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Inmates undergoing gender transition may be housed away from those of their registered sex: Shanmugam

SINGAPORE: It may be better in some situations to not house an inmate with other inmates of the same registered sex due to safety considerations, said Minister of Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam in parliament on Tuesday (Nov 7).

For example, a male inmate who is transitioning and has developed female features, such as breasts, may be moved to an individual cell or in a shared cell with other inmates who are in the same situation, Mr Shanmugam added.

The minister was responding to a parliamentary question filed by MP Murali Pillai (PAP-Bukit Batok), who had asked what the Ministry of Home Affairs’ approach is towards housing transgender people in Singapore prisons.

Mr Murali cited a recent case in Scotland where a transgender person was initially housed in segregation in an all-female jail.

Isla Bryson, 31, made the decision to transition from a man to a woman while awaiting trial for two counts of rape committed in 2016 and 2019.

Bryson was then convicted in January, and was initially held at a women’s prison but kept apart from other inmates.

The prisoner was then moved to a male facility ahead of sentencing in February, after concerns were raised over the safety of other female inmates.


On Tuesday, Mr Shanmugam noted that Bryson had self-identified as female at the time of conviction, but still had male genitalia and was registered as male.

Bryson’s remand in a women’s prison was based on the Scottish Prison Services’ policy, which determines housing arrangements based on an inmate’s new gender, said Mr Shanmugam.

“In Singapore, our primary consideration is the safety of the inmates. As a rule, inmates are housed in a male or female institution based on their registered sex, and not their self-identified gender,” he added.

However, he said there may be situations where it “may be better not to house an inmate with other inmates of their registered sex for considerations of safety – either for the safety of the inmate, or the safety of the other inmates”.

“For example, a male inmate who is transitioning and who has developed female features, such as breasts, it may not be completely safe for this inmate to be housed together with other male inmates,” said the minister.

“On the other hand, inmates in a female institution may not feel comfortable if we house with them, a former male who has just completed transitioning to be a female, especially like in the case of Bryson, the person had previously committed sexual offences.”

In such cases, the inmate is housed alone in individual cells within the institution of their registered gender, or in a shared cell with other inmates who are in the same situation.

06:35 Min

The minister also said there may be situations where inmates are found to have external genitalia different from their registered sex, during medical examination upon admission to prison.

In such cases, the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) may first house them alone in individual cells in an institution of their registered sex, said Mr Shanmugam.

SPS will then facilitate an examination by a medical specialist, who will assess if the inmates have had a complete physical change in genitalia. If so, the specialist will help the inmate to update their registered sex with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA).

This follows ICA’s requirements that a person’s sex change must first be verified by a local relevant medical specialist, before ICA updates the registered sex of the person in its database.


Mr Murali then asked if any transgender persons in Singapore’s prisons have been assaulted and what steps have been taken to deal with that.

Mr Shanmugam said the level of violence in Singapore’s prisons is “very low”, because of pre-emptive measures and the discipline in the prisons. Fairly tight control in prisons is exercised, he added.

“It’s certainly not something that has come up in a serious way as an issue for a policy decision,” Mr Shanmugam said.

“And members can see how we take an approach which is slightly different from the approach, for example, Isla Bryson’s case. I would say ours is a very practical approach.”

Mr Murali also asked if SPS has implemented a regime of regularly interviewing transgender persons in prison to see how they are faring and ensure their safety.

In response, Mr Shanmugam said counsellors are available to all inmates, not just transgender persons, as part of the rehabilitation process. Prisoners are also regularly interviewed, and SPS will consider issues raised by inmates.

“Of course, not all requests and concerns would be considered as legitimate. Legitimate issues would be dealt with,” he added.

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