Comment: The hidden world of sex in prison

Lorraine Atkinson: 'The Howard League for Penal Reform has set up the first-ever review of sex behind bars.'
Lorraine Atkinson: 'The Howard League for Penal Reform has set up the first-ever review of sex behind bars.'

By Lorraine Atkinson

Very little is known about sex inside prisons in England and Wales.

There is little evidence about the number of sexual assaults that take place in prison, or the number of prisoners who may face sexual harassment or intimidation.

We do not know how many prisoners are engaging in sexual activities with other prisoners or with staff.

There has been no research on whether prisoners use sex as a form of currency in prison to obtain illicit items or pay back debts to other prisoners.

Although research has been conducted in the United States, mainly on prison rape, there have been no similar studies here.

For all these reasons and more, the Howard League for Penal Reform has set up the first-ever review of sex behind bars – an independent commission to explore the extent and complexities of consensual and coercive sex in our jails. Its aim is to shine a light on this hidden issue and come up with recommendations aimed at making prisons safer.

The facts will be considered by a panel of experts including eminent academics, former prison governors and health experts, as well as the former solicitor general, Sir Edward Garnier, and Fiona Mactaggart, a former Home Office minister. The breadth of knowledge among the commissioners will ensure that the work is wide-ranging and authoritative.

Sex in prison is not allowed. Prisoners who are even suspected of being in a sexual relationship with another prisoner can be moved to another wing or another prison.  At the same time, prison governors have a duty to work with health providers to promote healthy lifestyles among prisoners, including sexual health and relationships.

The prison service has in the past voiced concerns about supplying condoms to prisoners for fear of being seen as encouraging 'homosexual activity' within prisons.  Condoms can be prescribed to prisoners if, in the clinical judgment of a doctor, 'there is a risk of HIV or STD transmission'.  The means of providing condoms to prisoners varies between prisons. Some prisoners prefer not to request condoms from medical staff as they fear it will be seen as proof that they are engaging in sexual activity.

Throughout the course of the two-year inquiry, commissioners will hear evidence from a wide range of experts including prison governors, former prisoners, academics, lawyers, sexual health organisations, charities who work with victims of sexual abuse and the families of those in prison.  It will conduct primary research in prisons, asking prisoners about their experiences.

Seminars will explore issues such as sexual relationships in prison, sexual assaults and maintaining physical relationships with partners outside the prison gates.

The commission on sex in prison will consider coercive sex, including rape, assault, intimidation and bribery.  It will explore the nature and scale of sexual activities between prisoners, look at staff responses to sexual behaviour and also look at how the experience of prison may impact on the healthy sexual development of adolescents.

Commissioners will look abroad to see how other countries deal with these thorny issues. Countries such as Spain and Denmark have mixed prison wings or allow prisoners to have private family visits with their partners on the outside, when sex may or may not take place. Prisons in England and Wales do not have facilities to allow private family visits and there are no plans to introduce them here.

The commission has started hearing evidence and its work is already beginning to have an impact. The prisons and probation ombudsman published a bulletin on sexual abuse in February – three months after it shared its concerns with the panel.

The commission is keen to hear from current and former prisoners, as well as people who work in prisons or have expertise on sexual health or sexual abuse.  It has put out a call for evidence as there is so little research on the subject.  Anyone wishing to submit evidence to the Commission can find more information on the website at

The commission's findings will be published in a series of briefing papers, with the final report due for release in 2014.

Lorraine Atkinson is senior policy officer at the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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