Politicians, campaigners and a UN special rapporteur have all expressed grave concerns that a transgender woman found guilty of raping two women before transitioning is being remanded in a female prison.
Opponents of the Scottish government’s gender recognition reforms – which the UK government has blocked from going for royal assent because of “safety issues for women and children” – said that the case vindicated their concerns about lack of safeguards in the bill.
Isla Bryson, from Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire, was found guilty of two charges of rape on Tuesday after a six-day trial at the high court in Glasgow.
After the conviction, Bryson was remanded in custody to the women’s prison Cornton Vale, where it is understood she is being kept in segregation, until sentencing at the end of February.
Bryson first appeared in court in 2019 as Adam Graham and both victims knew their attacker by that name.
The jury heard Bryson raped two women – one in Clydebank in 2016 and one in Drumchapel, Glasgow, in 2019 – after meeting them online. Prosecutors described Bryson as “preying” on vulnerable women.
As he raised an urgent question in the Holyrood chamber on Wednesday afternoon, the Scottish Conservative community safety spokesperson Russell Findlay, said it was “entirely inappropriate, unacceptable and wrong” for such an offender to be housed in a female prison “which is bound to contain women who have been victims of male violence, sexual violence and abuse”.
Findlay demanded the immediate publication of the Scottish Prison Service’s (SPS) long-awaited review of policy as regards transgender prisoners, which the justice secretary Keith Brown confirmed would be released “in the coming months”.
Brown also underlined that the gender recognition reform bill – which simplifies how transgender individuals change their legal gender – does not affect the SPS approach to trans prisoners, which is based on the detailed assessment of risk for the individual, other prisoners and prison staff.
The Guardian understands that a case conference takes place within 24 hours of any prisoner’s arrival, involving SPS staff, with NHS and psychological input and an equality and diversity officer, in order to assess risk, and that segregation decisions must be reviewed at least monthly.
Asked about the scenario on BBC Radio 4’s PM, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said: “The fact of the matter is there is no automatic right for a trans woman convicted of an offence to go to a women’s prison.”
“The Scottish Prison Service, which individually assesses all prisoners or potential prisoners, does detailed risk assessments that are about the safety of the individual prisoner [and] of those that will be around the individual prisoner.”
A SPS spokesperson said: “Where there are any concerns about any risks posed by an individual, either to themselves or others, we retain the ability to keep them separate from the mainstream population until an agreed management plan is in place.”
Findlay also said it was “traumatic and demeaning for any rape victim to hear their brutal attacker referred to as ‘she’ and ‘her’ in court proceedings”.
In December he worked cross-party with Michelle Thomson, one of the SNP backbenchers who rebelled at the bill’s first vote, on an amendment to prevent anyone accused of a sexual offence changing legal sex until the end of their court proceedings.
But the amendment was defeated by one vote.
The Guardian understands that in advance of the Bryson case, all parties agreed that the defendant was previously known as Graham, and that witnesses had encountered the individual using that name. No guidance was issued to witnesses on addressing the defendant nor were they corrected when referring to the defendant as “Adam Graham” or “he”.
Rhona Hotchkiss, a former governor of Cornton Vale and outspoken critic of the gender reforms, told the Guardian: “My fear was that under self-identification it would open the floodgates and open the prison service to legal challenge if [these individuals] weren’t moved to the women’s estate”.
She suggested that the frequency of segregation reviews meant the SPS would “struggle” to keep Bryson from mixing with other female prisoners.
Responding to the news, Reem Asalem, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, said she was “Remembering the many times we were told that the idea that predatory and violent males may want to take advantage of the presence of loopholes in system and weak safeguards to enter spaces reserved for females was ludicrous!”
Before the GRR bill was passed in December, Alsalem sent a highly critical letter to the UK government in which she raised concerns that the reforms would “open the door for violent males” to abuse the process.
The court heard that Bryson was currently taking hormones and seeking surgery to complete gender reassignment.