LONDON (The Guardian) – Nearly 1,000 rapes were reported to have taken place in prisons since 2010, exclusive data obtained by the Observer from police forces in England and Wales revealed.
A further 2,336 sexual assaults were reported to police in the same period, and experts warned that the true figure for both crimes may be far higher because not all attacks would be reported.
In response to the Observer’s findings, Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said there has been “minimal research – and a worrying lack of coherent and consistently applied policies – in relation to consensual and coercive sex behind bars”.
The investigation comes amid growing concern about the safety of prisons, both for those who are incarcerated and for prison staff. Prisons face continuing issues with overcrowding, staff reductions and budget cuts, fuelled by more than a decade of austerity measures from successive Conservative-led governments.
The impact of austerity has left English prisons “unable to provide safe environments for rising prison populations”, according to research by Nasrul Ismail, a lecturer in criminology at Bristol University.
As of September 2022, just over half (52%) of prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded, according to a government report.
The government last year announced a £500mln funding injection to create thousands of new prison places for men and women. There are just under 90,000 people in prison in the UK.
At the same time, prisons are struggling to recruit and retain staff. The government has launched an inquiry into staffing problems in the prison system after the number of prison officers and custodial managers fell by 600 in 2021-22.
Losing staff puts safety at risk. Neilson stated that the Howard League had called for staff to be given more training and guidance, “but we know that many experienced officers have since left the workforce and prisons have struggled to recruit and retain people to replace them”.
The figures obtained by the Observer saw a notable increase in reported rapes and sexual assaults in the years after 2016, correlating with the period when austerity began to bite. Cuts to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) budgets totalled £2.4bln by 2015-16, according to contemporary analysis by the Prison Reform Trust.