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15 Sep 2014

Ministers urged to investigate prison rape

The government was today (Monday 15 September) urged to take the problem of prison rape more seriously as figures suggested that hundreds of prisoners may have been sexually abused behind bars.

Coercive sex in prison cover

The warning follows a survey of evidence by the Commission on Sex in Prison, which discovered research showing broadly similar rates of sex crimes in prisons in England and Wales and in the United States.

Although data suggests that the frequency of sexual abuse in prison in England and Wales could be similar to that seen in the US, the issue is taken much more seriously across the Atlantic.

The Ministry of Justice has blocked an attempt by the Commission to study the issue in more detail.

Details of the survey of evidence can be found in the Commission’s third briefing paper, Coercive sex in prison, which is released today (Monday 15 September).

The Commission, which comprises eminent academics, former prison governors and health experts, was established by the Howard League for Penal Reform. It is the first-ever independent review of sex behind bars in England and Wales.

The Commission found that there has been minimal research on sexual abuse and sex crimes in prison and the nature and full extent of the problem is not known, with sexual violence in prison often hidden and under-reported.

The Commission was able to conduct primary research amongst former prisoners and the results will be published next year. But an attempt to interview current prisoners was blocked by the Ministry of Justice.

Nevertheless, sources of data do exist and they suggest that thousands of incidents of sexual assault may be taking place behind bars each year. This correlates with more comprehensive findings from the US.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) conducts a survey with prisoners as part of the inspection process and prisoners are asked whether they have been sexually abused by another prisoner or by prison staff.

HMIP data show that 1 per cent of prisoners report being sexually abused in prison.  Extrapolating from prison population and reception figures, this means that between 850 to 1,650 prisoners could be victims of sexual assault while inside, with evidence suggesting that some victims will be assaulted more than once.

Research interviewing 208 former prisoners carried out 10 years ago in England and Wales produced similar findings, with 1 per cent reporting they had been raped and 5.3 per cent reporting they were victims of coerced sex.

There has been minimal research on sexual abuse and sex crimes in prison and the nature and full extent of the problem is not known, with sexual violence in prison often hidden and under-reported.

In the United States, the problem of sexual violence behind bars is much more widely recognised, with federal legislation – the Prison Rape Elimination Act – passed with bipartisan support in 2003.

The US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) conducts annual surveys on sexual violence designed to provide a fuller picture of sexual victimisation in prisons, after discovering that the number of recorded sexual assaults in US prisons was just a small percentage of the number of sexual assaults actually experienced by prisoners.

Data from the most recent survey in 2013 show that 2 per cent of prisoners in the US had been the victim of a non-consensual sex act and 4 per cent had been sexually victimised.

Other key points raised in the Commission’s briefing paper include:

  • Ministry of Justice data show that the number of recorded sexual assaults in prison rose in 2013 and is now at the highest recorded level since 2005
  • Gay and transgender prisoners are at higher risk of sexual assault than heterosexual prisoners
  • Investigations into sexual assaults can be slow and the police are not routinely notified about allegations of abuse
  • Prisons are closed institutions. It is complacent to assume that sexual exploitation and abuse by staff never happens in prison
  • There are no policies to provide guidance to staff on how to support prisoners who report sexual abuse.

Chris Sheffield, Chair of the Commission on Sex in Prison, said: “There is an urgent need to determine the nature and scale of sexual abuse in prisons in England and Wales. The issue is treated seriously in the US, where the government has taken major steps to recognise the problem and prevent abuse. Despite the limited research available here, what findings we do have suggest there are disturbing parallels between the experiences of prisoners in the US and prisoners in England and Wales. While recorded figures for incidents of sexual assault may not paint a reliable picture of what goes on, it is also concerning that these figures are now at their highest recorded level since 2005. Cuts in staffing levels and overcrowding will only make it more difficult for prisons to stop sexual assaults from taking place.”

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Pena Reform, said: “Prisons are meant to be safe places where the law is enforced, not places where people are under threat of sexual violence and rape. The focus and energy of both American Republicans and Democrats on tackling the issue of prison rape shames Westminster. The broadly comparable proportions of prisoners reporting sexual victimisation in the US and in England and Wales suggest that this issue is much more serious than previously thought. It is therefore particularly disappointing that the Ministry of Justice refused to allow the Commission to interview prisoners directly. We hope that all the political parties consider the lessons from the US and do more to recognise and combat this problem.”

Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of US-based prisoners’ rights organisation Just Detention International, said: “As long as rape in prison is cloaked in silence, this kind of violence will continue unabated. In the US, we have seen first-hand the importance of serious, nationwide research to determine the prevalence and dynamics of sexual abuse in detention. With reliable data in hand, we have managed to move away from denial and toward a recognition that prisoner rape is a nationwide crisis. Only on that basis have we been able to undertake a serious effort to make US prisons safe. In the UK and the US alike, I am convinced that most people agree that when the government takes away someone’s freedom, it assumes an absolute responsibility to keep that person safe. No matter what the crime, rape should never be part of the penalty.”

Notes to editors

  1. The Commission on Sex in Prison’s third briefing paper, Coercive sex in prison, can be downloaded here.
  2. The Commission on Sex in Prison has received written and oral evidence from voluntary and statutory agencies, prison governors and serving prisoners. It held seminars and heard evidence from key statutory stakeholders including the National Offender Management Service, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. The briefing paper is based on the written and oral evidence submitted to the Commission. Names of prisoners given in evidence have been changed.
  3. Further information about the Commission can be found at
  4. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.

Further information

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