Today
Tue 25 January 2022

Having exposed the number of police officers found guilty of sexual misconduct who kept their jobs, Sascha Lavin investigates sexual harassment in the prison system for the Byline Intelligence Team

After joining the prison service aged 19, Rachel* (not her real name) faced a decade of routine sexual harassment from her male colleagues. It was so common and yet so extreme, that she recalls “it just became the day-to-day”. 

“The amount of male staff that actually tried it on with me, of all ages,” Rachel told Byline Times. “It would be uncomfortable sometimes being in an office with a lone male member of staff because they’d make comments.”

The sexual harassment was not confined to the workplace. Rachel, along with other female staff, was encouraged to attend work nights-out. On these occasions, she explained, male colleagues would “ply you with drinks and be all over you.”

Rachel’s experience as a prison officer is not an anomaly. A new investigation by Byline Intelligence Team can reveal that sexual harassment is entrenched in the prison system. 

A Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) found there had been 130 cases of sexual harassment by prison staff between January 2016 and March 2020. Of these investigations, 83 were upheld.

Almost two-thirds of prison staff found to have committed sexual harassment stayed in post: a total of 30 members of staff out of 47 – 64%.

Experts say that this suggests a worrying culture of impunity within the prison system when it comes to sexually inappropriate behaviour. 

The majority of staff guilty of sexual harassment were handed a written warning, while four prison staff members were barred from a promotion. The number of staff who resigned whilst being investigated is unknown. 

Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of the Fawcett Society – which campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights – told Byline Times: “It beggars belief that staff who have been found guilty of sexual harassment have been permitted to stay in their job with the potential to do further harm.”

For Rachel, it wasn’t only lenient disciplinary actions that kept known perpetrators in the workforce. The workplace culture meant that sexual harassment was rarely reported. 

After female staff were sexually harassed by their male colleagues at a work Christmas party, Rachel’s female manager reprimanded the victims, instead of protecting them. “She viewed it as we were asking for it and she actually said, ‘If you dress like that on a night out, you ask for that attention’”, remembers Rachel.  

The boys club mentality also helped silence victims: “It is very cliquey – very, very cliquey – and if you challenged one person in that clique…you didn’t get your promotions, you didn’t get your annual leave, you didn’t get special rotas and stuff like that.”

There has been limited success in stamping out harassment in the prison system over the past decade. A survey conducted by the MoJ in 2007, and obtained by The Times via FOI requests, found that 162 cases of sexual harassment had occurred between 2001 and 2005, suggesting a reduction in harassment of only 2% per year. 

The MoJ survey also revealed that half of all prison staff face sexually explicit language, jokes and stories from colleagues every week when at work. 

Some of the people who faced a sexual harassment investigation may not have faced sanctions if the allegation was never proven. However, they could have had a secondary allegation proven and therefore faced sanctions for that second incident. Staff can face multiple charges recorded against a single investigation.

Sexual harassment can range from comments and explicit messages, to unwanted touching and assault. The MoJ refused to disclose details about the allegations. Nonetheless, these findings raise questions about whether enough has been done to ensure that the penal system is safe for both prisoners and prison staff, especially in the face of recent scandals.

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‘Harm Upon Harm’

As a prison officer, David Whitfield’s job required him to keep Low Newton, a prison in County Durham, safe and secure for prisoners. Instead, he used his position to demand sexual favours from 12 female prisoners who were held in the jail between 2011 and 2016. 

Whitfield watched inmates through their cell hatches and demanded they undress and masturbate for him. He also rubbed cream on one woman’s body and groped her. He was convicted earlier this year of committing misconduct in a public office and jailed for six years and nine months. 

Jemima Olchawski told Byline Times that vulnerable female inmates – like many of Whifield’s victims – are left at risk of being sexually harassed by prison staff.  

The majority of women held in prisons have a history of trauma, making them more vulnerable to abuse. Almost 60% of female offenders have experienced domestic abuse and more than half of women prisoners have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. The figure increases exponentially in young offenders: as many as nine in 10 girls in the criminal justice system have experienced abuse from someone they trusted. 

“Women in prison need support and care that recognises the impact of that trauma,” said Olchawski. “Here is more evidence that, in fact, they are receiving the very opposite, with those responsible for their wellbeing heaping further harm upon harm.”


An Endemic Issue

These findings by the Byline Intelligence Team add to research by other news outlets – from The Times to the Guardian – that demonstrate how harassment is endemic in the prison system. 

In response to a FOI request by the Guardian, the Ministry of Justice revealed that staff in some prisons in England and Wales faced a disproportionate amount of misconduct investigations in the 2019/20 financial year. 

One in 11 staff members at the Mount, a men’s prison in Hertfordshire, were subject to at least one misconduct investigation. Around 8% of staff in Cardiff, Nottingham and Swinfen Hall prisons also faced at least one misconduct investigation. 

Prisoners, as well as staff, can be perpetrators of harassment. According to a 2018 Ministry of Justice report, there were 1,742 allegations of sexual harassment in which prisoners were the perpetrators. The alleged offences ranged from verbal threats to rape, with staff recorded as victims in one in five of the incidents.  

Responding to Byline Times’ findings, Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “It is concerning to see such a high number of [sexual harassment] allegations in prisons. It underlines the fact that prisons are places out of public view, with unhealthy power dynamics, where staff lack support and prisoners are often treated abysmally.”

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Sexual harassment is unacceptable and we are determined to stamp it out. We recently launched a new unit to tackle such behaviour and encourage any affected staff to come forward, report it and access support.”

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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