As a report warns female inmates are being coerced into sex by staff in return for favours like alcohol and cigarettes, former prison officer Ava Vidal suggests sex behind bars is commonplace in both male and female prisons (both among inmates, and between inmates and staff) but the women are far more open about it
When you speak about sex in prison a few images come to mind. The most popular being that of a male inmate bending down in the shower to pick up the soap. Or perhaps you think of the horrific rape scenes in Scum or The Shawshank Redemption. Unless you are a fan of Orange is the New Black or the updated version of Prisoner Cell Block H â€“ Wentworth then female inmates may not immediately spring to mind.
However the Howard League for Penal Reform has recently published a report that investigated sex between female inmates and staff in England and Wales. It is the first independent review of sex of behind bars and they found that female prisoners have been coerced into sex with staff for favours, such as alcohol and cigarettes.
As a former prison officer that has worked in both a male and female prison I have a few views on this report. Firstly, I am not sure how accurate these studies ever are. A prison is a world within a world and everybody inside those walls is trying to survive no matter what their status is. The only people that really know what is happening in there are the people that are in there. And whether you are an officer or an inmate you only ever really know half the truth.
I believe that sex behind bars may possibly be more commonplace than this report leads people to believe.
When I worked in a female prison there were often rumours about female inmates that were taken out in order to get abortions, after having had sex with male members of staff. I am no biologist, but a woman that has been behind bars for a number of years doesnâ€™t get pregnant by osmosis. Although The Prison Service has said that it doesnâ€™t condone sex in prisons, it is powerless to stop it.
In a male prison 80 per cent of visitors are female. That is the same for a female prison. So in other words in prison (much like life) the people that are loyal and stand by your side tend to be female. Often when a woman is sent to prison then it means the end of her relationship. And as most women are the primary care givers of their children it often leads to a breakdown in the whole family.
In fact many females are often in prison because of men. And despite what fellow Wonder Women writer Jemima Thackray may think after spending one whole day in Brixton Prison shadowing the chaplain, Vicky Pryce is absolutely right about this.
Vicky Pryce in court
Many female prisoners have been coerced into committing crimes for their partners and when they end up behind bars they find themselves abandoned and they have to survive. And sexism doesnâ€™t stop at the prison walls. Females are still at risk of abuse and rape and unfortunately because they are inmates there is often no legal remedy available for them to seek justice. The word of a prisoner is hardly ever believed. I have sat in on adjudications where to me it was clear that the prison officer is lying but the governor will always rule in their favour. So keeping on the right side of officers is paramount for survival. Many of these women have been abused or have mental health issues and they are vulnerable.
In all prisons there is a hierarchy. Staff and inmates all have someone that they have to answer to.
Inmates even judge each other. There are some crimes that even behind bars are seen as absolutely despicable and even fellow inmates will ostracise you if you are convicted of one of these. The most offensive to all are crimes against children. Although I do remember being at work one day when a van came in and it was rocking. There was a lot of shouting and there were threats being made from one set of inmates to another of what they would do when they got into reception. I was horrified. What crime was so terrible that it would garner such a reaction? Had these people murdered or assaulted a child in the most horrific way imaginable? No, it turned out they had stolen a teddy bear from outside Kensington palace when Princess Diana had died.
But when a power structure is in place it tends to be an imbalance of power and when that happens in prison, like the rest of the world, people tend to take advantage. And where there is a need for commodities then people will trade whatever they have and that includes sexual favours.
The main difference when it comes to sex in a male and female prison is the level of openness. There were male inmates that would have sex together, and there were male inmates that would have sex with male members of staff. But this was something that was generally frowned upon due to the level of machismo that is prevalent in mainstream society. Some inmates would get involved in sexual relationships but it was never spoken about openly.
In a male prison if someone was having sex with the â€˜wing donâ€™ it was often abusive and led to bullying from others.
Whereas in a female prison, sex was a lot more ‘open’ between inmates. They would publicly hold hands and show affection towards each other. It signalled that one is protected. Clearly, if a female prison officer was having sex with a female inmate, they wouldn’t hold hands in public â€“ the officer would have lost her job. But the idea was not so frowned upon as in male prisons.
Sometimes these relationships are not abusive and are totally consensual. The fact is that prison officers work very closely with these people. You see them day in and day out and you speak to them about their lives and their families. They often confide their hopes and dreams in you. They are sometimes expert at manipulating you and often have nothing better to do than think of ways to impress and flatter you. There are sessions at Prison Service training college that teach you how to prevent yourself being conditioned. You should never have a deep conversation with the same inmate more than two days in a row and you should always report any letters or presents that they may give you.
I never had a sexual relationship with an inmate. Was I ever tempted to? Yes, once. But reading this manâ€™s record cured me of any passing infatuation. There are some very attractive people behind bars. There is an expression my American friend Giselle introduced me to called â€˜yard swoleâ€™. That describes a man that has spent a lot of time in the prison exercise yard lifting weights and exercising.
Ultimately irrespective of the fact you are both adults, there is an imbalance of power and that is never right.