Thousands may be sexually abused behind bars – but MoJ still blocks the inquiry

Article updated. See below

The Ministry of Justice is continuing to block efforts to speak to prisoners about sexual abuse behind bars, despite evidence that thousands of inmates may be subject to attacks.

The third briefing from the Commission on Sex in Prison, which has been barred from going into jails in England and Wales, suggests at least 850 people have been sexually abused in prison, although the real number is likely to be far higher.

But the MoJ is refusing to budge on allowing the group to talk to prisoners about sexual abuse, forcing it to rely on testimony from former prisoners, governors and agencies.

The inquiry had been given the go-ahead by former justice secretary Ken Clarke, but its authorisation was suddenly cancelled when Chris Grayling took over the role. There were rumours his decision was based on personal animosity toward the Howard League for Penal Reform, which is behind the project.

Sources also suggested the justice secretary had shouted "prisoners aren't going to have sex on my watch" when notified of the inquiry.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, said:

"The broadly comparable proportions of prisoners reporting sexual victimisation in the US and in England and Wales suggest that this issue is much more serious than previously thought. It is therefore particularly disappointing that the Ministry of Justice refused to allow the commission to interview prisoners directly. We hope that all the political parties consider the lessons from the US and do more to recognise and combat this problem."

A survey of prisoners is conducted by the Inspectorate of Prisons as part of the inspection process, in which inmates are asked if they have been abused by fellow prisoners or staff. The surveys found approximately one per cent of prisoners have been abused, although it is expected that this is below the real number because many inmates will resist talking about their experience. Some may not even recognise it as abuse.

The one per cent figure roughly tallies with a ten-year old study of 208 prisoners in England and Wales, which found one per cent reporting rape and 5.3% reporting coercive sex.

If accurate, it means between 850 and 1,650 prisoners are abused while in jail, although the real figure is likely to be far higher.

The US was once similarly resistant to looking into sex in prison, but once investigations were undertaken it was discovered that the problem was much bigger than originally thought. The extent of the abuse was so horrifying the Prison Rape Elimination Act was then passed with rare bipartisan support.

Once it was recognised that the number of recorded assaults in prisons was just a fraction of the real level of assault, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) started conducting annual surveys on sexual violence. Its most recent data suggested two per cent of prisoners had been victims of a non-consensual sex act, while four per cent had been sexually victimised.

Lovisa Stannow, executive director of US-based Just Detention International, said: "As long as rape in prison is cloaked in silence, this kind of violence will continue unabated.

"In the US, we have seen first-hand the importance of serious, nationwide research to determine the prevalence and dynamics of sexual abuse in detention. With reliable data in hand, we have managed to move away from denial and toward a recognition that prisoner rape is a nationwide crisis. Only on that basis have we been able to undertake a serious effort to make US prisons safe.

"In the UK and the US alike, I am convinced that most people agree that when the government takes away someone's freedom, it assumes an absolute responsibility to keep that person safe. No matter what the crime, rape should never be part of the penalty."

The commission's briefing paper suggests sexual assaults in prison rose in 2013 and are now at their highest recorded level since 2005. It found gay and transgender prisoners are at the highest risk.

Police investigations are rare. Authorities often prefer to not call them in and instead rely on internal inquiries, although these are often unsatisfactory. There is currently no guidance for staff on how to deal with those who suffer sexual assault.

A victim of sexual assault in prison told that many people who had suffered assault would not admit to themselves what had happened, because it challenged their sense of masculinity. Anyone who dared report the assault could be subject to attack by other inmates for speaking to the authorities. Even if a complaint was made, staff often ignored it.

They said:

"They don't want to hear it. I did report it. I was moved rooms. That's literally all that happened. If they do acknowledge it, they have to file a report with the local police. The police come in and interview people. They have to find a secure prison at short notice willing to take the other party. That's paper work. It's administration. It's cost."

The prison and probation ombudsman has described rape in prison as a "hidden issue in a hidden world". It found some abusive sexual behaviour was not taken seriously.

But even with evidence of bad practice in prisons, signs that the problem could be as prevalent as in the US, and an active investigation under way which could get some firm data on it, the MoJ is still refusing to budge.

For the time being, the Commission on Sex in Prison will continue to be hamstrung by resistance from the justice secretary.

Update 09:54 BST 15/09/14:

Labour shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan commented:

"While the prisons crisis deepens, the justice secretary continues to deny there’s any problems. What's more, he is blocking others from research which he knows would expose the mess he's presiding over.

"Despite his best actions, this report has still managed to lift the lid on the shocking levels of sexual violence going on in our jails. But burying heads in the sand, as David Cameron's government is doing, won't sort this out.

"Successfully rehabilitating criminals to stop them going on to create more victims of crime on their release will be all the more hard if prisons are places of lawlessness and violence."

Prisons minister Andrew Selous commented:

"Sexual relations between prisoners are not common place. We do not condone sex in prisons or believe that prisoners in a relationship should share a cell.

"Reported incidents of sexual assault in prison are rare. Where an alleged sexual assault is reported or discovered it will be investigated and reported to the police if required. We continue to work hard to understand the reasons for the increase in assaults, including sexual assaults, and we are comprehensively reviewing how we manage violence, including sexual violence, in prisons and working with the police and CPS to introduce a new approach to the investigation of crime."

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said:

"We wouldn't as a matter of course let any third party group have unfettered access to the prison estate. We had significant concerns about the methodology proposed for this research project and the validity of the results it would have produced. The government has routinely commissioned and published research into a wide range of penal issues and we are reviewing whether this issue should be incorporated into our future research programme."

Update 16:53 BST:

I've asked what the MoJ's "significant concerns" were about the research. They said the group would have been self-selecting.