Monday, March 30, 2015

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Sex in Prison: an Inside Story

Alex Cavendish takes his readers inside the hidden world of prison sex. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.
No sex please, I'm Grayling
In previous blog posts about sex in our prisons I’ve focused mainly on the issues of sexual assaults and rape, but I haven’t so far really explored the wider questions of sexual activities. These include consensual sexual acts, as well as the often unequal relationships between prisoners that occur inside. 

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) – which is paranoid about anything to do with sex and prisoners – clearly doesn’t want the issue discussed at all which is no doubt just one of the reasons that Chris Grayling is currently blocking researchers and journalists from visiting prisons to find out what really is going on behind the high walls. Trying to break the silence is why this blog exists.

Ahead of the forthcoming Howard League on Penal Reform’s conference Behind Closed Bars: Sex in Prison which is due to take place in London on 17 March (see here for more details), I thought I’d share my own thoughts on this highly contentious subject, especially since MOJ policy blocked my attempts to participate in the Howard League Commission on Sex’s face-to-face interviews. My observations here relate only to prisons for adult males, since I have no first-hand experience of the female jails.

My first observations is that there is probably much less sexual activity between adult males in prison than would be imagined by members of the general public who have no direct experience of prison life beyond films – such as the Shawshank Redemption – that often focus on scenes of brutal gang rape in jail laundries or showers. These sensationalised fictional accounts continue to influence popular misconceptions about UK prisons, as well as fuelling male fears of rape.
Shawshank: plays on male fears of rape
Having helped support victims of rape and other sexual assaults while I was working as an Insider (peer mentor) I can state that rape certainly does take place in our prisons even if the MOJ would like to pretend otherwise. However, gang attacks of the kind often portrayed in the movies are incredibly rare. I am only personally aware of a single case where more than one attacker was involved directly.

Much sexual activity that does take place in prison is, by and large, consensual. However, a significant number of these relationships and encounters also involve some aspect of inequality (such as the offering and/or acceptance of sexual acts in return for material items such as tobacco, other canteen goods or drugs) or else the granting of other favours, for example protection from bullying or help to get desirable work assignments.

Most blatant sexual exploitation takes the form of older, adult males who mostly identify as being heterosexual targeting younger or more vulnerable prisoners, particularly in those B-cat local prisons which hold Young Prisoners (YPs) aged 18-21 on remand or newly sentenced. The current practice of integrating YPs on wings with much older adult prisoners has undoubtedly created opportunities for sexual exploitation. 

Young Prisoners: especially vulnerable
I’ve written previously about one particular Cat-B where every single one of these young men – mostly still in their teens – disclosed that they had been victims of various types of sexual abuse and exploitation, either at that establishment or elsewhere while they were in custody, including at Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), within the youth justice system. Their descriptions of what they’d experienced ranged from unwanted sexual approaches from fellow inmates or sexualised bullying and inappropriate touching, right through to being forced against their will to perform sexual acts on other inmates.

Those male prisoners who identify as homosexual or bisexual, and who have stable relationships with partners outside prison, appear much less likely to engage in same-sex activity while in custody, even if serving long sentences, including life or Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP). I’m aware of exceptions, but in general most openly gay or bisexual men in prison aren’t notably promiscuous even when opportunities do present themselves. 

A minority of gay or bisexual men do develop sexually active relationships while in prison and, by and large, these are either ignored or tacitly tolerated by prisoners and staff alike. On specific occasions, two men known or perceived to be gay have been put by staff in the same two-man cell in order to reduce the risk of conflict or bullying by other prisoners. In the cases known to me, these men were not in relationships with each other, nor – as far as I’m aware – did they subsequently engage in sexual activity with each other while sharing cells. 

Behind closed cell doors
A relatively small number of self-identified heterosexual males do ‘experiment’ with same-sex activity in prison or take advantage of opportunities for sexual acts when offered by other inmates. This type of sexual behaviour seems to be almost entirely opportunistic in character. It also tends to be very covert. 

In terms of men who would normally consider themselves to be entirely heterosexual when not in custody, yet are willing to have some form of sex while they are in prison, the recurrent pattern seems to be that if an otherwise heterosexual prisoner (particularly, although not exclusively, serving a substantial sentence) finds himself sharing a cell with another male who he knows to be, or perceives to be, gay or bisexual he then might take advantage of this situation. It’s what is sometimes known inside as being ‘prison gay’.

In my experience such prisoners self-identify very strongly as ‘straight’ and can be prone to react very violently if anyone dares to suggest otherwise. The common view seems to be that what goes on in prison stays in prison and such activities are rarely discussed among prisoners themselves, although there is always a fair amount of wing gossip going round.

