Brutality behind bars

  • Michael Amherst
  • October 4, 2023
  • Prospect

I read with interest Bill Keller’s piece on the Americanisation of UK prisons. However, I was surprised there was no mention of sexual violence in prison, often seen as synonymous with the US prison estate.

Years ago, I was told by a researcher on prisons here in the UK that we have a collective state of denial about rape in UK prisons, save for instances so horrific not even prison doctors can ignore the evidence. We can claim not to have a problem, but it’s not worth much if we simply refuse to gather the evidence.

From 2013, I was a commissioner on the Howard League’s Commission on Sex in Prison. One of our underreported findings was that, depending on the definition of sexual violence used, the prevalence of sexual abuse in UK prisons was actually comparable to the rate in the US. This was when using the only study devoted to prison sexual violence then available—a PhD thesis.

Since then, things in UK prisons have markedly deteriorated. The Guardian recently reported a dramatic increase in reports of rape and sexual assault in English and Welsh prisons, with an elevenfold increase reported to Durham constabulary alone between 2010 and 2018. Yet the UK still lacks comprehensive and regular research dedicated to the issue of sexual violence in prisons, as happens in the US. This is in spite of the US Justice Department offering to share its methodology and research questions with researchers in the UK.

The US Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 mandated the collection of data around rape and sexual assault, while Just Detention International (on whose board I used to serve) has demonstrated that sexual violence behind bars is eminently preventable.

When we punish someone by incarcerating them, we take on a duty of care. We fail in that duty when we allow sexual violence to take place. We fail more egregiously when we refuse even to face the extent of the problem.

Posted from Prospect