MoJ hinders research into the extent of rape in prisons

The state of the UK’s prisons, and the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) administration of them, has been catapulted into the public spotlight following a report published on 15 September by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The report makes the startling claim that between 850 to 1,650 prisoners currently serving jail sentences in England and Wales may have been sexually abused. But, perhaps even more staggering, is the accusation made by the national charity that the work of its independent commission was hampered by a lack of co-operation from the MoJ.

Valued research

Researchers for the Commission on Sex in Prison were allegedly barred from interviewing serving prisoners, meaning they had to rely on the testimony of ex-inmates who had already completed their sentences.

A spokesman for the MoJ told The Independent newspaper: “The proposal for this research from the Howard League was rejected following consultation by the National Research Committee. There were mainly concerns about the value of the research and how it would be conducted.”

The commission, which comprises eminent academics, former prison governors and health experts, was established by the Howard League after it concluded that there has been minimal research on sexual abuse and sex crimes in prison.

Unable to interview serving prisoners, the commission used interview research from 208 former inmates from ten years ago showing that 1 per cent had reported that they had been raped and 5.3 per cent had been victims of coerced sex.

These figures tally with that of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), which conducts its own survey with prisoners as part of the inspection process. In its survey, prisoners are asked whether they have been sexually abused while in prison. HMIP data shows that 1 per cent of prisoners report sexual abuse. Extrapolating this 1 per cent from the prison population and reception figures suggests that between 850 and 1,650 current prisoners could be the victims of sexual assault, rape or coercive sex.

The chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, 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.”

She continued: “The broadly comparable proportions of prisoners reporting sexual victimisation in the United States and in England and Wales suggests 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 lessonsfrom the United States and do more to recognise and combat this problem.”

Staffing cuts

Chris Sheffield, the chair of the Commission on Sex in Prison, commented: “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 United States, 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 United States and prisoners in England and Wales.

Sheffield concluded: “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.”

Official MoJ data shows that the number of recorded sexual assaults in prison rose in 2013 and is now at the highest recorded level since 2005, with gay and transgender prisoners at a higher risk of sexual assault than heterosexual prisoners.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, is facing criticism over the condition of UK prisons. Under Grayling’s watch, the MoJ has been enforcing budget cuts totalling 24 per cent over the past three years, despite prison governors’ repeated warnings that some jails are becoming ‘death traps’ as they struggle to accommodate a prison population of over 85,000 while still trying to implement the justice secretary’s swingeing cuts.

Another recent report by the Howard League suggests that the number of prison officers in England and Wales has now been cut by 30 per cent. Research published by the charity shows that in September 2013 there were 19,325 officer-grade staff working in prisons, compared with 27,650 in September 2010.

Suicide statistics

In July, official statistics published by the MoJ revealed there were 88 prison suicides in the 12 months to the end of March 2014, compared with 52 the previous year. A 69 per cent increase in suicides over the space of one year suggests there is something rotten in what Grayling has referred to as his “prison estate”.

Crook commented at the time: “Prisons are becoming places of extreme violence as men are caged with nothing to do all day, and in some terrible cases they have become death traps. The contrast with the probation service is stark, as the final year of more than a century of success at keeping the public safe is finally destroyed. The world has truly gone mad when prisons are getting more violent but have government support, and probation that reduces crime is being destroyed.”

The Prison and Probation Ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, has since stated that the suicide rate is “a troubling reflection of the state of our prisons” and that “a rising suicide rate in prison reflects the state’s difficulty in discharging its duty of care to some of the most vulnerable in its charge”.

The justice secretary has said he wants to “really get to grips with the challenge of mental health in prisons” and has ordered the MoJ to start work on developing a network of specialist mental health centres within prisons in England and Wales soon after next year’s general election. “I want every prisoner who needs it to have access to the best possible treatment. I want mental health to be the priority for our system,” he said. The danger is that this will be too little, too late.

This article was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 19 September 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.