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 Lorraine Atkinson, senior policy officer at the Howard League for Penal Reform, reflects on the work of the Commission on Sex in Prison.


The Commission on Sex in Prison was established by the Howard League for Penal Reform to conduct the first ever inquiry into sex in prisons in England and Wales. It was funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, Esmee Fairbairn and the Bromley Trust, and has spent the past two years investigating consensual and coercive sex in prison and the healthy sexual development of children in prison.


As the work of the Commission draws to a close with a national conference in London on 17 March, it is fitting to reflect on the findings of the Commission and its achievements in raising awareness of this difficult and at times controversial issue.


When the Commission began its work in 2013 it found that there had been very few studies on consensual or coercive sex in prisons. The Prison and Probation Ombudsman was one of the first people to give evidence to the Commission and described it as a ‘hidden issue in a hidden world’. The Commission has helped to raise awareness of sex in prison and prompted people to reflect on prison policies and practices.


It highlighted the public health implications of preventing prisoners from obtaining condoms in confidence. Prisoners are a high risk group for sexually transmitted infections and the public health agenda must be the paramount consideration in prison policies relating to consensual sex. Punishing prisoners for having sex may deter them from obtaining condoms or sexual health advice.


It looked at the different experiences of women in prison, who are particularly vulnerable and sometimes form relationships with other prisoners to help them cope with the detrimental effects of imprisonment. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons referred to the issues raised by the Commission in its recently published inspection criteria for women’s prisons, including the need for staff to support women when relationships end and to monitor relationships which might become abusive.


The Commission looked at coercive sex in prison and found it was hidden and under-reported. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman published a learning lessons bulletin on sexual abuse in prisons expanding on the evidence it had given to the Commission in 2013. The report called for allegations of sexual abuse in prisons to be investigated thoroughly and for staff to identify and challenge abusive relationships in prison. In January 2015, the Ministry of Justice announced it would be publishing an analysis of reported sexual assaults in prison due to ‘public interest in the area’.


The Commission raised concerns about the detrimental impact of prisons on children’s healthy sexual development, at a time when the government is planning to build a huge new prison in Leicestershire for children.


There is still more to be done. The UK government could learn much from the US which passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. Anonymous surveys of prisoners are now conducted annually. The data on sexual assaults have galvanised US prisons to do more to prevent abuse.


Research is still needed to determine the nature and scale of unreported abuse in prisons in England and Wales. Prisoners must be entitled to the same support and protection from abuse as people outside of prison. Keeping prisoners safe will keep all of us safe.



Ministry of Justice announcement on sexual assaults analysis


Commission on Sex in Prison website



Lorraine Atkinson, Senior Policy Officer at the Howard League for Penal Reform blogs about a recent visit by the Commission on Sex in Prison to Norway’s Halden Prison to learn about the Norwegian prison system’s approach to family visits.


In Norway, the family is regarded as an important resource in preventing re-offending.  Family visits are encouraged and prisoners are able to spend time alone with their partners and their children. The best interests of the child are considered, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and fathers in prison are encouraged to maintain relationships with their children whilst serving their sentence.


The majority of sentenced men in Halden prison, Norway’s newest and second largest prison, are entitled to a private visit from a partner or friend for two hours, twice a week.  In contrast to Norway, prisoners in England and Wales are normally allowed a two-hour social visit once a fortnight, although prisoners on the basic regime entitlement have fewer visits.  Social visits are closely monitored and are never private.


In Halden, private visits take place in small, individual visiting rooms which contain a sofa, a sink and a cupboard containing clean sheets, towels and condoms. A larger, brightly decorated room is available for prisoners with families. This room has toys and baby changing facilities.  Prisoners, partners and children can spend time together in private without being constantly observed by prison staff.  Commissioners asked whether children are searched for drugs before entering the prison but were told this never happens.  However, prisoners are searched after visits and could lose their right to a private visit if found in possession of illegal drugs.


A small number of people, such as prisoners who have a high risk of violence or visitors who have committed a drugs offence within the last five years, are restricted to closed visits. There are two rooms for closed visits with a one way glass observational panel so visits can be observed by prison staff.


Halden prison has a family visits house, one of two such facilities in the Norwegian prison estate where prisoners and their families can spend 24 hours together. The house, built within the perimeter fence, is well-equipped and homely.  It has a small kitchen, two bedrooms, a bathroom and a large living room with a dining table, a sofa and a television.  There is an outside play area with toys for children.  The patio doors look out onto the garden but it is impossible to avoid the imposing prison walls in the background.


The house is a short walk from the main prison wings and prisoners staying there receive regular visits from prison staff during the 24 hour period. Use of the house is based on trust and prisoners know that if they abuse that trust they could lose the chance to spend such a long period of time alone with their children again.


The visits house is not available to all.  Foreign national prisoners with family in other countries are unable to use the family house.  To be eligible for extended family visits, prisoners have to complete a child development education programme which is only available in the Norwegian language. Fifty per cent of the prisoners at Halden prison are foreign nationals, mainly from Eastern Europe.  Most do not speak Norwegian although some have picked up the language whilst inside. One prisoner on remand spoke of his sadness at not being able to see his children in the Netherlands or even speak to them by phone. Prisoners on remand often face the most severe restrictions on family contact, imposed on them by the courts and enforced by the prison.


For the children of Norwegian prisoners, the family visits house gives them the opportunity to spend some quality time with their dad even if they are constantly reminded that their father is in prison by the ever present view of the prison walls surrounding them.


For more information on the Commission on Sex in Prison visit