Prison for children 'may increase risk' they will commit sex offences

A young offender sits in one of the cells of the Ashfield young offenders' institution near Bristol Image copyright PA
Image caption The study recommended that children should be incarcerated only "on rare occasions"

Imprisoning young offenders may make it more likely that they will commit sex offences, according to a study set up by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Young people in prison may be made more sexually aggressive by their experiences, the report found.

The study is part of a wider inquiry into sex in prisons in England and Wales set up by the charity.

Justice Minister Andrew Selous said the report was drawing "alarmist comparisons" which "help no-one".

The Commission on Sex in Prison - made up of academics, former prison governors and health professionals - is thought to be the first major review of the issue in England and Wales.

'Deep concern'

Its report on sexual development was compiled from existing academic studies as well as evidence from charities, government bodies, prison governors, prisoners and former prisoners.

On the basis of that evidence it concluded:

  • Prison limits normal adolescent development and can delay teenagers' maturation process.
  • Punishing boys for normal sexual behaviours encourages them to keep sex secret, or feel ashamed about it.
  • Violence among prisoners and the use of force by adults to control children might make children more likely to be sexually aggressive in adulthood.
  • The needs of vulnerable children with complex needs cannot be met in large prisons with low staff-to-child ratios.

The commission also cited evidence that young offenders would not feel comfortable discussing their sexual health with prison officers and that they had been punished for engaging in sexual activity witnessed by staff which they believed to be private.


Image copyright PA

BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw

Learning about love, sex and relationships is arguably the most important lesson of adolescence.

But how do you learn about it if you're locked up without anyone to be intimate with?

Amid all the discussion about prison rehabilitation, it is an issue that is rarely addressed.

Over the years much has been made of the need for young offenders to improve their behaviour, manage their anger, and raise their levels of literacy and numeracy.

But without emotional maturity progress will surely be limited - particularly for the small number of boys and girls serving lengthy sentences.

The Commission's report is long overdue - and its findings deserve to be taken seriously.

"Punishment for normal sexual behaviours could evoke feelings of guilt or shame for boys in prison and could increase the risk of sexual offending," the study suggested.

The study recommended that children should only be incarcerated "on rare occasions", and that they should be held in small units with highly trained staff, where education and therapy can be tailored to the individual needs of each child.

Justice Minister Andrew Selous responded: "Alarmist comparisons drawn off the back of different justice systems in other countries help no one."

He added the system of secure colleges introduced by the coalition will provide a package of education and support that "will give young offenders the best chance of turning their lives around".

"Why anyone would be opposed to getting young people out of a life of crime like this is hard to fathom," the minister commented.

There are currently around 1,000 children in custody in England and Wales according to the Youth Justice Board, of whom 83% are aged 16 or 17, and 95% of whom are boys.

There is no specific prison rule banning sex between inmates. However, if people are caught in the act, particularly in a public or semi-public place, they can face disciplinary action.

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