LIVE BLOG: Howard League’s Commission on Sex in Prison unveils latest report

Experts discuss latest research on the under-reported subject of sex behind bars 

Highlights 

  • Pornography and masturbation are tacitly accepted
  • Coercive sex rarely occurs, but rape is under-reported
  • A national survey is “urgently required” to find out more
  • Howard League criticises NOMS for lack of cooperation with survey
  • Prison officers sometimes aware of sexual activity, but don’t intervene
  • Gay and bisexual men open about sexuality, but very discreet
  • Some heterosexual men participate in same-sex activity
  • Poor and vulnerable prisoners targeted for “grooming”
  • Availability of condoms varies from prison to prison

The Commission on Sex in Prison published its fifth and final briefing paper today called Sex in prison: Experiences of former prisoners.

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

LIVE BLOG: see below for the full rundown on today’s conference

3:54 p.m.

That’s all folks!

Thank you very much for joining our live blog today. Hope you found it useful and informative. Look out for some exclusive audio interviews next week with some of the key speakers.

Our conversation continues on Twitter @prisonwatchuk Join in!

Please let us know if you have any thoughts on any of our posts below.

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3:45 p.m.

A final word on children in prison…

Lorraine Atkinson, Senior Policy Officer at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said every single child in prison is vulnerable to abuse.

Almost ten per cent of children in US custody have been abused, but there is a lack of data in England and Wales.

She concludes that:

  • Prison limits normal adolescent development
  • Children held in large prison are more at risk
  • Complex needs cannot be met in large prisons
  • More research is needed

Children

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3:33 p.m.

Adolescent sexual development in custody

Lorraine Atkinson, Senior Policy Officer at the Howard League for Penal Reform, is last to speak this afternoon. Here are some of her key points:

  • There are around 1,000 children in custody
  • The majority are adolescent boys from 15-17
  • One-third have been in care
  • One-third have witnessed domestic violence
  • One in 20 have suffered from sexual abuse

Custody places limits on adolescent development such as inhibiting opportunities to assert independence and take risks while also limiting questioning and experimentation.

“Prison encouraged compliance not assertive behaviour,” said Ms Atkinson.

The prison environment is not conducive to the healthy sexual development of young people because:

  • Children held in large prison are more at risk
  • They have limited contact with family and carers
  • It inhibits private natural conversations
  • Prison limits opportunities to have normal healthy relationships
  • There are high levels of violence
  • Force and physical restraint can be used by staff

There are very few children who really need to be locked up.

“Some of the children were so damaged that abuse was something they couldn’t live without,” said Ms Atkinson. “It can increase the risk of coercive sexual behaviour when released back into the community.”

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3:19 p.m.

Children and rape

Dr Laura Janes, Legal Director, the Howard League for Penal Reform, made some general observations on children between the age of 10-17 who are in prison.

“Children are just as likely to be treated through the child protection route as criminal justice route. And oh what a different outcome!” said Ms Janes.

Only three per cent of adults convicted of rape receive a caution, but 19 per cent of children convicted of rape receive one. Nonetheless young people are more likely to plead guilty and be convicted of rape.

“Children don’t know much about sex and even less about what is against the law,” said Ms Janes.

One child told researchers: “I don’t think I will ever have a relationship. It’s too much hassle.”

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3:13 p.m.

We’re getting close to the end. Let us know what you think @prisonwatchuk 

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3:09 p.m.

Children have sex too…

Dr Laura Janes, Legal Director, the Howard League for Penal Reform, said that even the Home Office admits that there is “little doubt that teenagers are sexually active”.

Children do have sex, whether or not we like it,” said Ms Janes.

Almost 40 per cent of young people in the UK report having sex by the age of 15 according to a 2007 report by Unicef.

When it comes to sexual offences against children, 65 per cent of  are being committed by children.

“The assumption is that if everyone is doing it – how can it be against the law? Children are getting mixed messages,” said Ms Janes. “It’s clear that we need legislation to protect children from abuse from adults and children alike.”

HL legal

Dr Laura Janes, Legal Director, the Howard League for Penal Reform

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2:55 p.m.

