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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