by simply declaring himself to be a woman.

For the women inside, unable to consent to the encroachment of these men, this policy is a living nightmare. The only reliable constant I had during my time here was the support and understanding of other women. It is utterly dreadful to consider women in those same circumstances unable to eat, sleep, work, socialise and even wash themselves without continued and unwanted male presence.

Every inmate here is subject to scrutiny, which among women can be overwhelming enough, but to introduce the sordid element of the male gaze is to create conditions that will be unbearable.

This beautiful stately building – arguably the best female prison in the country – is GROUND ZERO for the transgender prisoner experiment. They wrote the book on how to be deceived by appearances. Askham Grange opened the door to a policy that is actively harming vulnerable women and we’re here today to call them to account and stand in solidarity with the women affected. We’re here to keep up the pressure on governors and policy makers, urge them to look at the women they’ve endangered, the damage they’ve wrought and to take steps to reverse it, and prevent this from continuing to happen.

Responsibility for this hideous mess MUST be taken and here, where it seemingly all began seems more than apt. To the women inside – we see you.

To Askham Gange ‘women’s’ prison – WE SEE YOU TOO.