Jailed as a man. Released as a woman: Robert Hilton becomes Rebecca Hilton in prison

After 21 years behind bars, Rebecca Hilton finds herself not only in a changed world, but a changed body

Rebecca Hilton was Robert Hilton when she was sentenced to life in prison in 1992 for murder. It was the year John Major won the general election, and Shakespears Sister and Erasure ruled the charts. Mobile phones were the size of house bricks and the internet was little more than a whisper.

It’s rare for a prisoner who’s served a life sentence to speak about their experience inside. But Rebecca has an almost unique perspective on life at Her Majesty’s pleasure, having been imprisoned in both men’s and women’s jails during a 21-year stretch in which she had gender reassignment surgery.

Two weeks after her release, Rebecca invited The Independent to her new room at a hostel for ex-lifers in Maidstone, Kent.

Until her operation in 2011, when she was transferred to the female estate overnight, Hilton spent her years in male prisons, despite considering herself to be a woman. Because different prisons have different rules and prisoners move about so much, Rebecca’s experiences varied vastly even within different men’s prisons.

Sometimes she was allowed to wear make-up, sometimes she wasn’t. Sometimes she’d be made to wear men’s clothes, sometimes she could dress as she pleased. She certainly wasn’t the only person with gender issues she encountered during her sentence.

Asked about differences between men’s and women’s prisons, she believes that whereas men looked out for each other on the inside, she felt that women “don’t always want to see other women get out.”

She says: “Growing up I was very confused about my gender. I didn’t understand it... Where I come from, a lot of ex-miners lived there, it was rough. It was a man’s world, that’s how I had to grow up.”

The male inmates, she said, gave her no grief: “There were the ones who saw me as a little sister and wanted to protect me, or the ones who saw me like their mum. Then there were the pervs, but I could handle them...”

Staff, she felt, sometimes didn’t know how to deal with her.

When she first went in, Rebecca says, male prison was “rough”. “Some screws would think nothing about punching you in the face and nobody would stop them, and there’s not much you could do about it... There was a hell of a lot of drugs in the prison system then, practically everyone was dealing or using.

“You didn’t have curtains, you could put nothing on the walls, couldn’t wear your own clothes, you had your little Medium Wave radio and that was it.”

On men’s wings, violence was run of the mill. Rebecca saw a man have his throat cut by another prisoner, she saw men beaten within an inch of their lives, and a prisoner lying dead in his cell having cut his wrists: “He was blue as a piece of stilton but the screws [guards] tried to say he’d done it that night.” When something like that happens, she says, “It affects everybody.”

She says that despite violent incidents, in many ways she remembers those as “the good old days” because “people looked after each other... There was a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ culture”.

The first year in prison, she said, was “hell”. “I was withdrawing from drink, I was up on a murder charge, I didn’t know anybody and I was terrified to death. I wouldn’t even come out of my cell.” For a life-prisoner she says, it is a marathon rather than a sprint: “As a brand new lifer, there will be times when you will want to talk and times you don’t want to talk and only another lifer will understand.”

Two weeks after her release from East Sutton Park, Rebecca is living in a strange city with hardly any money, adjusting to life on the outside 21 years after she left it, in a new body.

At her studio flat, where her room costs £12 a week, the fridge door is decorated with photos of fellow inmates and of her parents, both of whom died while she was inside. There are a few ornaments and a guitar.

In person, it is certainly hard to reconcile this witty, bright woman with her crime. But as the conversation progresses to life on the outside and her hopes for the future, Hilton’s vulnerabilities become apparent. Money, work, making friends: these are just some of the issues playing on her mind as she attempts to rebuild her sense of self after 21 years as a “number”.

A fold-up bed slots into the wall, alongside a small table and chairs, and a sofa. The first night in a proper bed she said she “passed out” and then after that it was “terror”. Silence after years of constant noise, Rebecca says, was haunting.

Her first rent instalment was paid up front out of the £46 allowance she was given upon leaving prison, which will have to last her a month until her Jobseeker’s Allowance comes through in four to six weeks’ time: “I’m already in debt before I’ve started.”

At lunchtime we walk across town to pick up a couple of bags of food parcels from a local charity. “It’s embarrassing,” she said, pulling out tins of soup, cereal and bread. “I was brought up not to take charity.”

Looking to the future – something she says she isn’t quite ready to face head on – Rebecca would like “a nice little job in retail” but she doubts her chances. “Everybody expects you to know how to use a computer, and when you apply for a job you’ve got to tell them you’ve been in prison and then the doors slam...”

The hardest thing, she said, is being on your own having grown accustomed to being around people. “A couple of times I’ve sat here and broke down and cried, I think it’s the loneliness more than anything, sometimes I wish I had somebody to talk to.”

In the 21 years Rebecca was inside, the world outside has obviously changed greatly. So too behind prison walls, she believes. “Psychologically, prison is harder now than it was because you’ve got demoralised staff, who either don’t know what they’re doing or just don’t care,” she claims.

The “good ones”, the ones who came into the job because in order to make a difference, Rebecca said, “become jaded because they’re not allowed to do their job”. “When I was at Wakefield there was a lad who couldn’t read or write and there was just no help for him so this screw was helping him read and write his letters. The bosses found out. They told him ‘Your job is to lock them up’. He left in the end, he couldn’t take it”.

Since her release, Rebecca has felt no freer than she was inside. “Inside you’re conditioned to a certain life... It’s easier to get a job when you’re in there, your meals are there, there’s a timetable, after a while you can do it with your eyes shut. You know what time dinner is, what day your washing day is, who to talk to if you need x, y and z, how to make a phone-call. You come out and you think ‘woah, hang on, things have changed’.

“My probation officer has to be told if I start a new relationship, if I want to apply for a job they’ve got to approve it. They even put my male name at the top of my license so anyone who gets hold of this straight away will know I used to be a bloke.

She accepts she has to be punished but Rebecca worries she will now struggle outside: “I don’t have any friends outside, I have no money, I can’t do anything. What’s the point in being released? I’d rather be back in prison.”

Prison life: The gender divide

Prison populations at 31 Dec 2012

79,837 men in prison (95.4 per cent) – a fall of 3 per cent over the year.

3,920 women in prison  (4.6 per cent) – a fall of 3 per cent over the year.

Committed a non-violent offence (12 months ending June 2012)

Men: 71 per cent.

Women: 81 per cent.

If crime was financially motivated

Men: 20 per cent.

Women: 28 per cent.

No previous convictions

Men: 12 per cent.

Women: 26 per cent.

Self-harm in June 2012 (when prison populations were 95 per cent men and 5 per cent women)

Men: 69 per cent.

Women: 31 per cent.

Disciplinary breaches while  in prison

Women: 1.5 proven breaches per capita (in 2009).

Men: 1.24 per capita.

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