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Want more sex crime? Send more kids to jail

Sending children to prison may make them more likely to commit sexual offences in adulthood, Britain’s first independent review of sex behind bars has found.

Lorraine Atkinson
23 February 2015

Young Offender Institution, England (Andrew Aitchison [email protected] )

England and Wales lock up more children than any other country in Western Europe. Yet the impact of imprisonment can be extremely damaging to children and can compound problematic behaviour rather than prevent it. The Commission on Sex in Prison, Britain’s first independent review of sex behind bars, has found that locking children in large prisons where violence is a daily occurrence is harmful to healthy sexual development and may increase the risk of violent and sexual offending in adulthood, leading to more, not fewer victims of crime.

There are around 1,000 children in custody in England and Wales. Three quarters of the children locked up are held in prisons, large institutions with low staff-to-child ratios and high levels of violence. More than 2,600 children were received into prison custody during 2013.

Prisons often hold around 200 boys. They are run by staff in uniform to a strict regime where security is the paramount concern.

Children spend a lot of time locked in their cell during the day. Although the number of children in custody has been falling, the government plans to build a huge new prison for children in Nottinghamshire which will hold 320 children. Child experts and charities including the Howard League for Penal Reform have condemned plans to build one of the largest prisons in Europe for children and said it will endanger children and threaten public safety.

The majority of children who end up in prison have experienced multiple disadvantage in their short lives. A third have been placed in the care of the local authority. Over a third have experienced abuse or neglect or been on the child protection register. One in twenty boys in prison has suffered sexual abuse. One in five has emotional or mental health problems. (There’s a note on sources at the end of his piece).

A child psychologist told the commission that some young people in prison have had no positive care-giver experiences or role models during childhood. Many will have experienced overly harsh or inconsistent parenting or neglect. Some boys in prison will have been involved in gangs and some may have sexually exploited girls. The children who end up in prison have complex needs. Vast prisons, where a few staff are responsible for many children, cannot address all these problems or provide the therapeutic environment that these children need.

There have been few studies on the impact of prison on the healthy sexual development of children. The British Medical Association looked at the health and social needs of children in the criminal justice system and found:

“It is manifestly clear…that children and young people seldom thrive in the secure estate.”

Studies have shown that locking children up in prison can delay or damage the normal maturation process. All children need opportunities to develop positive and appropriate social and sexual relationships with their peers. It is part of the normal developmental process that children go through in order to develop healthy relationships in adulthood.

Yet children in prison are effectively precluded from this important stage of normal adolescent development. This can have a profound impact, limiting their ability to form healthy and positive relationships with others in adulthood.

The Commission on Sex in Prison found that prison placed limits on adolescent development. Sexual expression was not permitted in prisons. Boys were disciplined by prison staff for masturbating, even though they thought they were masturbating in private. Boys in prison learnt to keep their sexual behaviour secret for fear of punishment.

Relationships with other boys were not allowed and there were no opportunities for boys to develop relationships with girls. A child psychologist told the Commission that punishing children for normal sexual behaviours could evoke feelings of guilt or shame and might even increase the risk of sexual offending.

Prisons are inherently violent institutions. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons found a third of boys felt unsafe in prison and a fifth had been victimised. At Feltham prison in West London there were on average two fights or assaults a day, including pre-meditated attacks on individual boys. At Cookham Wood prison in Kent, there were high levels of violence and a high use of force by staff including the infliction of pain to gain compliance.

Evidence from the US has shown that there is a correlation between the way children are treated in custody and sexual victimisation.  Evidence given to the review panel on prison rape in the US suggested that if children in prison were controlled through coercion there would be a growth of other coercive behaviours such as sexual victimisation. Other studies have shown that exposure to violence was a risk factor for the development of sexual and non-sexual aggression among boys in prison.

There has been little research on sexual violence in prisons in England and Wales. Neither the National Offender Management Service nor the Youth Justice Board were able to supply information on the number of official complaints about sexual abuse in custody for children. It would be complacent to assume that abuse never happens in child prisons. In 2010 a prison officer was jailed for sexually abusing a 17 year old boy in Warren Hill prison in Suffolk. Over 900 adult men have come forward to report to the police that they were sexually or physically abused whilst held in Medomsley Detention Centre as boys in the 1970s and 1980s.

Evidence from the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the States found that children held in large prison facilities holding more than 100 boys were nearly five times more likely to report being sexually victimised than children held in small facilities holding less than 10 children.

There are small secure facilities for children in England and Wales. They are not prisons but secure children’s homes, run by highly trained and well managed staff who are able to give children the education, therapeutic and behavioural programmes to meet their individual needs and prevent re-offending. They are also able to keep children safe.

Large prisons with low staff-to-child ratios cannot keep children safe and may compound abusive patterns of behaviour. There is plenty of evidence to show that placing children in large prisons puts them at risk and can endanger lives as well as public safety. Building a super prison to hold hundreds of children is a retrograde step, is unnecessary and is a waste of money.

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The Commission on Sex in Prison’s fourth briefing paper, Healthy sexual development of children in prison, is here.

  • “One in three girls and one in twenty boys who end up in prison have suffered sexual abuse.”
  • Lader, D., Singleton, N. and Meltzer, H. (2000) Psychiatric Morbidity among Young Offenders in England and Wales. London: Office for National Statistics.

  • “Over a third have experienced abuse or neglect or been on the child protection register.”
  • Jacobson, J. et al. (2010) Punishing disadvantage: a profile of children in custody. London: Prison Reform Trust and the Institute for Criminal Policy Research.

  • “It is manifestly clear…that children and young people seldom thrive in the secure estate.”
  • Young Lives Behind Bars, A British Medical Association Report, December 2014.



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