It is “highly, highly unlikely” that a trans woman with a history of violence against women will be sent to a female prison, MSPs have been told.

Teresa Medhurst, the head of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), said such a move would only happen in “exceptional circumstances”, after a “fairly in-depth analysis of the individual's life history.”

The SPS boss was being grilled by MSPs over the service’s new Policy for the Management of Transgender People in Custody, published at the end of last year.

It was developed following the row over trans rapist, Isla Bryson, who first appeared in court as Adam Graham.

Following conviction, the SPS made the decision to divert Bryson to Cornton Vale, Scotland's only women's prison, rather than the planned destination of HMP Barlinnie, sparking outrage. 

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The new policy is due to come into force in February 2024. It initially states that a transgender woman “will not be eligible to be considered for admission or transfer to a women’s prison” if they have been convicted for a raft of crimes, including murder, assault, robbery, abduction, rape, and sexual harassment.

However, it then goes on to say that there is an exception to this rule if the SPS’s Risk Management Team, and subsequently an executive panel, “are satisfied there is compelling evidence that they do not present an unacceptable risk of harm to those in the women's prison.“

Conservative MSP Russell Findlay pushed Ms Medhurst on what that would mean in practice. He asked if a “male-bodied sex criminal” could be transferred to a women's prison.

“Somebody who has committed a crime of a sexual nature and who presents a risk to women will not be transferred to the women's estate,” the prison chief said.

Mr Findlay asked if the new policy meant that a “male body sex criminal… deemed not to present a risk due to an SPS assessment” could go to the female estate.

“I would be struggling to understand in what circumstances somebody who's been convicted of a sex offence would be deemed not a risk to women,” Ms Medhurst said.

She continued: “It would depend on the circumstances of that individual case, what that violence was related to, what risks were identified.

“Anyone who has committed an act of serious violence goes through a very rigorous assessment process, both in relation to their management plan, as well as their placement and that applies regardless of whether or not they are a transgender individual or out.”

“I understand the new procedure,” Mr Findlay replied, “but I think the short answer to both those scenarios is yes, that they could, in theory.”

This would be “highly, highly unlikely,” Ms Medhurst replied.

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Asked by the SNP’s John Swinney to set out what that assessment would involve, she told him “the rigour and scope that would be applied for exceptional circumstances, and that's what we're talking about here, would require a fairly in-depth analysis of the individual's life history.”

Ms Medhurst explained: “You're going through everything from their early years and their early life and their life experiences, how they were raised, any issues or matters that arose during that time, their relationships over the period of the their early years and into adulthood, and also their response to schooling, any jobs they may have had.

“And so it takes in the whole context of how someone has lived and has commenced down the road of their offending behaviour, as well as taking account in this particular case of where that individual's transgender journey has started, and how that has developed over either a number of years or in more recent times.”

She said it would look at “every element of that individual's life” and look at social work reports, police reports, and the prison’s own intelligence.

During the session, Ms Medhurt refused to say whether prison officers would be able to opt out of searching trans prisoners.

She said the presumption was that prisoners will be searched in their acquired rather than birth gender.

“What I’m trying to say is that we have a responsibility and a duty of care,” she said. “Where there are individual concerns we have always worked with individual members of staff to listen to those concerns and work around that with them.”

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Labour’s Pauline McNeill pointed out that the Prison Officers Association had not signed off on the policy.

She asked if a female prison officer would be disciplined if she did not wish to search a transgender woman prisoner.

Ms Medhurst said that the individual and the line manager “would have a discussion.”

“I have not come across a circumstance where it has been necessary either to compel somebody or to discipline somebody. So it is something which has not hampered the management, and the searching of transgender women in custody so far, and I don't envisage it will be going forward.”

Last year, before adopting the new policy, the SPS required female staff members to carry out intimate searches on Tiffany Scott, formerly known as Andrew Burns, a violent and aggressive prisoner, subject to an order for lifelong restriction, with a history of attacking officers.