Sex in prison: Jails struggle to strike consistent approach to public health challenge, Commission warns

The need to promote safer sex in prisons is widely recognised but measures to prevent the risk to public health are poorly delivered, the Commission on Sex in Prison has found.

In its first briefing paper, Consensual sex among men in prison, the Commission warns that the prison population is a high-risk group for sexually transmitted infections and risk-taking sexual behaviour.

Most prisoners will eventually return to the community, meaning that sexual health policies in jails are important not just for inmates, but for the public as well.

The independent Commission, which comprises eminent academics, former prison governors and health experts, was established by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

It is the first-ever review of sex behind bars in England and Wales.

The briefing paper states that, although it is clear that some male prisoners are having sex, there has been little research on consensual activity between men and there is little reliable data.

The Prison Service does not allow prisoners to have sex, although there is no prison rule specifically prohibiting sexual acts between inmates.

Prison governors told the Commission that it was difficult, if not impossible, for staff to be able to distinguish between consensual and coercive sex involving prisoners. They said that prisoners suspected of being in a sexual relationship were separated and could be disciplined.

In evidence to the Commission, the National Aids Trust said that attempts to control consensual sexual activity between prisoners risked undermining efforts to promote safe sex and prevent the spread of infections including HIV.

Prisoners, some of whom did not want officers to know that they were having sex, told the Commission that they were often unable to obtain condoms in confidence.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and sexual health charities have raised concerns about the variable access to condoms in prisons. The Commission heard that one prisoner, who was HIV positive, had requested and been refused condoms.

The Terrence Higgins Trust, the largest voluntary sector provider of HIV and sexual health services in the UK, told the Commission that it was irresponsible and unethical to ignore prisoners’ request for condoms.

However, the Commission was given evidence of good practice in some prisons.

End of the World prison by Luis Argerich via Wikimedia Commons

End of the World prison by Luis Argerich via Wikimedia Commons

Some prisons co-ordinated with NHS services or voluntary organisations to provide sexual health services that included health education and the confidential distribution of condoms.

Chris Sheffield, Chair of the Commission on Sex in Prison, said: “There is evidence to show that sex in prison does happen, there is no prison rule prohibiting sex between prisoners and it is difficult for prison staff to be able to distinguish between consensual and coercive sexual relationships.

Prisons need to ensure that they protect the vulnerable. The prison population is a high-risk group for sexually transmitted infections and risk-taking sexual behaviour.

The need for harm reduction measures and the delivery of sexual health policies are important not just for prisoners but wider society.”

The two-year Commission is looking at three broad themes – consensual sex in prisons; coercive sex in prisons; and healthy sexual development among young people in prison. It is focusing on adults this year and will study issues affecting children in 2014.

The Commission’s next seminar, focusing on consensual and coercive sex involving women in prison, is to be held tomorrow (10 September).

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