The Howard League for Penal Reform has launched an independent Commission on Sex in Prison. The Commission comprises eminent academics, former prison governors and health experts and will focus on three broad themes:

  • consensual sex in prisons 
  • coercive sex in prisons 
  • healthy sexual development among young people in prison. 

The Commission will undertake the first ever review of sex inside prison where it is unlawful to have sex because prison cells are deemed to be public places. There is currently little reliable evidence available on both consensual and coercive sexual activity in prisons. It is not known to what extent men and women who identify as heterosexual may have sex with other prisoners while in prison. The Commission will also consider coercive sex which could involve rape, harassment, intimidation, assault or bribery.

The League argues that the development of sexual awareness and intimate relationships are an integral part of adolescence and the Commission will consider how relationship patterns formed in adolescence can impact on the rest of a person’s life. The healthy sexual development of adolescents in prison does indeed warrant further investigation and it will be interesting to see what findings the Commission comes to.  Perhaps as interesting – although I suspect far more depressing – will be how the media respond to any story.  Is sex like television – ban it for poor behaviour and a prisoner can make do with a book?  What of – and I hesitate for using the word given it tends to ‘blow’ the minds of tabloid editors – masturbation.  Whilst we might be less shocked to learn of Kim and Aggie discovering traces of semen splashed around a male cell, the possibility that female prisoners masturbate would no doubt  result in the entire Daily Mail editorial team declaring a nuclear winter and retreating to a bunker decked out with Laura Ashley furniture and a box set of the Waltons.

There is the serious issue of sexual abuse which can occur in these pressurised situations – namely in the form of rape.  As much as we might joke – as I have above- about sex in prisons, there is also a verbs serious and devastating aspect to this area of policy.

The League state that the purpose of the Commission is to understand the nature and the scale of the issues and problems, making a series of recommendations with a view to making prisons safer. It will also examine how the situation in England and Wales differs from other international contexts, looking for best practice.

The Commission on Sex in Prison will undertake primary research (sounds fun), conduct visits (possibly more fun) and hear evidence from experts. It is expected to publish briefings on interim findings and produce a final report at the end of the two year investigation.

In all seriousness, it sounds a terrific project, and I wish them well with it.

The commissioners are: Michael Amherst, Marc Bealls, Frances Crook, Dr Chris Sheffield, Dr Peter Carter, Dr Neil Chakraborti, Baroness Gould, Professor Roger Ingham, Phillippa Kaufmann, Eoin McLennan-Murray, Professor Jo Phoenix, Professor Pamela Taylor, Sue Wade.

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