Trans woman imprisoned indefinitely ‘for the public’s protection’

October 11, 2008

The Wakefield Express carries a report of the appalling verdict of a court in Leeds which has sentenced a trans woman, Joanne Spencer, to be “locked up indefinitely” after finding her guilty of “reckless arson, making a threat to kill and possessing an offensive weapon”.

About the only thing I find myself agreeing with Judge Peter Collier QC about is his comment that Ms Spencer had led a “sad and tragic life”: certainly the little factual information made public in the report seems to back that up.

A TRANSEXUAL has been locked up indefinitely after she threatened to kill a taxi driver with a hunting knife and torched her flat. Joanne Spencer, 47, escaped a life sentence after swinging a large hunting knife at the cab driver’s head during the incident in July, Leeds Crown Court heard.

In June Spencer torched her own flat on Thornbury Road, Thornes, after a row with 76-year-old neighbour Margaret Ward.

When police arrived they found Spencer wearing a gas mask and camouflage clothing.

She refused to leave the flat despite smoke billowing from vents and blackening the windows.

Spencer told officers she wanted to burn to death rather than die from the fumes.


Defending, Rebecca Young said: “She has extremely deep-rooted difficulties relating to her gender and to failed surgery.”

Now, I realise that threatening someone with a knife is a serious offence; the Government’s own website tells us that “the maximum penalty for an adult carrying a knife is four years in prison and a fine of £5000”. And, although falling generally, the figures for reported knife crimes are still very high in this country. In 2007, the BBC tells us, there were 22,151 knife crimes (attempted murder, GBH, wounding, robbery) in England and Wales.

So yes, that needs to be stopped, and anyone who “threatened to kill a taxi driver with a hunting knife” should expect to face the consequences of their action. Although, if the Government’s website is correct, and as Ms Spencer didn’t commit murder, or GBH, or wounding or robbery, then presumably she shouldn’t need to be imprisoned for the statutory four years.

Consider also these two pieces of information in the report:

[S]he wanted to burn to death rather than die from the fumes.


She has extremely deep-rooted difficulties relating to her gender and to failed surgery.

Does that sound like someone in a calm and rational state of mind? It doesn’t to me – but then, I’m not an expert on matters of mental health and wellbeing. Not like Judge Collier, who apparently knows enough about it to send Ms Spencer to jail “indefinitely” without even suggesting that she might be given medical care and attention – despite the statement that “she wanted to burn to death rather than die from the fumes” which would seem, even to a lay person like me, to refer to an attempt to take her own life.

It’s a sad indictment of the British legal system that a woman so clearly in need of help and support is instead imprisoned indefinitely “for the public’s protection”. Even though it seems that she didn’t actually physically hurt anyone.

So, Judge Collier, who do you suppose will protect Joanne Spencer while she’s locked up in prison indefinitely, without the chance of parole for at least three years, without even the medical care that she seems so obviously and desperately in need of?

I only hope that at least she’s been sent to a women’s prison… Cold comfort, yes – but the thought of the alternative sends chills down my spine.


ETA (17 October 2008): Today, no fewer than three people have pointed out to me that there is far more information about this case available in the public domain than I had realised. The upshot is that my earlier comments are somewhat wide of the mark and I feel extremely stupid for not carrying out more in-depth research before posting.

By rights, I suppose I should wade back through my piece and re-edit it, but after an unexpectedly long, stressy and emotional week, I’m fast losing the will to blog. So instead, I admit to my rubbishness, and add below the two relevant links, the contents of which I invite the world and her sister to reach their own conclusions about. They are, after all, far better at it – and all that tricky interpretational/op-ed stuff which requires a working brain – than I. Seriously.

Although I will note, bitterly, that both reports employ the “she used to be a man” method of identity erasure, third-gendering and all-round Othering of trans women – in a similar way to this journalist – which is guaranteed to start off my recently discovered (and increasing) sense of trans rage.

Goodnight, world.


One Response to “Trans woman imprisoned indefinitely ‘for the public’s protection’”

  1. Lisa Harney Says:

    After she said something like that, she should have immediately been referred for psychiatric help.

    This is horrible. :(

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