For this reason, sexual activity in these situations also tends to be very secretive in nature, with activities taking place at night after the final evening head count has been done by wing staff. Moreover, it is necessary for prisoners who are engaging in sexual acts with each other to conceal this from officers or they risk being ‘nicked’ (put on a charge) or receiving a negative entry in their prison records.

Ideas of masculinity
Some self-identified heterosexual males will attempt to justify their behaviour, particularly when it has an exploitative element, to themselves and to the subject of their attentions as “doing the gay boy a favour”. These attitudes are often rooted in distorted beliefs about the assumed passivity, sexual promiscuity and low self-esteem of male homosexuals. Prisoners who are ‘out’ about their homosexuality on the wings can soon discover that they risk being the focus of unwanted attention from other inmates seeking sex, often based on the widespread misconception that being gay automatically means that the prisoner in question is sexually available to anyone.

Sexual activity is very rarely reciprocated in these cases. Sexually active prisoners who identify as heterosexual can often have a sense of entitlement and expect to receive oral sex or, much less commonly, give anal sex as the active partner, but would never consider reversing roles as this would be seen as an unacceptable challenge to their own notions and conceptions of ‘masculinity’. These observations are mirrored both in academic research and a range of other, anecdotal, evidence from various countries, including the USA and Russia.

There are rarer cases where sexual activity is initiated by a gay or bisexual prisoner after a period of tentative questioning or ‘testing’ of attitudes. I know several gay prisoners who reported that they set out to ‘seduce’ their apparently straight cell-mates over a period of time. Common ice-breaking activities have included offering to provide massage for gym or sports injuries, hair-cutting, assistance with body-shaving (surprisingly prevalent in prisons owing to the widespread cult of body-building) or other physical contact activities. 

Body-shaving: very popular in jail
One openly gay man confided that he had succeeded in “seducing” – his own words – every cell-mate he had found attractive by initially offering massage services in the cell after the nightly roll-check. In almost every case he reported that these approaches were accepted and then led on to various forms of sexual acts.

However, it seems that these sexual approaches were not without a degree of risk. The same prisoner observed that most of his ‘conquests’ had subsequently experienced some kind of sexual identity crisis following their participation in such activities. On occasion, their reaction had been very aggressive or even violent. In one incident a regretful cell-mate actually physically assaulted this gay prisoner the morning after they had had consensual sex overnight. The aggressor was then moved by staff to another cell, although the actual reason for the altercation was given as an argument about what to watch on TV.

At one inner city Cat-B local any gay or bisexual men who had declared their sexuality to staff (in the induction interview or subsequently) were almost always put into cell shares with other known gay or bisexual inmates. Although this appears to have been a local practice (almost certainly unofficial), members of the wing staff clearly held the opinion that accommodating gay men together was a means of reducing potential conflicts between prisoners or homophobic bullying. 

I know of one specific case where two men who were civil partners prior to coming into custody were deliberately separated and not permitted to associate together on the wings while they were in a Cat-B. However, this appears to have had more to do with the fact that they were co-defendants in the same armed robbery than their sexual orientation. 

As soon as they were both transferred to the same Cat-D (open prison) staff willingly placed them in the same shared room where they lived as a couple, although reasonably discreetly. Both were very nice guys and popular with other prisoners, so as far as I was aware they didn’t experience any homophobic bullying even though the entire prison seemed aware of that they were in a civil partnership. 

MOJ: no sex on our watch!
It is interesting to note that these local practices – which would no doubt raise concerns in the current climate within the MOJ and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) – do appear to have minimised the risk of homophobic bullying. In contrast, at an inner city Cat-B prison where openly gay men were either accommodated in single cells or with heterosexual cell-mates, there was a much higher level of sexually-motivated bullying and insults, despite the visible presence of two openly gay wing officers.

At one Cat-C establishment the management attempted to steer a middle course by trying to accommodate men known to be gay together in shared cells following an appropriate risk assessment to reduce the likelihood of sexual exploitation or ‘grooming’, particularly if one of the men was considered to be vulnerable. At that time this prison did have a very active Equality and Diversity Officer who was a very open and proud lesbian and the prison’s officially supported monthly support group for gay men and bisexuals was reportedly very well attended. 

I personally only came across one openly transgender prisoner during my own time in custody. It was in a Cat-B nick and she was pre-op but was accommodated in a single cell on the basis of ‘psychological vulnerability’. In the privacy of her cell she was also permitted to have female nightclothes in possession, although she wasn’t allowed to wear female clothing around the prison.

