Home Talking Points “Women should not work in men’s prisons”, HMP Berwyn’s 19-strong list of sexual scandals prompts debate

“Women should not work in men’s prisons”, HMP Berwyn’s 19-strong list of sexual scandals prompts debate

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Should women work in men's prisons after HMP Berywyn scandals

HMP Berwyn has been hit with several sexual scandals over the last few years, making headlines for the fact 19 officers have been either sacked or prosecuted for their inappropriate conduct with inmates, and it has sparked debate amongst the public.

HMP Berwyn’s case is not an isolated matter; anecdotally, prisons all around the country have inmates – or staff – who will testify to how commonplace it is for prisoners and the guards tasked to enforce order amongst them to share sexual intimacy.

Many people question whether it is socially appropriate for prison guards to be of the opposite gender to that of the prison estate where they are deployed. Some argue, due to our biological drives, it is misconduct that is near impossible to effectively police, undermining the purpose and security of imprisonment.

If prison becomes a place that is not only comfortable, but enjoyable – maybe even more enjoyable than the outside world for people serving a sentence – then how is prison a solution that will protect the public and/or encourage rehabilitation.

Ayshea Gunn of HMP Berwyn kissing an inmate
Officer Ayshea Gunn, of HMP Berwyn, kissing an inmate in his cell (Image: Merseyside Police)

There is also the routine flirting that occurs on prison wings, that may never cross the line of sexual misconduct, but is still counterproductive to creating the type of disciplinary and rehabilitative environment that our prisons are meant to be.

If prison guards and inmates were of the same gender, there is the argument that it mostly closes the door on one of the largest forms of corruption in the prison estate; the ‘manipulation’ of the easiest part of security to compromise – humans.

In cases where the inmate shows no intention to utilise the relationship for contraband or ‘favours’, then it be can be described as sexual exploitation, as the guards – in power and all their freedom – are effectively taking advantage of these inmates at what could be one of the lowest points in their lives; it shouldn’t be viewed any differently to dynamics where the genders are reversed.

On on the other hand, some argue it is important for inmates’ mental health to be in an environment that fairly represents the gender divide in the outside world, as departing from such a divide could further complicate notions of institutionalisation. Same-gendered prison estates could encourage the development of disorders and/or emotional complexes associated with difficulties in social situations involving the opposite sex.

Depending on the ideological factors at the root of their offending, this could actually exacerbate their criminal behaviour and obstruct rehabilitation efforts.

A female prison officer talking to an inmate
Appropriate relationships with female guards may be vital to success upon prisoners release (Image: GOV)

Such an argument falls within the criminological theory of ‘prisonisation’, where prisoners adapt to their environment, leading to personality changes over time that follows them into the community.

In exploring institutionalisation, psychologists Marieke Liema and criminologist Maarten Kunst spoke to former prisoners, and the comments of a 42 year old former prisoner speak volumes of the potential impact of a same-gender prison estate:

“I do [still] kind of act like I’m still in prison, and I mean you [are] not a light switch or a water faucet. You can’t just turn something off. When you’ve done something for a certain amount of time… it becomes a part of you.”

Indeed, when you’ve spent most of 4 years only seeing and interacting with men, one could imagine that would certainly become part of you; shaping your core values, your perception of women, and social ability to relate to them.

There is also the argument pertaining to people part of the LGBTQ+ community. Same-gendered prison estates raise the concern of same-gender sexual misconduct.

However, one could argue this is the lesser of two evils, as the pie chart of our world’s population arguably places people who identify as such as a statistical minority when compared with heterosexual people, meaning, there would be a lower prevalence of such misconduct.

Still, in the midst of all this, it leads one to question what the solution is. Do we allow sexual misconduct to continue to excite men’s time behind bars, and sexual exploitation to continue, or do we raise issues of institutionalisation and same-gender misconduct?

Should body worn video cameras be used in prison to stop sexual relationships
Body worn video cameras, placed in recording mode by default in prison, would certainly police the issue. (Image: PA)

One could argue the answer is a simple one. It is perhaps time to increase the use of body-worn video cameras (BWVC) in prison, making it mandatory that such cameras are worn and switched on at all times. This would make it nearly impossible for such inappropriate activity to transpire in the estate, and, it would certainly dissuade officers from even attempting such activity due to fears they are being watched.

Custodial Review, who have long advocated for increased deployment of BWVCs within the prison estate, noted that trials of their usage saved money in the public wallet, as the strength of such video and audio evidence meant 697 officers and 453 civilians spent either no time, or less time, in court providing or corroborating evidence in cases related to the use of force by officers, false allegations, or assaults against officers.

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Although in 2023 BWVCs are well in circulation, they are not always on, as national policy means they are used primarily in clear, evidence gathering situations, such as conflicts and searches. This is despite it being lawful and part of pre-agreed policy that there is an umbrella notion of ‘general good management of HMPPS, to safeguard the security, good order and discipline of the establishment’ that would permit using BWVCs in this way.

It would arguably be better practice to expand on this notion and use an ‘always switched on’ principle, which the frameworks would already allow for.

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