Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Let’s talk about prisoner rape and sex behind bars

Government complacency puts prisoner safety and public health at risk.

Prisoners on H wing at YOI Aylesbury (Andy Aitchison)

Sex happens in prison. Some prisoners will have consensual sexual relationships with others whilst they serve their time. Others may be sexually assaulted by prisoners or by prison staff. Some may report the abuse to staff but others will stay silent.

What goes on behind closed bars affects prisoners, partners and the wider community. The consequences of unprotected sex, whether consensual or coercive, spill beyond the prison gates.

The Howard League for Penal Reform established the Commission on Sex in Prison in 2013 and conducted the first ever review of consensual and coercive sex inside prison in England and Wales. Over the past two years the Commission heard evidence from the Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, prison governors, researchers, health professionals, prisoners and their partners.

The Commission found there was little reliable evidence available about consensual sexual activity in prison. Prison guidelines on sexual activity were unclear and contradictory. There was no specific rule prohibiting sexual acts between prisoners but prison staff did not allow prisoners to have sex. Prison officers separated prisoners if they thought they were in a relationship. Sexual activity was listed as an unacceptable behaviour and prisoners could be punished under the incentives and earned privileges scheme.

Prisoners kept sexual activity and relationships hidden from staff. They feared that if they requested condoms it might alert staff to the fact they were having sex. Some had unprotected sex, with the inherent sexual health risks this entails.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons told the commission that condom provision was variable. A prisoner with HIV said he had requested and been denied condoms. In at least one private prison condoms were provided only if a prisoner took back the used condom for a one-for-one swap. Other prisoners had been sanctioned for requesting too many condoms.

The World Health Organisation has recognised prisoners are a high risk group for sexually transmitted infections. A punitive approach towards consensual sex in prison can stop prisoners from asking for protection. This puts all of us at risk. Most prisoners will be released at some point and if they have picked up a sexually transmitted infection in prison they will take it with them into the community as they leave. Public health must be the paramount consideration regarding consensual sex in prison.

The Commission found there had been minimal research on sexual abuse in prisons in England and Wales. It is not known how many prisoners are sexually assaulted in prison and sexual violence is likely to be hidden and unreported.

The number of sexual assaults recorded by the National Offender Management Service, the government agency that runs prisons and probation services in England and Wales,  rose from 113 in 2012 to 169 in 2013. However, the number of recorded assaults in prison could just be the tip of the iceberg. Research conducted in prisons in the US showed that the number of recorded assaults was just a small percentage of the number of sexual assaults experienced by prisoners.

Sexual abuse in prison has received more attention in the US. In 2003 US Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act or PREA, which led to the establishment of the National Rape Elimination Commission and the introduction of a zero tolerance policy towards sexual violence in prisons.

Before PREA, the head of the American State Correctional Association claimed: “sexual assault in prison is greatly exaggerated.” With no data to contradict this claim, there was widespread denial that rape was a problem in US prisons. Now, the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducts an annual anonymous survey of prisoners. Data from 2013 revealed that 4 per cent of prisoner had experienced sexual victimisation and 2 per cent of prisoners had been a victim of a non-consensual sexual act with another prisoner or staff member.

Unlike the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Ministry of Justice does not conduct annual anonymous surveys of prisoners. The Howard League’s Commission on Sex in prison submitted a research proposal to the Ministry of Justice to interview prisoners about their experiences of consensual and coercive in prison but was not granted permission to undertake the research. One of the reasons the MoJ gave for its refusal was that the research did not sufficiently link to National Offender Management Service priorities.

Identifying and combating sexual abuse inside prison should be a priority. A study of former prisoners in 2004 found 1 per cent had been raped and 5 per cent had been victims of coerced sex. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of prisons found that 1 per cent of prisoners who completed an anonymous survey during inspections reported they had been sexually assaulted. The small percentages mask the true extent of the problem. There are on average 85,000 people in prison in England and Wales. More than 165,000 people are received into prison annually. It is possible that between 850 and 1650 prisoners could be victims of sexual assault while inside. The number of sexual assaults could be higher as evidence indicates that some victims are assaulted several or many times.

The National Offender Management Service has said that it is fully committed to zero tolerance to violence in prisons and staff do not turn a blind eye to sexual assaults. The prisons minister Andrew Selous told the Guardian in October 2014: “Reported incidents of sexual assault in prison are rare.”

Men can find it difficult to talk about being sexually assaulted by another man. There are additional barriers to reporting rape in men’s prisons where the prevailing culture is often described as hyper-masculine or homophobic.

More than 900 adult men have come forward to report they were sexually abused or were victims of systematic violence by prison staff inside Medomsley Detention Centre in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the men did not report the abuse at the time. The scandal of abuse inside Medolmsley Detention Centre has taken decades to come to light. To assume that sexual abuse is rare because few prisoners report it is complacent.

There is an urgent need for research to determine the nature and scale of sexual abuse in prisons in England and Wales. There is much to be learnt from the approach in the US where data collection has revealed the true extent of the problem and policies are now in place to prevent sexual abuse behind bars.


The Howard League for Penal Reform is holding a conference on sex in prison on 17 March. For more information see http://www.howardleague.org/behind-closed-bars/

Think this piece matters? Please donate to OurKingdom here to help keep us producing independent journalism. Thank you. 


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.