Emmerdale’s new trans storyline is vital viewing – but what is prison really like for trans people?

Ash Palmisciano looks miserable as his trans character Matty Barton in Emmerdale.

Emmerdale’s Matty Barton is fearing life in prison as a trans inmate in his latest storyline, and it could make for vital viewing.

Matty, played by trans actor Ash Palmisciano, has changed the ITV soap for the better ever since he was first introduced back in 2015, when he became the programme’s first ever trans character.

His storylines have navigated common aspects of the trans experience, from a poor family response to his coming out, to getting top surgery. Yet the current plot – which sees him sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit – has the potential to explore a unique, contentious, and misunderstood experience that a small number of trans people will go through.

After accidentally stabbing fellow Emmerdale resident Samson Dingle (Sam Hall), and being framed to make it appear intentional, Matty has been locked up in a male prison.

Last night’s episode (11 June) saw the warmhearted Dales favourite speaking to a prison officer, who warned him to keep the fact he’s trans to himself.

Ash Palmisciano as Matty Barton in a police scene still from Emmerdale.
Emmerdale’s trans character Matty Barton has been sent to prison. (ITV)

Later, he finds himself among other inmates who question why he’s behind bars. Fearing that he’ll out himself if he says too much, he keeps quiet, but the prisoners promise to find out all there is to know about him.

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Back in 2021, Hollyoaks broke new soap ground by exploring what it’s like for trans prison inmates; the show’s own trailblazing trans character Sally St. Claire (played by Annie Wallace) was sent to an all-male prison after being accused of an attempted murder she didn’t commit.

Now, Emmerdale has the opportunity to dig further into what has increasingly become one of the most divisive issues facing LGBTQ+ people in recent times – despite the population of trans prisoners being incredibly small.

How many trans prisoners are there?

Despite trans prisoners becoming a lightning rod for controversy in recent years – with high profile cases including Sarah Jane Baker and Isla Bryson making headlines and fuelling anti-trans rhetoric – the number of trans people in England and Wales is minute.

As of March 2023, just 268 of approximately 85,000 inmates identify as trans in England and Wales (a year-on-year increase of 17 per cent); in Scotland, that number is just 23, according to recent figures.

What do UK government policies say about trans people in prison?

In Emmerdale, Matty Barton is a trans man being housed in a male prison. For many viewers of the show, that will seem congruous, but in reality, the vast majority of UK prisoners aren’t kept in prisons that align with their gender identity.

Last year, the Ministry of Justice introduced a new policy which now prevents trans women with “male genitalia”, and trans women convicted of violent or sexual offences, from being housed in women’s prisons, regardless of whether the inmate has a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) which legally recognises their gender. 

Similarly, in Scotland, trans women with a history of violence against women will now be housed in men’s units, bar cases with “exceptional circumstances”.

Government figures show that of 220 trans people living in England and Wales’ male prisons, 198 were trans women; similarly, in women’s prisons, 41 of the 48 trans inmates identified as trans men. Matty’s scenario on Emmerdale is exceedingly rare.

What other issues do trans people in prison face?

While Emmerdale appears to be keeping Matty Barton in the unlikely scenario of being housed in a male prison, there are other issues trans prisoners face that the soap should address.

Emmerdale star and out trans actor Ash Palmisciano wears a white shirt and blue button up over it as he stares towards the camera
Ash Palmisciano as his Emmerdale character Matty Barton. (ITV/Mark Bruce)

Trans prisoners have reported difficulty accessing support relating to their gender identity, with prison staff reporting not having the knowledge or training to effectively support them. Some trans prisoners go as far as to not reveal their gender identity to prison staff, for fear of discrimination, while other trans prisoners are at an increased risk of experiencing serious mental health issues and suicidal ideation.

According to one report, trans prisoners can face being treated like “aliens” by staff, with misgendering, name-calling and “disrespect” common, while fellow prisoners can also treat them with contempt. The majority feel unsafe, with one inmate reporting “death and assault threats all the time” from fellow prisoners.

It’s a bleak scenario for many trans prisoners, but the reality is rarely discussed on mainstream TV.

It’s not clear how long Emmerdale viewers will watch Matty Barton’s experience as a trans prisoner unfold for.

But with the issue at the centre of the debate raging about gender recognition across the country, the soap has an opportunity to follow in Hollyoaks‘ footsteps, and shine a light on what it’s really like for trans inmates right now. 

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