Barriers to healthy sexual development for young prisoners 

Louise Bowers, a psychologist, says there are barriers to healthy sexual development for young prisoners:

  • A lot have negative care-giver experiences. It is rare to find a young offender from a nurturing family.
  • Many are victims of abuse themselves and traumatised. Treatment for their trauma is rare.
  • There is often an absence of normal sexual experience or limited unhealthy/abusive experience.
  • All young prisoners go through critical stages of puberty with no support.

Access to sexual education is ad hoc.

“It’s no use coming from the community and giving the same sex education as you would in a comprehensive. That ain’t going to work, it won’t serve their needs,” said Ms Bowers.

If young prisoners experiment sexually, they are often put on report or adverse comments are later brought up at parole board.

“Normal sexual experimentation is frowned upon and often punished.”

Many young people are also frightened to experiment with their sexuality as homophobia is rife in prisons.

“None of them would ever admit to being in a same-sex relationship”

“A lot of young people are very vulnerable to sexual exploitation when moving to the adult prison estate.”

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2:47 p.m.

Please join us for a chat here or @prisonwatchuk 

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2:44 p.m.

“We are failing young people” 

First to speak is Louise Bowers, Registered Forensic & Chartered Psychologist and Director, the Forensic Psychologist Service. She said we know very little about healthy sexual development of young people.

The chronological age of an adolescent is sometimes not that helpful because normative sexual development is subjective and interpersonal. Sexual development is also different for girls and boys and between different cultures.

“Working with these young people I think we have failed them over and over again.”

“Incarceration fails to meet the development and criminogenic needs of young offenders.”

Louse Bowers

Louise Bowers, Registered Forensic & Chartered Psychologist and Director, the Forensic Psychologist Service

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2:32 p.m.

The healthy sexual development of children in prison  

We’re back! Hope you had a good lunch too.

This afternoon’s session will focus on the impact of imprisonment on adolescents who are developing a sexual self-concept and exploring intimate relationships.

Here are the four panellists:

  1. Chair: Professor Neil Chakraborti, Professor of Criminology at University of Leicester
  2. Lorraine Atkinson, Senior Policy Officer at the Howard League for Penal Reform
  3. Louise Bowers, Registered Forensic & Chartered Psychologist and Director, the Forensic Psychologist Service Ltd
  4. Dr Laura Janes, Legal Director, the Howard League for Penal Reform
photo 1-4

The panel from left: Lorraine Atkinson, Laura Janes, Louise Bowers, Professor Neil Chakraborti

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1:40 p.m.

Lunch break…back in 45 minutes… 

The afternoon session is on: The healthy sexual development of children in prison

This session will focus on the impact of imprisonment on adolescents who are developing a sexual self-concept and exploring intimate relationships.

But now to get something to eat. We’re starving! Back soon.

Lunch

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1:27 p.m.

But more research is still needed…

Dr Alisa Stevens, Lecturer in Criminology, Southampton University and author of the Commission’s fifth and final report, said:

We now know that we don’t know, and we need to find out more about it.”

“We can clearly see we need to know more and we need NOMS’ permission to go into prisons and speak to people.”

Ms Stevens said there is an urgent need for independent qualitative and quantitative research with permission of NOMs.

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1:17 p.m.

Masturbation in prison and an inconsistent condom policy

Dr Alisa Stevens, Lecturer in Criminology, Southampton University and author of the Commission’s fifth and final report, said most prisoners and staff were aware of sex in prison.

Three people had been raped and others had been threatened with rape, but most people had not heard of other people being raped despite frequent rumours. But most sex in prison is of a far more mundane type.

Quite a lot of masturbation going on in prisons,” said Ms Stevens.

There is often an etiquette of masterbation. Prisoners do it while their cell mate is in the gym or asleep. They usually have a half hour window at most.

Quite a lot of the men who had consensual sex had same-sex relationships on the outside.

“Their attitude was always: don’t ask, don’t tell,” said Ms Stevens.

As long as prisoners were not announcing it to the world, prison officers didn’t have a issue with cell sharing. Some people able to share cells in contravention of NOMS policy.

Many people who self identify as heterosexual have same-sex relationships while behind bars.

“It was a sexual transaction and we both got what we wanted from it,” said a former prisoner.

Safe sex is also a big issue. The availability of condoms varies from prison to prison.

“People are having sex. They need to have it safely and be able to access condoms confidentially. We need a consistent policy because it varies between prisons,” said Ms Stevens. To get condoms:

  • you may have to line up and ask in public
  • some prisoners had to return used condoms
  • sometimes they are rationed to 2 or 3 and questions are asked

Most prisoners didn’t want the experience of lining up or were simply refused condoms.

