Mia Harris is a D.Phil candidate at the University of Oxford. She was invited to present her research about the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender prisoners in England and Wales at the communication skills seminar held on May 15th, 2018.
According to the newspaper The Sunday Times, the number of transgender inmates in England and Wales has gone from 70 in March-April 2016 to 125 in 2017, an increase of 80%. Yet, few researches have been carried out about the experiences of transgender people or, more broadly speaking, of the LGBTI community in prisons. Mia Harris D.Phil´s research is an exception to this pattern. Her current work focuses on the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in prisons in England and Wales. She conducted interviews in male and female prisons to shed some light on topics such as LGBTI sexual experiences in prison, discrimination, and pathways to crime.
The innovative character of her research is not limited to the topic chosen. Her research is being carried out within the framework of queer criminology, a field of criminology that focuses on the intersections among gender, sexual minorities, and the criminal justice system.
Throughout her lecture, Harris asked the audience how they defined some key concepts of her research. Besides being an engaging approach, it also reinforced the discursive aspect of the concepts transgender and gender. She clarified that the transgender definition is not related to sexuality but gender and that gender is a non-binary concept, even though people tend to identify themselves using mostly the categories male and female. To further her point, she commented that Facebook, for instance, has 71 gender options.
After defining the main concepts used in her research, Harris devoted the rest of her presentation to discuss some of her findings. About the topic sexual life in prisons, she explained that even though having sex in prisons is not unlawful, there is still some taboo revolving around it and, in some prisons, even repression. According to her findings, this leads to the problematic consequence of many prisoners not feeling comfortable in asking for condoms or other contraceptives.
Harris also highlighted the problem of access to clothes and accessories that some LGBTI inmates suffer during their imprisonment time. Some were denied wigs because they could facilitate a prison break, others were denied tights because they could be used to produce alcohol in prison. Curiously, cis women also experienced some control over the clothes they could wear while doing their time. Harris talked about the case of a cis woman who wanted to wear boxers and had her request denied. This comment showcases how prisons are still spaces that perpetuate gender normativity.
Another topic deeply discussed in the seminar was the position of vulnerability of the LGBTI community within prisons. The rates of self-harm, suicide, violence, and bullying are high and are increasing due to budget cuts and lack of resources to address their special needs. On a more positive tone, she talked about the work of LGBTI group supports in prisons and how they improve the living conditions of this vulnerable community.
By the end of the seminar, Harris expressed her will to use the knowledge acquired through her research to push for changes. She wants to influence policymakers and organizations to provide help to and to improve the living conditions of the LGBTI community inside and outside prison.
A great researcher is a person who has the capacity of observing reality, perceiving its problems, and contributing to the solution of them. Harris appears to have all these qualities besides being a great orator. We can only look forward to reading her thesis and the impact that it will cause not only in the criminological field, but in society in general.