Vikki Thompson: UK prison service savaged over treatment of transgender woman who died in men's jail

‘This was a death waiting to happen...There was no consideration of the gender she had openly identified with for half her life’

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The Independent Online

The Ministry of Justice has been called “at best incompetent and at worst inhumane” after the “deeply tragic” death of a young transgender woman who was sent to a men’s jail.

Vikki Thompson was found dead in her cell at Leeds Prison where she was sent on remand, despite claiming she had previously been sexually assaulted there.

An inquest into the 21-year-old’s November 2015 death determined that she did not intend to take her own life. But campaigners said her death was “waiting to happen” and her treatment was “at best incompetent and at worst inhumane”.

HMP Leeds has the second highest number of self inflicted inmate deaths in the UK and lawyers called for a “complete overhaul” of the establishment.

The inquest found a catalogue of failures within the justice and health system contributed to Ms Thompson’s death.

“Throughout her chaotic life, Vikki has been let down by various departments including the NHS, Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust, the Prison Service and also by her family,” the inquest foreman said.

“Although these departments were individually aware of Vikki’s history, the overall coordination of her mental and health state were lacking in any form of organisational structure.”

The jury found the management of Ms Thompson’s treatment and mental health were “lacking in professionalism” and “inadequate for an individual of such complex issues”.

More attention should have been given to Ms Thompson after her previous stay at HMP Leeds after she said she was sexually abused, they added. 

They came to the decision after hearing that Ms Thompson, from Keighley, West Yorkshire, had repeatedly told prison and court escort staff that she would be “carried out in a box”, the inquest heard.

Although she had identified as female since she was 10 years old, she had never had any surgical or hormone treatment, so she did not have a Gender Recognition Certificate establishing her female identity. 

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As a result she was sent to Leeds Prison, a facility for male prisoners. 

There, she was subjected to hourly checks but not put on the vulnerable prisoner wing to begin with as staff feared she would be in danger from sex offenders. She was eventually moved to the vulnerable prisoners’ wing at her own request.

Her mother, Lisa Harrison, said: “Words cannot describe the upset of losing my daughter Vikki… I do not feel that the prison fully appreciated Vikki’s vulnerabilities and I believe their lack of insight has resulted in her death.”

Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, a charity providing advice to people affected by a death in custody and detention, said it “was a death waiting to happen”. 

“A vulnerable, young transgender woman was sent to a men’s prison despite the risks of abuse and mistreatment,” she said. “There was no consideration of the gender she had openly identified with for half her life. 

“Leeds prison has the second highest rate of self-inflicted deaths in the country. It was also a prison in which Vikki said she had previously been sexually assaulted, and where she was a victim of transphobic abuse and harassment.”

Ms Coles said the Government implemented new Prison Service instructions (PSI) after the deaths of Ms Thompson and Joanne Latham, another transgender prisoner. But she added “it remains to be seen how much of a difference this will make in practice”. 

“We are not convinced that the new PSI could have prevented Vikki’s death, given the range of failures uncovered at this inquest,” she said. “Vikki’s treatment by the prison and healthcare trust was at best incompetent and at worst inhumane. 

“Recent inquests at HMP Leeds and other prisons have shown staff are unable to implement even the most basic training and policies intended to protect vulnerable prisoners. The incoming Government needs to address the unacceptable death toll in prisons and the high numbers of people in prison who should not be there at all.”

Philip Goldberg, the lawyer for Ms Thompson’s family, also strongly criticised HMP Leeds. 

“Vikki’s case is a deeply tragic one,” Mr Goldberg said. “She is one of three transgender women to die within the male prison estate since November 2015. Yes, Vikki was a transgender woman housed in a male prison but like many others in prison her vulnerability did not make her unique. It was the responsibility of HMP Leeds to ensure she was properly looked after and safe.

“The jury heard that Vikki experienced bullying and sexual harassment on E-Wing that caused her to self-harm before she was moved to the Vulnerable Prisoner’s wing. HMP Leeds has the second-highest number of self-inflicted deaths in the UK and an inability to learn from their mistakes. Vikki’s mother remains deeply distressed by the loss of her daughter. Yet hopes that if any good is to come of her death, it’s that the Ministry of Justice also undertakes a complete overhaul of HMP Leeds.”

He added that “a radical shift in prison staff culture and training was needed to protect transgender prisoners.”

A Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spokesperson said: “This is a tragic case and our thoughts are with Vikki Thompson’s family and friends.

“We recognise that there were failings in her care, and HMP Leeds has already put in place a number of measures to better support offenders following the PPO investigation.

“We will now carefully consider the findings of the inquest.”

HMP Leeds has now implemented new procedures and is installing CCTV across the prison, the MoJ said. The prison has also introduced new security measures into high-risk areas of the prison and improved segregation practices, the MoJ added.

Additional reporting by Press Association.

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