British jails are failing to investigate serious allegations of male rape, according to the prisons ombudsman. Stephen Shaw’s concerns, which are expressed in a report into the alleged rape of a prisoner who had Asperger’s syndrome and learning difficulties, are likely to place a new focus on a subject that is hardly ever discussed within the prison system.
One governor told the Howard League for Penal Reform that it was not an issue and was raised only by people who had seen “too much Prison Break“. But the Howard League, which is investigating two cases of alleged rape in prison, warns that there are scores of incidents each year that need investigation.
“The issue of rape in prison is one which barely receives any attention in this country, whereas in the United States it is seen as part of everyday prison life,” said Andrew Neilson, assistant director of the Howard League. “American prison gangs routinely use rape to enforce discipline and humiliate other prisoners. No one is claiming that we have that kind of problem in the UK, but the official line that prison rape is almost unheard of here seems highly unlikely.
“As we jail more and more men for longer and longer, it is naive to suggest that rape is not part of the violence and tension that is endemic in our overpopulated prisons.”
Detailed guidelines place a prison under a strict duty to examine any allegation of rape, even if the police are investigating. Guideline PSO1300 states: “The purpose of any investigation into an incident or allegation is to inquire into what has happened, to establish the facts, to learn from them and to establish accountability.”
According to Shaw’s report, prisons are failing to conduct investigations. His comments are made in an official report into the case of “Mark”, a 21-year-old man with Asperger’s syndrome, learning difficulties and a history of self-harm, who was remanded to Altcourse prison in Liverpool in 2007. It was recommended that Mark, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, be remanded into a psychiatric unit, but there were no places available.
Despite his vulnerable nature, he was placed on a wing with sex offenders and was allegedly raped by a cellmate who had attempted to assault him several weeks earlier. He attempted to throw himself off a prison landing shortly after the alleged incident and is now in a psychiatric unit.
“He is not as trusting as he used to be,” said Mark’s mother, Jane. “He suffers flashbacks. Sometimes he’ll have four or five showers in a day and say he’s not clean.”
Files relating to the case have gone missing, making the job of investigating the rape allegation an almost impossible task. Merseyside Police attempted a scientific examination after the incident but, according to Jane, her son’s mattress and clothes were swapped within hours of the alleged assault having taken place.
Mark’s case has been pursued by the Howard League which, following a two-year battle, believes it has won vital recognition of the issue from the ombudsman.
Shaw’s report into the affair concludes: “It is critical that the lessons are learned and acted upon, to safeguard the welfare of vulnerable young prisoners … This is by no means the only occasion when I have found that the prison authorities have considered their own duty to investigate discharged by a police investigation that has not been continued.”
Shaw’s report also states: “The director decided that there would be nothing further to gain from an internal investigation. I am not persuaded that this was right… An investigation could have considered the appropriateness of his original placement and whether procedures were correctly followed then and after his attempted suicide.”
The ombudsman has ordered Altcourse to apologise to Mark and his family for the failures. “The apology will help Mark move on,” Jane said. “He feels vindicated. It’s taken a long time, but he feels it was worth it because there are other people who were too afraid to speak out.”
Experts say it is likely that incidents of rape in British prisons are heavily under-reported. According to figures released by the government in response to parliamentary questions, there were 119 allegations of sexual assault in prison in 2008, but only 33 were subject to a PSO1300 investigation.
“There are clear reasons why rape and sexual assault would go unreported in prison,” Neilson said. “Not only will it be difficult to prove in many instances, but telling a member of staff that you have been raped would see prisoners ostracised and vulnerable to bullying. We believe the 119 recorded incidents of sexual assault in prison are likely to be a serious underestimation of the problem. In that context, the fact that only 33 internal investigations were then commissioned seems a pitiful response from the authorities.”
A Prison Service spokesman said: “Reducing violence in prisons is a priority for the National Offender Management Service, and we are committed to a zero-tolerance approach to prison violence.”