Assault in prisons must not be dismissed

After what appears to be an act of institutional suppression, it has been revealed that a study showing the extent of sexual abuse in prisons was recently blocked by the Ministry of Justice. The Howard League for Penal Reform published a report last week with the statistic that as many as 1,650 prisoners may have been sexually abused while serving sentences – yet the study could not have been fully comprehensive as researchers were only permitted to interview those who had already finished their time in prison, not those still there. This is, of course, outrageous, particularly in a climate where prison conditions are increasingly deteriorating, and where violence, self-harm and suicide in prisons are reportedly on the rise.

It appears that, unlike in the US, where they have introduced laws for the prevention of sexual assault in prisons, the topic is still one which is too easily swept under the carpet in the UK. Perhaps this is hardly surprising; considering that prisons have faced budget cuts approaching 24 per cent over the last three years, the Government will want reports which show that prison conditions are the same as they were – if not better – in order to prove that these cuts were right. Studies with negative perspectives would therefore be suppressed in order to prevent criticism. What appears to have happened with the Howard League report is not the most extreme act of censorship the world has ever seen, but the point stands: there is something the public is not supposed to know.

Yet there is also a larger issue at stake here: is this just about the Government wanting to prevent criticism, or is this part of a larger dismissive attitude towards the problem of sexual assault in prisons? Quite often, prisoners may not report an incident because they do not believe that anything will be done to help, that they will not be taken seriously, and that, in what is often a hyper-masculine and homophobic environment, they will actually suffer more if they speak up. The propagation of these kinds of fears points to the fact that sexual assault in prisons is not taken as seriously as it should be. There is perhaps also the suggestion that the problems many vulnerable inmates face are too great – and too costly – for politicians to stomach. So, rather than try to get to the root of the problem and find a solution, it becomes easier to ignore it. Possibly, this is the context surrounding Minister for Justice Chris Grayling’s reported outcry earlier this year that, “Prisoners aren’t going to have sex on my watch.” The establishment just doesn’t want to know.

This kind of wilful ignorance is reflective not just of a dismissive attitude to sexual assault in prisons but to a dismissive attitude to sexual assault in society on a broader scale. Many people do not hear anything about the word ‘consent’ in their sex education lessons at school if they are lucky enough to get them. Women still get accused of ‘crying rape’ and are told it is their fault if they are assaulted because they may have got too drunk or stayed out too late on their own or worn the ‘wrong’ clothes. Spousal rape is almost ignored as a concept.

This list goes on and will continue to go on as long as organisations such as the Howard League are not permitted to carry out their work fully.

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