No two prisons are ever the same, but it does seem that there is a more relaxed atmosphere towards sexual diversity at open prisons. Some establishments run dedicated support groups for gay and bisexual men. There are also health awareness campaigns on sexual health – applicable to men of all sexual orientations, with condoms easily available from Healthcare or via clinics in the local town during temporary release (ROTL). Owing to the nature of these establishments, which have rooms to which the occupants have their own keys rather than cells, sexual activity is easier to arrange, even when the participants are not sharing accommodation.

Men do get sexually assaulted inside
However, at one open prison there was also a significant number of sexual assaults of varying severity (ranging from inappropriate touching to aggressive rape) during the period 2013-2014. In the most serious cases local police were involved and statements taken, although at times the prison authorities seemed reluctant to involve outside agencies, preferring to rely on internal disciplinary procedures. In most cases, the alleged perpetrator in a sexual assault was quickly transferred back to closed conditions.

Without doubt, a wide range of sexual activity does take place in prison. While most of this is – broadly speaking – consensual there is a real concern over unequal and exploitative relationships. Recent changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system have left many prisoners very vulnerable as a result of the prohibition on families and friends sending in clothing and other items. Since 1 November 2013, all items must now be purchased from prison-approved catalogues or the canteen (other than books as of 1 February 2015). This, in turn, has increased the risk of ‘grooming’ and sexual exploitation, as all many younger prisoners have to offer is their own bodies in exchange for canteen goods, particularly tobacco.

Debt: tobacco and drugs
In addition, the problems of debt arising from borrowing or else maintaining a drug habit can also make some prisoners vulnerable. In some cases these debts can be paid off by providing sexual services, although the extent to which this happens is very difficult to assess without further research.

When dealing with the issue of sexual activity in prison, the authorities also face serious inconsistencies in terms of official policy. For example, the PSI that deals with Prison Disciplinary Procedures (PSI 47/2011) makes it clear that consensual sex between prisoners is not a specific offence: “there is no Rule specifically prohibiting sexual acts between prisoners” (1.76). A potential disciplinary charge only arises if sexual acts are observed by a third party, usually a member of staff. 

Moreover, the PSI also allows discretion on charging even in such cases: “But if two prisoners sharing a cell are in a relationship and engage in sexual activity during the night when they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, a disciplinary charge may not be appropriate” (1.76). 

In contrast, however, the latest PSI dealing with Incentives and Earned Privileges (PSI 30/2013), makes it clear that prisoners will be required to [act] “with decency at all times remembering prisons/cells are not private dwellings (this includes not engaging in sexual activity)” (Annex B). However, what actually constitutes sexual activity is nowhere spelt out in detail, so could in theory include any act of masturbation, even if conducted in private and on one’s own. These apparent inconsistencies within NOMS’ published Instructions and policies serve to create confusion among both prisoners and prison staff.

Although some prisons provide internal support groups for gay and bisexual men under the banner of equality and diversity, the impact of these can be mixed. Such groups raise awareness of sexual health issues and can help to promote positive identity and feelings of self-worth. However, there is also sometimes a tension between these activities and wider prison policies that appear to take a negative stance towards same-sex sexual activity.

The vital issue of consent
As I have flagged up in previous blog posts, there still exists a culture of official denial when it comes to sexual assaults and rape inside some of our prisons. In my view, sexual offences committed in prison should be considered as purely criminal matters with complaints always being referred to the police.

However, there is evidence that in some prisons the management prefers to avoid reporting such allegations to the local police and instead makes use of internal disciplinary processes. This can make prisoners reluctant to report incidents of sexual assaults.

Although recent official statistics reveal that reported incidents of sexual assault in prison have risen significantly – to 170 cases in 2013, up from 113 during 2012 – this is likely to only be the tip of a much larger iceberg of sexual abuse inside our prisons owing to chronic under-reporting by men. Research by the Commission on Sex in Prison suggests that around one percent of prisoners have been raped, while 5.3 percent had been coerced into sexual activity. These findings may mean that anything between 850 and 1,650 inmates could have been victimised sexually whilst in custody. As I have written in a previous blog post, I was one of that number, even though the actual assault was at the less serious end of the scale.

I’m hoping that the Howard League’s conference will draw public attention to many of the issues I’ve raised above. However, achieving positive change inside our prison system is likely to take much longer, especially while the MOJ remains in a state of denial and our jails are in lockdown. 

A good start would be by clarifying and harmonising prison rules and policies so that good practices are made clear and applied rather than relying on the current contradictory approaches between the Prison Rules and various PSIs. Let’s see whether whoever gets Chris Grayling’s job after the next general election will be brave enough to face up to this particular challenge – or will the whole issue just be kicked into the long grass again?

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