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16 September 2014updated 09 Jun 2021 2:06pm

Why does the US take rape in prison more seriously than England and Wales?

Recorded sexual assaults in prison are on the rise, with research suggesting the true extent of the problem is hidden and under-reported.

By Andrew Neilson

“Thousands sexually abused in prison, study suggests,” reported BBC News yesterday. “Sexual abuse in prison needs urgent investigation,” said the Guardian, “Jail Rape Hell” was the pithy headline in the Sun. These and other headlines were the media’s reaction to the latest report by the Commission on Sex in Prison, set up by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the first ever independent review of sex behind bars in England and Wales.

The Commission has spent two years looking at all aspects of sexual behaviour in prison and the latest briefing delivered preliminary findings on the most controversial issue it faces – coercive sex and the nature of sexual violence in prison.

Despite the fact that recorded sexual assaults are at their highest level since 2005, very little research has been done on sexual abuse and sex crimes in prison.  The full nature and extent of the problem is not known, with sexual violence in prison often hidden and under-reported.

What data we do have however suggests the problem is larger than we might think.

The routine surveying of prisoners performed by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons suggests that 1 per cent of the prisoners who respond report being sexually abused in prison.  This correlates to a small study performed 10 years ago in England and Wales, which interviewed 208 former prisoners.  That research found that 1 per cent reported they had been raped and 5.3 per cent reported they were victims of coerced sex.

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In the United States, the problem of sexual violence behind bars is much more widely recognised, with federal legislation – the Prison Rape Elimination Act – passed with bipartisan support in 2003.

The US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) conducts annual surveys on sexual violence designed to provide a fuller picture of sexual victimisation in prisons, after discovering that the number of recorded sexual assaults in US prisons was just a small percentage of the number of sexual assaults actually experienced by prisoners.

Data from the most recent survey in 2013 show that 2 per cent of prisoners in the US had been the victim of a non-consensual sex act and 4 per cent had been sexually victimised.

Why has the American political establishment united to confront this issue while here in England and Wales there is a reluctance to admit the problem is serious?

In the US, the determined efforts of organisations such as Just Detention International (JDI) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has seen campaigners on both left and right lobby Republicans and Democrats to pass legislation and support measures to make prisons safe.  Key to this is the national surveys performed by federal government.

As Lovisa Stannow of JDI says: “We have seen first-hand the importance of serious, nationwide research to determine the prevalence and dynamics of sexual abuse in detention.  With reliable data in hand, we have managed to move away from denial and toward a recognition that prisoner rape is a nationwide crisis.”

Part of the blame for inaction here must lie with the Ministry of Justice.  In response to the recent rise in incidents, ministers have now announced an internal review into the issue of violence, including sexual violence.  Yet the contrast with the direct focus on prison rape and the publication of publicly available statistics in the United States is stark.

As it happens, the Commission held a series of meetings with officials, seeking to interview serving prisoners to begin the process of identifying the nature and scale of the problem in England and Wales.  Similar interviews performed for the Howard League’s last independent inquiry, on former armed service personnel in prison, went on to inform much work done with this group of prisoners – including a government review which is currently underway.

Yet once the research proposal went to ministers, our attempt to perform interviews was blocked.  A ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ attitude descended upon the department responsible for the nation’s prisons.

Does the Ministry of Justice care about the victims of rape?  You would hope so, given that on the same day the Commission published its briefing, the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, gave a speech on victims’ rights, while the Ministry of Justice also announced the launch of two new rape crisis centres in the community. 

A victim of rape is a victim wherever they might be.  The Ministry of Justice is directly responsible for the care of prisoners and must make the same efforts to protect victims of sexual assault behind bars, as they hope to do in wider society.

Andrew Neilson is director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform