On 11 October 2018, a Crown Court judge handed down a sentence of life imprisonment to Karen White of West Yorkshire, England, who had pleaded guilty to multiple counts of rape, sexual assault, and unlawful (malicious) wounding.
The case was unusual, to say the least. As the Yorkshire Evening Post reported, White is a transgender female who committed at least one of the rapes years ago when she still identified as a male. Stranger still, she committed the assaults on female inmates after being transferred from a men’s to a women’s jail due to her declared gender change:
Karen White, 52, previously known as Stephen Wood and David Thompson, “used her persona to put herself into contact with vulnerable persons,” a court heard.
White began gender reassignment when she was first remanded into custody into a female prison, prosecutor Christopher Dunn told Leeds Crown Court.
She began gender re-alignment after being sent to prison for stabbing a neighbour and it was then that police also probed allegations she had raped two vulnerable women.
While in HMP New Hall — a female prison in Wakefield, West Yorks — she started wearing a wig, make-up and false breasts, the court heard. She then attacked two women inmates while at New Hall between September and October 2017 while on remand for other offences.
White was actually accused of perpetrating four sexual assaults on female prisoners, though she only confessed to two, after previously claiming that she suffered from erectile dysfunction and couldn’t have assaulted anyone at all. A report in the Daily Mail enumerated White’s offenses:
Prosecutor Charlotte Dangerfield told the court the first assault happened when White stood close to another inmate, touched her arm and exposed herself.
For the second assault she made ‘inappropriate comments about oral sex’ and put the woman’s hand on the ‘defendant’s left breast’ so she could feel her padded bra.
Miss Dangerfield said the third alleged assault involved White pushing herself indecently against another prisoner, and on the fourth incident she allegedly kissed an inmate on the neck.
The rapes White confessed to occurred in 2003 and 2016. White (then known as Stephen Wood) was placed under arrest in the first instance, an attack on the pregnant wife of a friend, but the case wasn’t prosecuted at the time for reasons that weren’t divulged in the 2018 trial. The second occurrence came to light when police questioned a woman who had returned a letter White wrote to her from jail. She told them White had violently raped her five or six times over the course of a year.
Prior to 2003, White had served jail time for indecent exposure and sexual assaults on children. More recently, according to the Guardian, she admitted to probation officers that she was still sexually interested in minors and would “think nothing” of abusing a child.
The prosecuting attorneys openly questioned the sincerity of White’s gender change in court. Prosecutor Chris Dunn referred to White as an “alleged” transgender female, pointing out that “there is a smattering of evidence in this case that the defendant’s approach to transition has been less than committed.”
Addressing the defendant during sentencing, Judge Christopher Batty said: “You are a predator and highly manipulative and in my view you are a danger. You represent a significant risk of serious harm to children, to women and to the general public.”
In any case, White will serve out her sentence in a men’s prison. Although the decision to move her to a women’s jail pending trial was rendered in accordance with a 2017 policy update emphasizing the right of prisoners to be treated “according to the gender in which they identify,” the Prison Service admitted that mistakes were made in White’s case and publicly apologized.
Jenny-Anne Bishop, a member of the transgender rights group Transforum, said the local board charged with deciding where prisoners should be incarcerated ought to have taken White’s entire history of criminal offenses into account but didn’t. Moreover, certain procedural steps that could have ensured White was placed in a facility where she wouldn’t pose a risk to herself or others weren’t taken.
Despite what happened in White’s case, Bishop defends the system, which is meant to protect transgender people from harm as well as the general prison population, as workable. “It is almost the exception that proves the rule,” she told the Guardian, “you’ve just got to look at what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again. No system is perfect.”
According to a government survey, there are 125 known transgender prisoners in England and Wales, though the Ministry of Justice says the actual number is probably higher. Nearly half of the 125 identified have been convicted of one or more sexual offenses.