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1:05 p.m.

Please join us for a chat here or @prisonwatchuk 

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1:03 p.m.

NOMS wants nothing to do with sex in prison surveys

Dr Alisa Stevens, Lecturer in Criminology, Southampton University and author of the Commission’s fifth and final report, said she encountered problems with the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) when she originally tried to do a survey on sex in prison.

She suggested a yes/no survey at Wandsworth Prison that would simply ask: “Are you having sex?” NOMS said no.

The potential benefits to NOMS were limited and didn’t link to strategic priorities,” said Ms Stevens.

NOMS didn’t like the selective nature of the research and wanted a random sample, but you can’t make people talk about sex in prison if they don’t want to.

NOMS said they wouldn’t give approval, because they had just given approval to a PhD project on criminal assault. A lame excuse at best.

“Basically they said they didn’t think there would be any benefits and I wouldn’t find anything out,” said Ms Stevens.

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12:52 p.m.

Key findings on coercive and consensual sex in prison 

Dr Alisa Stevens, Lecturer in Criminology, Southampton University and author of the Commission’s fifth and final report, said coercive sex accounted for 1-2 per cent and consensual sex 2-3 per cent, but a larger sample size is needed. Those figures chime with previous research on sex in prison:

    • Research by Banbury (2004) found that 1 per cent of prisoners had been raped and 5.3 per cent were victims of coerced sex
    • Annual data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that 2 per cent of prisoners in the US had been the victim of a non-consensual sex act and 4 per cent had been sexually victimised
    • HMIP data show that 1 per cent of prisoners reported being sexually abused in prison. Extrapolating from prison population and reception figures, this means that between 850 to 1650 prisoners could be victims of sexual assault while inside
    • A Home Office study conducted in 1994–1995 indicated that between 1.6 and 3.4 per cent of their random sample of 1009 male prisoners had reported having had sex with another male prisoner.

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12:45 p.m.

The Justice Minister’s attitude to sex in prison

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns, the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

Chris Grayling happened to us.” He preferred the previous regime of Crispin Blunt. “We had a better relationship to that ministerial team. Crispin Blunt took it seriously and was interested. That was not the case with Mr Grayling.”

He said Mr Grayling’s “there will be no sex in my prisons” attitude was not an enlightened one to have.

Howard League has not been impressed by Mr Grayling’s reforms, probation problems, legal aid cuts, the size of the prison population and more.

When they tried to do research on sex in prisons, the relationship with the Ministry of Justice turned antagonistic. Suddenly meetings with officials a lot less helpful.

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12:39 p.m.

Filling the research deficit

Alisa Stevens 1

Dr Alisa Stevens, Lecturer in Criminology, Southampton University and author of the Commission on Sex in Prison’s fifth and final report

Dr Alisa Stevens, Lecturer in Criminology, Southampton University and author of the Commission’s fifth and final report, said:

On the rehabilitation potential of prisons: “Something good must happen. Prisons can do some really wonderful work for people. They have a captive audience”.

“I was aware that [sex in prison] did go on and there was almost no research in this country on it.”

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12:34 p.m.

Small scale qualitative research: The key to success

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns, the Howard League for Penal Reform says the key to the research is small scale, qualitative research.

The Commission on Sex in Prison spoke to 30 prisoners, comparing the findings with what was learned from other practitioners.

Here is the press release for the Commission report with the key findings.

Andrew Nielsen 1

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns, the Howard League for Penal Reform

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12:27 p.m.

We’re back LIVE BLOGGING on sex in prison

Coffee and biscuits were good! But back to work…

We now have a panel discussion featuring the following three people:

  1. Phillippa Kaufmann QC, Matrix Chambers – chairing the session
  2. Dr Alisa Stevens, Lecturer in Criminology, Southampton University – author of the report
  3. Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns, the Howard League for Penal Reform

HL BB

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11:51 a.m.

We’ll be right back after this short break…

Coffee time! Chat resumes in under 30 minutes. In the meantime, here is a documentary on sex in US prisons called “Turned Out: Sexual Assault Behind Bars”

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11:45 a.m.

Nine key findings and four recommendations on sex in prison

Here is our post from this morning on the Commission on Sex in Prison’s fifth and final report after two years of hard work.

