Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
Stuart Horner, who's serving a life sentence for murder at Strangeways prison in England, appeared in court last week, charged with criminal damage and affray after staging a 60-hour rooftop protest at the jail in September 2015. Addressing the court to explain the reasons behind his protest, he made the claim that there would be less violence in prisons if prisoners were allowed to have sex with their partners via conjugal visits, a practice that is permitted in countries such as Denmark and Canada, but is not currently allowed in the UK.
I teach in a prison and recently asked the prisoners in my class to talk to me about their thoughts and—as it turns out—experience of sex in prison.
Gary, 38, has spent well over half of the last decade in prison, serving a variety of relatively small sentences, ranging from theft to common assault. He is married to his childhood sweetheart, and they have four children together—each one having been born during a period when he was serving a sentence. I ask him whether he thinks conjugal rights are a good idea.
"Yes, mate, of course," he says. "Who in their right mind wouldn't think it was a good idea? That fella was fucking spot on. Let prisoners have a bit of time with their women, and you'd halve the amount of aggro in here straight away."
I can see how Gary may have a point, but I ask him whether, based on his experience, he thinks that a monthly visit from a partner is actually going to stop prisoners kicking off when a prison officer has just taken the TV out of their cell? "Probably not," he laughs. "To be honest, I've got enough kids to last me a lifetime. At least being in here means I can't get landed with any more!"
Raymond, 39, is serving the final months of an eight-year sentence for his role in an armed robbery. He agrees that conjugal visits are a good idea but is worried about the cost of building facilities to accommodate this and also the extra prison staff that would be required. "Look," Raymond says, "I'm not saying I wouldn't take them up on it if it was an option—far from it—but all that money it'd cost I'd rather they spent it on better beds, proper mattresses, shitters that don't block, chicken baguettes with actual pieces of fucking chicken in them. Imagine that: a baguette that has chicken to go with the single lettuce leaf and half a tomato slice inside it."
So food and comfort are a higher priority than sex? "Yeah, absolutely. Most men can go without sex—you get used to it. But fucking basic decent living conditions are a lot harder to live without. To be honest, I don't think sex would get in a top 20 list of things prisoners would like to see improved in jails. You just accept it's something you'll be doing without until you're back on the out again. This isn't an 18-to-30 lads holiday to Magaluf."
Zack, 29, has been in custody for the majority of his adult life. Currently on remand, a string of drug offenses have led him to now be looking at a sentence of around ten to 12 years if convicted of his most recent charge. He is as indifferent to the possibility of conjugal visits as Raymond and Gary appear to be, but he makes the claim that plenty of sex is going on inside prisons anyway. I ask him to explain.
"The amount of nurses who've been boffing prisoners here, there, and everywhere is fucking jokes, bro. They like the bad boys, innit. As long as you're not a dirty smackhead, you've got just as much chance with a nurse in here as you would down the pub. Fair play—this lad I was twoed up with [cellmate] a few years back ended up moving in with the nurse he was seeing. Photos of them on Facebook on holiday, all that shit. Standard."
I've heard talk of this before but have always been suspicious. It's always sounded a little too much like wishful thinking on the part of the prisoners, yet everyone in the room backs up what Zack is saying. I ask Zack whether he has ever witnessed anything going on between officers and prisoners.
"Bro. Different thing, different thing. Nurse gets caught with a prisoner, and she gets sacked: Do one, don't come back. Officer gets caught with man's dick in her hand, and she's looking at time herself." So you've never heard of it happening? "Nah, it does happen. Just nowhere near as often, and it's kept proper on the down low."
I suggest there is also the potential for a prisoner-prison staff hookup to go wrong. Zack laughs and starts talking to the rest of the class about a prisoner named Jackson. A few of the other men seem aware of who Jackson is, and when I can get a word in edgeways I ask Zack to explain.
"Right, there was one lad on my last sentence, Jackson, proper cocky bastard. He'd had a thing with a screw, pure took advantage of all the perks that came with it. Gets out and mugs her off straight away. Comes back inside and gets put straight back on her wing. His cell gets spun [searched for drugs or other illicit materials] every other week, his canteen order never arrives, no mail, all the shit under the sun. Forget it, bro. Forget. It."
Zack's cautionary tale of prison romance aside, the general feeling in the room throughout the discussion is one of ambivalence. Every single person is able to list a series of changes they feel could be made in order to improve the prisoner experience, and sex doesn't feature in any. There's even a suggestion that they'd rather not bring sex into the equation at all.
Having not said much during the discussion, Steve, a 32-year-old builder serving time for assault, bluntly sums up the prevailing mood. "Like, I'm happy having a quick wank every night after Family Guy. Sex and women is another drama I don't need in here. I just want to ride my sentence as easy as I can."