This is what sex in prison is really like

The reality of sex in prison was laid bare today after a commission into the subject released its final report. The Commission on Sex in Prison, which was organised by the Howard League and is composed of academics, former prison governors and health experts, spoke to former prisoners for the first time about consensual and non-consensual sex behind bars. Here are some of their findings. Some are weird, some are reassuring, and some are deeply troubling.

Consensual sex between men in prison appears to be fairly common. When interviewees were asked how many people they had had sex with while inside, numbers ranged from one to "about 30, 35".

While gay and bisexual men could be "fairly" or "totally" open about their sexuality in prison, they were quite discreet about sexual activity. Most consensual sex took place in a cell or in the showers.

In one prison, officers gave an inmate porn instead of a Bible. The interviewee said he arrived feeling "overwhelmed and nervous" on the first night and asked staff for a Bible. The officer returned saying he could not find one but brought a selection of porn magazines instead "to help you get to sleep".

In some prisons gay relationships are so open couples are allowed to share cells, even though this is against official National Offender Management Service (Noms) guidelines.

It appears the culture in many prisons is genuinely tolerant. One interviewee said:

"I think the general attitude certainly among long-termers is, whatever people get up to, behind their door, is up to them.”

One prisoner said that when he had confided to an officer about his confusion over his sexuality, he was moved to a cell with an older, openly gay man to help him "sort himself out".

There seems to be some truth to the idea that a minority of straight men sleep with men in prison and then stop once they come out. One heterosexual man said he'd slept with gay or bisexual men in jail "out of necessity".  He added:

"I'm completely straight; what happened then was just about having my sexual needs met, in a particular time and place, where I couldn't get [heterosexual] sex."

Some prisons ask for used condoms to be returned in a bag. A prisoner at a Category C prison said he was "shocked" to be given his entitlement of six condoms and a tube of lubricant but told "you had to return the used [condoms] in a bag to healthcare before you could get any more".

Provision of condoms varied from prison to prison. Some sexually active men were refused them. This confusion makes sense when you consider that justice secretary Chris Grayling is said to have demanded condoms be removed from prisons and was only stopped when officials stepped in to advise him of the devastating public health implications of the move.

Female prisons may be more emotionally caring than we assume. Female participants in the study described supportive, "close friendships" and strong emotional bonds which sometimes became sexual. One said: "I couldn’t believe how much kissing and cuddling was going on. It was a big, big shock, a big culture shock."

But it's not all sweetness and light. Interviewees said prisoners often became indebted to other inmates due to drug habits, gambling losses or just because they had very little money. These prisoners would often offer sexual favours in lieu of payment.

In other cases, socially isolated individuals with little financial support outside the jail were targeted and then groomed for sex. As the authors found "it is highly problematic to describe the sexual activity as genuinely consensual".

Of the 24 male interviewees, three had been raped by prisoners. Three others had been threatened with rape. One said:

"Quite simply, what happened ruined my life. I've wanted to talk about it for a long time, but the means were not there. Because nobody wants to know, nobody wants to hear about this horrendous, horrendous abuse."

Some of the stories were horrific. One interviewee said he was raped by five men in a cell and required in-prison medical treatment. A nurse encouraged him to report the rape but when he did he was discouraged from making a formal complaint. The officer told him that as a prisoner starting a long sentence, "grassing" on other inmates would "mark his cards" and increase the chance of victimisation in the future.

It's probable that there are far more rapes in prisons than we think. Stories like the one above suggest it is systemically under-reported. But Grayling would not allow the inquiry to interview current prisoners. Instead, researchers had to conduct interviews with former prisoners. A similar investigation in the US, which was allowed to interview prisoners, found the problem was much more severe than originally thought. Today's report ends by calling "urgently" for the government to take further steps to understand what is happening in English prisons. Unless there is a change of the person in charge of prisons – whether by a different government or simply a different minister – that is unlikely to happen.