Alisa Stevens on policies

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11:33 a.m.

Please join the conversation here or @prisonwatchuk 

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11:29 a.m.

UK should copy US legislation 

Lovisa Stannow, the executive director of Just Detention International said that the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), the first US federal law passed to deal with the sexual assault of prisoners, was key to to any success.

Here is more about it on Wikipedia.

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11:22 a.m.

Lessons from America for the UK 

Lovisa Stannow, the executive director of Just Detention International said there are lessons from the US experience for British advocates:

“We have to pay attention to the experiences of survivors. Without their voices we cannot stop this violence”

  • serious broad, anonymous research directly with inmates is essential.
  • you don’t get the true picture from reports. You have to go out there and see it. The official reports tell such a small part of the story.
  • This is not a left versus right issue. Sex in prisons cannot be politicised. It needs crossbench support.
  • Deep correction reform must come from the inside. People must work with staff and inmates whilst remaining advocates. It’s a balancing act.

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11:16 a.m.

Please join the conversation here or @prisonwatchuk 

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11:13 a.m.

It’s not all bad news!  

Lovisa Stannow, the executive director of Just Detention International said:

There is some good news too: abuse in detention is preventable.

“We know that abuse is preventable because there are prisons where prisoners are protected and safe and others where they are not.”

“Violence does not come with the tap water. It doesn’t have to be part of prison life.”

“It is possible to run a safe prison regardless size.”

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11:09 a.m.

Code of silence leads to sexual abuse in prisons  

Lovisa Stannow, the executive director of Just Detention International said:

In prisons there is an intense code of silence:

  • snitching is considered a massive breach – those who admit to sex will be punished.
  • survivors are often traumatised and feel staff won’t do anything about it – especially if abuser is a prison guard.
  • Many women are perpetrators – abuse is several times higher in women’s prisons.
  • Female perpetrators are often staff members preying on young boys in detention.
  • Hyper-masculinity prevails in men’s prisons.

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11:03 a.m.

What do we know about sexual abuse in US prisons? 

Lovisa Stannow, the executive director of Just Detention International said:

  • about half is perpetrated by staff
  • in youth prisons, 80 per cent is committed by staff
  • abuse ranges from physically violent shower rape to more subtly coercive relationships where a powerful inmate protects a weaker one in return for sex
  • there is trading for sex, cigarettes and other goods
  • there can be no consent when a prisoner has sex with a prison officer because one party holds the key

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10:59 a.m.

Sexual abuse in US prison: VIDEO testimonies

Lovisa Stannow, the executive director of Just Detention International just showed the following clip. It is powerful and moving:

It is called: Voices for Justice: Surviving Prisoner Rape

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10:55 a.m.

Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International

 US perspective on sex in prison

Lovisa Stannow, the executive director of Just Detention International said that 200,000 prisoners are abused in US prisons every year.

“When government takes away someone’s freedom they have an absolute duty to keep them safe.”

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10:51 a.m.

The issues surrounding consensual sex

Pamela Taylor, Professor of forensic psychiatry Cardiff University, said:

“Prisons are not unique, they are microcosms of wonder abuse but we have a duty to protect in prisons.”

“We are clear that overtly coercive relationships are unacceptable and illegal. We are less clear on how to deal with consensual relationships.”

Ms Taylor said these policies need to be changed:

  • admission and screening processes
  • assessment of ability to consent
  • staff training
  • health services

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10:47 a.m.

The consequences of coercive sex

Pamela Taylor, Professor of forensic psychiatry Cardiff University, said:

The consequences are huge:

  • people are very damaged by being coerced into sex in prison
  • for women, sexual assault is greatest cause of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • there is a chance of repeating aggression against other people

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10:42 a.m.

Consensual sex: the scale of the problem

Pamela Taylor, Professor of forensic psychiatry Cardiff University, said:

“The scale of consensual sex – the simple answer is we don’t know. It depends how you define it.”

“Two-thirds of men willingly engage in same sex activities in prisons.”

“Something around 1,000 prisoners are having sex they don’t want to have. That is almost certainly an underestimate.”

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10:39 a.m.

Please join the conversation here or @prisonwatchuk

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10:36 a.m.

Consensual sex and “artificial communities”

Pamela Taylor, Professor of forensic psychiatry Cardiff University, said:

“The problem with prisons is that they are artificial communities. They limit access to partners and offer a restricted range of alternatives.”

