There always tends to be a media feeding frenzy whenever the words “rape” and “prison” are used in the same sentence, either by prison reform campaigners or politicians. Britain has long had a prurient attitude towards this subject as innumerable ‘jokes’ about not ‘dropping the soap’ in prison showers testify.
I’ve blogged on the issue of rape and sexual assaults in our prisons before (back in July). However, the recent interest in the investigation carried out by the Howard League for Penal Reform’s Independent Commission on Sex in Prison shows that there are serious problems that need to be addressed. What is very worrying is that we seem to have a new ‘denier’ in town: part-time Prisons Minister Andrew Selous.
His boss, Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling, has already done everything in his power to obstruct the work of the Commission – which includes former prison governors, ex-Probation officers, lawyers, practising medics (psychiatrists, nurses), leading criminologists and even a former prisoner (I bet his inclusion irritated the Secretary of State). There are also two MPs – one of whom, Sir Edward Garnier QC, was this government’s Solicitor-General for England and Wales from 2010 until 2012.
|Not much troubled by justice|
By refusing access to both current and former prisoners who are on licence, Mr Grayling has done his best to thwart the Commission’s investigation. It is open to speculation whether this has been motivated entirely by his ill-disguised hatred and contempt for the Howard League, which he regards as “an anti-government pressure group”, or whether he was keen to bury yet more bad news about the escalating crisis in our prisons.
Nonetheless, the Commission has soldiered on and tried to make good the deficit of direct evidence from serving prisoners by taking written submissions and conducting interviews with ex-prisoners who have no licence. Other sources of data, including prisoner questionnaires handed out during inspections conducted by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), have also been used.
Now, I should point out that HMIP questionnaire responses are always problematical. Many prisoners regard the exercise as a complete waste of time and generally chuck them straight in the cell bin. I’ve done it myself, so has virtually every pad-mate I’ve shared a cell with. A very typical exchange on the subject was as follows:
“Are you filling in the questionnaire?”
“No. Already binned it.”
There is also a widespread suspicion among cons that these questionnaires aren’t really anonymous at all. They usually arrive under your cell door and you wonder why you’ve been selected to fill it in. The fact that wing screws know who is getting them also rings warning bells. For these reasons I tend to treat the results with a healthy dose of scepticism. However, even these findings are a cause for concern.
HMIP data appears to suggest that around one percent of prisoners have disclosed that they have been sexually abused or raped by other cons or members of staff. On present prison population numbers, this would give a figure of around 850 victims annually. However, since this population is in constant flux – inmates released and new receptions coming in – the actual figure could be much higher than a snapshot might indicate.
|Who can you tell?|
Another potential source of data is that provided officially by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). This indicates that there were 170 sexual assaults recorded in 2013, an increase year-on-year from 113 in 2012. The problem with this particular figure is that little word “recorded”, because I know from personal experience that a great many sexual assaults – ranging from an indecent grope right through to full-scale rape (both anal and oral) – are often not documented, even when they are reported to prison staff. I know for an absolute fact that there are no records of the sexual assault I experienced in August 2013, because I have seen my own prison security records and it is not mentioned at all.
I could list literally dozens of similar cases, including a particularly brutal rape that I believe led one young prisoner to hang himself in despair back in 2012. I’ve seen both the unpublished report into his death prepared the Prison and Probation Ombudsman, as well as the Coroner’s inquest findings and the entire issue of the sexual assault has been whitewashed out of existence. In his case the suicide was attributed to depression, even though I know that two wing governors knew the real reasons he took such a desperate course of action to evade further attacks from the alleged rapist. I know because we discussed the issue at length behind closed doors months before the inquest.
That brings me to Andrew Selous and his recent comments on the Commission’s findings. He is quick to condemn consensual sexual relationships in prison. As reported in The Guardian, he stated: “We do not condone sex in prisons or believe that prisoners in a relationship should share a cell.” That should appease the blue rinse brigade in Tunbridge Wells who probably detest the idea of gay sex almost as much as they loathe and fear prisoners in general.
It also doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone in the MOJ that some sexual activity is forced on weaker or vulnerable cons, either as a means of control by dominant prisoners or as a means of settling debts. As I’ve previously mentioned in a post on this blog, I’ve witnessed a group of heterosexual cons debating whether to accept an offer of oral sex to clear a tobacco debt. Opinion was mixed, but no-one really expressed much outrage over the suggestion.
|Sexual assaults: hidden in the shadows|
We have allowed the development of a prison culture where some prisoners are so vulnerable, penniless and desperate – particularly if they have untreated addictions and no income from work or attending education courses – that they are sometimes reduced to bargaining with the only resource they have left: their own bodies. It is the ultimate form of human degradation and it happens in our prison system today.
However, what I find much more concerning is that Mr Selous – a recent appointment to this portfolio – then goes on to play down the whole problem of prison sexual assaults and rape. “Reported incidents of sexual assault in prison are rare.” I suppose, technically, he is stating a fact. Many cons who have experienced sexual violence are deeply ashamed and feel unable to report it, or are terrified of being accused of ‘grassing up’ other prisoners if they do, so that’s a likely explanation for the relatively low numbers of recorded incidents.
|Andrew Selous MP|
Where Mr Selous is widely off the mark, however, is when he then goes on the claim that: “Where an alleged sexual assault is reported or discovered it will be investigated and reported to the police if required.” I’m tempted to use a well-worn prison expletive at this point. Mr Selous is speaking… rubbish. I can name the prisons – and the governors responsible – where sexual assaults, even when reported to officers, have been actively minimised and even covered up, with the prison authorities refusing to refer the allegations to the local police.
In one specific case of indecent assault, the victim – an out gay man who was the subject of a serious attack – demanded vocally that the local police should be brought in. This was refused and no further action was taken until the prisoner making the complaint was released from prison. He went straight down to the local police station and made a statement. Shortly afterwards, the alleged perpetrator was transferred to another prison – but this was only after the victim made the formal complaint to the police when he was a free man and able to do so.
|Not polite, but true|
Mr Selous also adds a typical politician’s platitude: “We continue to work hard to understand the reasons for the increase in assaults, including sexual assaults.” I’d be happy to offer to enlighten him.
Sexual assaults, including rape, are able to occur in UK prisons primarily because prison authorities and their political bosses are largely in denial about the scale of the problem. A lack of trust between cons and screws compounds this, because prisoners perceive that they are essentially worthless in the eyes of the management and their complaints are very often ignored or disappear into the bureaucratic nightmare that is the official complaints system.
When Mr Grayling and his lackeys in the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) took the decision to block the investigation by the Howard League’s Commission on Sex inside our prisons he not only aided and abetted the institutional cover up that has been going on for years, but he also denied serving prisoners (and former prisoners who are still on licence) the chance to speak to independent researchers. Such an opportunity might have encouraged victims of sexual assaults in prison to report these crimes or at least be referred to specialist support groups.
As many victims of sexual violence will confirm, just being able to speak about what you have experienced in a non-judgemental environment can be the first step towards your survival. We’ll never know how many of those who recently committed suicide in jails had been raped or sexually assaulted, or whether any of those deaths might have been avoided, because Mr Grayling has denied these victims of sexual violence in prisons a voice and he, and Mr Selous, should both be deeply ashamed of themselves.