The criminal justice statistics published in August 2015 state:

“There were 12,000 sexual offence proceedings in the 12 months ending March 2015 and 6,400 convictions over the same period; an increase of 3% on the previous year. Both the volume of proceedings and of convictions over this period are the highest in a decade.

The number of defendants proceeded against for sexual offences, in the 12 months ending March 2015, was 3% higher than in the previous year. In our previous quarterly publication, we reported a 9% increase between the 12 months ending December 2014 and the previous year. The apparent discrepancy between these figures over a three month period is due to the large and sustained increase in the number of defendants proceeded against for sexual offences occurring between the first and second quarters of 2013. The increase in the number of defendants proceeded against is likely to be partly due to the Operation Yewtree investigation, connected to the Jimmy Savile inquiry and the resulting media attention.

The number of convictions for sexual offences increased by 10% between the 12 months ending March 2015 and the previous year. The differences between changes in convictions relative to the change in proceedings may be due to the length of time between the proceeding and conviction of a sexual offence case. Therefore the changes in convictions tend to lag slightly behind the changes in proceedings for sexual offences.”

I have written elsewhere about the implications of this: a growing prison population (more prisoners, serving longer sentences) and a huge number of registered sex offenders in the community. There are now a number of prisons which only hold sex offenders. It’s probably easier to serve your sentence in a prison which only holds those convicted of sex offences than in the ‘vulnerable prisoners’ wing of an ‘ordinary prison’. But it is by no means easy.

I was lucky enough to be invited to chair a fascinating event in Cambridge this week, Living among sex offenders: Identity, safety and relationships in prison, hosted by the Howard League for Penal Reform. The focus was the work of Alice Ievins, who won the Howard League’s Sunley Prize in 2013. She discussed her research for her PhD on sex offender identity – she’s just spent several months in HMP Stafford carrying out lengthy interviews, and observing ‘life’. She discussed important questions of shame, guilt and self-disgust, as well as the interactions between prisoners and between prisoners and staff, suggesting that being labelled a ‘sex offender’, and living with other such offenders, might be painful and even contaminating in ways which aren’t necessarily the case for other types of prisoners.

Two other speakers also helped make this an evening to remember. First, Lynn Saunders, the governor of HMP Whatton, who spoke passionately about what Whatton could achieve. A few decades ago typical sex offenders might have been either a young man convicted of rape (an offence which appeared as much a crime of violence as a sexual offence) or an older child abuser: two different sorts of offender. But now the population is very much more complicated. Much older, of course, and the majority have no contact with their families: hence the innovative palliative care centre in Whatton.

Finally Dr Victoria Lavis, from the University of Bradford spoke about her research in three Yorkshire prisons on equality and diversity issues. She presented a fascinating argument that the Equality Act 2010 with its focus on the nine protected groups has had a ‘singularisation’ impact: it separates out different aspects of personhood. But people are more complicated than this: and they shouldn’t have to prioritise one aspect of their personhood. I shall be exploring intersectionality theory now, to see how it might help us (here in College as much as in a prison?) recognise difference and treat people according to equality of need, not output (no point unlocking all prisoners at the same time, if those with walking difficulties can’t get to the gym before it closes….).

What was the message of the evening? Different for all of us. For me, some more depressing recall stories. A sex offender is taught in prison to tell staff if he thinks he has a challenging situation to confront. So a sex offender on license tells his probation officer that he feels tempted to hang around outside a school play ground. The reward for doing what he has been encouraged to do? It is perceived as a sign of increased, not lowered, risk: so it’s recall to prison, for the rest of his sentence. See my Understanding Recall 2011 report.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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