“Consensual sex is illegal because prisons are a public place.”

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10:33 a.m.

Sex in prison: An issue that is impossible to ignore

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

“No prisoner should be forced to share a cell – 20,000 men are being forced to share a cell today, that’s wrong.”

Don’t lock up children! The damage we do by locking up children is long-term and irredeemable. It’s not working. Prison is no place for children.”

“It is impossible to ignore the issue of sex in prison.”

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10:29 a.m.

Ministers’ response to research was childish

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

“Right at the beginning we were worried about press, tabloid coverage. The only childish response was from government ministers.”

“There is sex in prisons. Get over it!”

“There needs to be a better way of reporting coercive sex.”

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10:26 a.m.

MoJ block research on sex in prison

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

“It’s very unhappy that in this country the Howard League was blocked doing this research in prisons. Ministers were too embarrassed – obviously they don’t have any sex!”

“We were blocked and I think that’s just immature in itself. We have to have a more grown up conversation.”

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10:22 a.m.

Relationships in prison

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

“We’ve got to have grown up conversations about difficult and challenging problems. Without that, we can’t find solutions. No one’s been looking at these questions.”

“What does it mean to be incarcerated in institutions. How does it affect loving relationships when those relationships are punished?”

“I am really not a fan of conjugal visits. It’s not healthy, it’s not about loving healthy relationships it’s about prostitution.”

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10:18 a.m.

Sexual abuse of children in prison

Sarah Llewellin, Chief Executive of the Barrow Cadbury Trust said: “The chronological age of adulthood is not the same as achieving adulthood.”

She pointed out that:

  • 1 in 4 boys in prison have been physically abused
  • 2 out of 5 girls physically abused
  • 1 in 3 sexually abused


“This piece of work makes for very uncomfortable reading it was always going to be so,” said Ms Llewellin.

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10:13 a.m.

The first session: Consensual sex in prison

The conversation has started with the following five speakers.

  1. Frances Crook, Chief Executive, the Howard League for Penal Reform
  2. Chris Sheffield, Chair, Commission on Sex in Prison
  3. Professor Pamela Taylor, Professor of Forensic Psychiatry, Cardiff University
  4. Sara Llewellin, Chief Executive, Barrow Cadbury Trust
  5. Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director, Just Detention International

The panel from left: Sara Llewellin, Frances Crook, Chris Sheffield, Lovisa Stannow, Professor Pamela Taylor.

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10:07 a.m.

Who is here today?

There are a range of prison professionals, academics, practitioners and non-governmental organisations among others here today. Here is the full list:

Here is the full list:

Speakers and contributors

  1. Louise Bowers, Registered Forensic & Chartered Psychologist; Director, Forensic Psychologist Service Ltd
  2. Professor Neil Chakraborti, Professor of Criminology, University of Leicester
  3. Frances Crook, Chief Executive, the Howard League for Penal Reform
  4. Jason Halliwell, Partnerships in Care
  5. Dr Laura Janes, Legal Director, the Howard League for Penal Reform
  6. Phillippa Kaufmann QC, Matrix Chambers
  7. Sara Llewellin, Chief Executive, Barrow Cadbury Trust
  8. Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns, the Howard League for Penal Reform
  9. Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director, Just Detention International
  10. Dr Alisa Stevens, Lecturer in Criminology, Southampton University
  11. Chris Sheffield, Chair, Commission on Sex in Prison
  12. Professor Pamela Taylor, Professor of Forensic Psychiatry, Cardiff University

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10 a.m.

What is this conference about?  

Sex in prison of course!

But more specifically, here is how the conference organisers describe it:

There is currently little reliable evidence on both consensual and coercive sexual activity in prisons. The Commission on Sex in Prison, established by the Howard League for Penal Reform, has conducted primary research with former prisoners exploring their experiences of consensual and coercive sex in prison.

The conference will highlight the key findings of the Commission, which received evidence from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, academics, practitioners and non-governmental organisations among others.

Conference themes include:

  • Consensual sex in prisons
  • Coercive sex in prisons
  • Healthy sexual development among young people in prison

Please follow our posts on Twitter and Facebook too.

TWITTER: @prisonwatchuk
FACEBOOK: facebook.com/PrisonWatchUK


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