I’ve been hesitating since I started this blog three weeks ago over whether to revisit the subject of sexual assaults in prison and the way that such attacks are often dealt with by prison management. I got involved in an online debate on this issue in the comment pages of The Guardian online back in early May and although I had an incredible amount of support (over 360 reader recommends), I also came in for a bit of a verbal – and emotional – battering from a fellow ex-prisoner who berated me for even raising this sensitive matter.
After much thought, I have decided that I should confront this issue head on. I owe it to other prisoners who are survivors of such assaults (and the official inaction that usually follows), as well as to myself. I’ve now also had a chance to consider some of the negative comments I received and I’ve tried to incorporate my responses in the paragraphs in italics below the main post.
I was released from prison a few months ago. I was a victim of sexual assaults, both as a child and then as an adult male prisoner. I was fortunate that the assault in prison was relatively minor. However, when the incident was reported to security, the whole issue was quietly kicked into the long grass. No action was taken against my attacker and I had to endure living in the same houseblock with him for another two months until he finally robbed and assaulted another prisoner and was then transferred to a more secure establishment.
Because of my own experiences, I provided peer support to a number of adult males who have been sexually assaulted or even raped in prison. I was keen to provide factual evidence to the Howard League Commission on Sex in Prison, as the research project had been flagged up in Inside Time, the monthly newspaper for prisoners and their families.
However, when I contacted one of the Howard League's lead researchers shortly after I had been released, I was informed that the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) had banned the research team from interviewing any serving prisoner, or - even more worrying - any former prisoner who was still on licence or parole. At this point I realised that there appeared to be a much more sinister agenda being pursued.
In my opinion, rape and sexual assaults are a regular feature of prison life, particularly for prisoners who are younger, vulnerable (including those with mental health problems) or gay (either openly so, or perceived as such). At one B-cat prison every single Young Prisoner (18-21) on my wing admitted to me in private that he had been sexually assaulted since coming into custody.
At the same prison another young and vulnerable prisoner, who had been raped, subsequently committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell. The reaction of the prison authorities in practically every case was to ignore the evidence, or worse, punish the victim for causing trouble by making complaints.
I have now come to the conclusion that sexual crimes, when committed in against prisoners in custody, are either not considered serious enough to investigate or, perhaps, are even regarded as an intrinsic part of the punishment being meted out. There's no doubt that rape breaks the spirit of any young or troublesome prisoner.
One of the main problems prisoners face is that the Prison Service controls who they can contact, including the police. Also, there are close links between prison staff and the local police via each prison's Police Liaison Officer. This person has the influence to prevent any awkward complaints reaching the police force in the area where the prison is based.
The default setting is to deny that reports of sexual assault have ever been made. Paperwork disappears, no-one takes notes, nothing is ever remembered. And if a prisoner makes too much fuss, well then you put them in solitary confinement down the Block (segregation unit) and just forget about them.
And who would make a legal challenge? Many prisoners have mental health problems or are illiterate, and now there's virtually no chance of any Legal Aid to get a solicitor to take a prison law case on.
Perhaps the worst reaction to encounter is when other people deny that what you have lived through and survived ever happened. Hopefully, the issue of sex in prison (both coercive and consensual) will eventually get properly researched and the prevention of exploitation, particularly of the young and vulnerable, will be given a much higher priority in prison policy.
Against this background, it's not difficult to understand why Mr Grayling is reported to have done everything in his power to block the Howard League Commission from speaking to prisoners or ex-prisoners. The sheer horror of what can go on behind prison walls would raise very serious questions about the whole prison system and the officials who manage it. Better then to gag us all.
When I initially posted the comments above in The Guardian online comment section, another ex-prisoner responded that he had been unaware of any sexual assaults when he was in inside. He also criticised me for discussing the issue at all as he feared it would encourage those outside prison to regard all prisoners as either sexual predators or victims of sexual assaults.
As we exchanged posts online, he revealed that despite his earlier claim to never have been aware any sexual assaults during his stretch inside, he had in fact himself been ‘groped’ sexually in a wing washroom. He appeared to make light of this incident.
However, what particularly disturbed me when re-reading his posts was a reference he made to the concept of "tough guys and their boys" being a known phenomenon inside prisons. He also made an attempt to defend such relationships as sometimes being positive. Were those "boys" younger, more vulnerable prisoners who were being used (and abused) by other prisoners who had power and influence? I don't know, but I suspect that what he was describing was just sexual exploitation by another name.
Some of the perpetrators of sexual assaults inside prison are exactly those "tough guys" who take what they want, but won't hesitate to dish out a ‘serving’ (prison slang for violence) to anyone who dares to question their own sexuality. It's all about domination and control.