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Study reports on former prisoners’ experiences of sex in prison

Published: 
20 March 2015
Jail cell

A University of Southampton study has concluded that an independent national survey of both serving and former prisoners is urgently required to better understand the scale of consensual and coercive sex in prison.

The research, conducted for the Commission on Sex in Prison – established by the Howard League for Penal Reform – features accounts from former prisoners speaking for the first time about their experiences of sex behind bars. Sex in prison: Experiences of former prisoners is the fifth and final of a series of briefing papers.

Dr Alisa Stevens, a lecturer in Criminology at the University of Southampton, was able to interview 26 former prisoners during the summer of 2014. She spoke to 24 men and two women who had been jailed for a wide range of offences. 18 interviewees said they were heterosexual, four were gay, and four bisexual.

Her report concludes that a UK wide survey of both the serving prison population and ex-inmates is needed and that it should be fully supported by, but independent of, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS).

Dr Stevens says: “Our research, drawing on the experiences and knowledge of former prisoners, has illustrated the urgent need for coherent and consistently applied policies which recognise and respond to the reality of consensual and coercive sex in prison.”

Gay and bisexual men reported that while they were “fairly” or “totally” open about their sexuality in prison, they were discreet about their sexual activities and relationships. When asked how many sexual partners interviewees had in prison, numbers ranged from one to “about 30, 35”. One heterosexual man said that he’d had consensual sex with gay or bisexual prisoners “out of necessity.”

Interviewees who had not personally had sex in prison were sometimes aware of consensual sex taking place among other prisoners. Neither of the two women interviewed for this research had personal experience of sex in prison, but both confirmed that the formation of supportive, close friendships and strong emotional bonds were commonplace among women prisoners, and sometimes became sexual.

The research project found that the availability of condoms and dental dams – to minimise prisoners’ risk of exposure to sexually transmitted infections – varied from prison to prison. Some sexually active men were refused condoms, while others were able to obtain them from healthcare, but often in circumstances which did not allow for any privacy.

Three male interviewees disclosed that they had been raped in prison by prisoners, while three others had been threatened with rape.

One interviewee had been raped by five assailants in a cell and required in-prison medical treatment. He was encouraged to report the rapes by the nurse who treated him, but when he told a principal officer what had happened, he was dissuaded from making a formal complaint.

Recommendations from the Commission’s two-year inquiry were presented at a conference in London (17 March). The full report can be found at: http://www.howardleague.org/fileadmin/howard_league/user/pdf/Publications/Sex_in_prison_web.pdf

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