Nearly 1,000 rapes have been reported in prisons since 2010, exclusive figures obtained by Observer from police forces in England and Wales can reveal.
In the same period, another 2,336 sexual assaults were reported to the police, and experts warn that the true number of both crimes could be much higher as not all attacks will be reported.
In response to observer The results, Andrew Neilson, campaign director for the Howard League for Penal Reform, said there had been “minimal research – and a worrying lack of consistent and consistently applied policies – regarding consensual and coercive sex behind bars.”
The investigation is taking place in the face of growing concern for prison safety, both for inmates and prison staff. Prisons face ongoing problems of overcrowding, staff reductions and budget cuts fueled by more than a decade of austerity measures introduced by successive Conservative-led governments.
According to research by Nasrul Ismail, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Bristol, the impact of austerity has left English prisons “unable to provide safe conditions for a growing prison population”.
Just over half (52%) of prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded in September 2022, according to a government report.
Last year, the government announced a £500m injection to create thousands of new men’s and women’s prisons. There are almost 90,000 people in prison in the UK.
At the same time, prisons have difficulty recruiting and retaining staff. The government has launched an investigation into staffing issues in the prison system after the number of prison officers and prison managers fell by 600 in 2021-22.
The loss of personnel puts security at risk. Neilson said the Howard League called for more training and guidance from staff, “but we know that since then many experienced officers have left the workforce and prisons are having a hard time recruiting and retaining people to replace them.”
The numbers obtained by Observer there was a significant increase in reported rapes and sexual assaults in the years after 2016, correlating with the period when savings began to appear. Cuts to Justice Department budgets amounted to £2.4bn through 2015-16, according to a contemporary analysis by the Prison Reform Trust.
Durham Police received three reports of sexual assault in 2010 – the number increased eleven-fold to 33 in 2018. Humberside Police saw reports of sexual assault doubling from five to 10 between 2015 and 2018. Cumbria Police have seen a similar increase, with the number of reported sexual assaults increasing from one in 2014 to eight in 2016. The increase in reports also correlates with outbreaks of violence in prisons, including the Birmingham Prison riot in 2016, attended by over 500 people.
Other forces saw an increase in reported rapes and sexual assaults in 2020 and 2021 as the country grappled with the coronavirus pandemic. Greater Manchester Police received 18 reports of rape in 2020, while Wiltshire Police received reports of four rapes in 2022 and three in 2020 – after only receiving three in the last seven years combined.