It’s an important document which covers well the difficulties of research in this area, noting the difficulties in gathering reliable data at the best of times, but especially under a political regime which is brutally uncooperative. It does not shy away from the difficulties in categorising and defining coercive and abusive sexual activities, noting that as well as violent assaults, prisons are rife with subtle coercion, including prisoners choosing or being obliged to perform sexual acts to pay off debts, for protection or in exchange for tobacco.
Another important (and sadly very topical) point noted is that MoJ statistics do not record any data on sexual assaults or abusive acts committed against prisoners by staff, despite evidence from the US to suggest that this can be relatively commonplace and despite gutwrenching testimony of appalling sexual abuse by staff at young offenders institutions in particular.
The full and true extent of rape and sexual abuse in prisons will remain unknown until the British government cooperates with detailed research into the question. For now, the Howard League report leans on research by Banbury (2004) which found that 1% of prisoners had been raped or sexually assaulted and 5% had experienced coercive sex. This would mean that in any one year there would be 1,650 in prison who had been sexually assaulted while inside. Many of those would have been victims of repeated attacks, so the number of actual assaults is likely to be many times higher.
The one firm statistic we have is the number of sexual assaults recorded by the authorities. Obviously this represents a tiny proportion of the whole, but it does provide us with a rough guide to the trends. Buried within the Howard League briefing is a deeply, deeply disturbing statistic: Last year the number of sexual assaults recorded in male prisons rose by 50%.
There are several possible explanations for this. It could be just natural statistical fluctuation. However a look at the pattern since 2000 shows that last year the figures were not just higher than the previous year, they were vastly higher than have ever been recorded before.
A second possibility is that prisoners have become more willing to report sexual assaults to staff, or staff more willing to hear and process allegations. Certainly in the population at large, there has been a slight increase in reported rapes even while estimated rates of attacks (from reliable victimisation surveys) have been falling. However a large proportion of these reports are of historical allegations rather than recent events, and the extent of the rise is nowhere near that we see in prisons. I am also unaware of any widespread change in policies among prison management and staff towards sexual assault.
So if we are to apply Occam’s Razor, it would seem that the most likely explanation for a dramatic increase in recorded sexual assaults is that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of sexual assaults. This would be in keeping with everything we know about what is happening right now inside British prisons. Suicides rose by 64% last year. Serious (non-sexual) assaults rose by 30%, assaults on staff by 15%. It would be laughable to imagine sexual violence was the exception to this trend.
There are two distinct reasons for this. The first is simple: money. Since 2010, the government has slashed prison budgets by nearly a billion pounds, or 24% of its funding. This year alone, the budget per prisoner has been cut by £2,200. All of this over a period when prison populations have risen slightly.
This inevitably means more overcrowding and understaffing, but also devastation of any activities, services or amenities which help to make life bearable inside, or which help to rehabilitate and reform prisoners. The consequence is a prison estate racked with anger, frustration and hostility that is expressed not only in self-harm and suicide, but in externalised violence and abuse.
The second reason is, if anything, even more distressing, because it is so unnecessary. Justice secretary Chris Grayling is immersed in a vicious, pernicious and entirely ideological drive to make prison as inhumane and unpleasant as he can. Among numerous petty reforms, he has banned prisoners from receiving gifts from the outside such as books and magazines, spare underwear, even home-made cards and drawings sent in by prisoners’ young children. There is no economic or financial excuse for this. It is sheer vindictive cruelty, and the calamitous rise in prison violence of all types cannot be separated from these policies.
In 2007, Baroness Corston wrote her famous report into conditions for women prisoners. Since then, the extent to which her recommendations have been implemented remains questionable. Radical demands to significantly reduce the women’s prison population and close most women’s prisons altogether have been largely ignored. The number of women in prison has reduced only very slightly. Nonetheless all the evidence suggests that Corston did have an impact on the prevailing culture in women’s prisons. Unnecessary and degrading strip-searches were reduced. Contact and visiting arrangements with families and children were improved. Petty indignities in uniforms, hygiene and personal grooming were identified and phased out. Nothing especially spectacular or expensive was initiated, nonetheless, the impacts were felt.
Now look at the statistics for recorded sexual assaults in women’s prisons.
Another way to look at these figures is that in the six years prior to Corston, an average of 19 sexual assaults were recorded on prisoners every year. In the six years after Corston, the average number was nine. Last year, while recorded assaults on male prisoners rose by 50%, recorded assaults on female prisoners fell from six to only four.
I believe this shows that sexual assaults in prison are not an inevitable fact of life. A handful of modest, inexpensive reforms in the women’s estate has been accompanied by a dramatic decline in the number of sexual assaults committed. A raft of draconian, vindictive reforms to the men’s estate has been accompanied by an appalling, horrifying upsurge.
Chris Grayling is not responsible for those rapes. In prison, as anywhere else, responsibility for any rape lies with the rapist. However Chris Grayling is entirely responsible for creating a prison environment where a substantial increase in sexual assault, along with other violence and self-harm, was an inevitability. He has the privilege of being able to look away and pretend it is not happening. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of raped prisoners have no such option.