Last week, a man dubbed Britain's "worst" paedophile was found dead in his prison cell.
Richard Huckle – who was serving 22 life sentences for molesting up to 200 children – had been strangled and stabbed in the vulnerable prisoner unit at HMP Full Sutton. The main suspect is another sex offender, Paul Fitzgerald, who once wrote in his diary, "I love raping women."
The vulnerable prisoner unit (VPU) – known as the "numbers" or "beast wing" by prisoners – houses inmates who would be at risk of attack if kept in the mainstream prison population. The crimes committed by Huckle and Fitzgerald are indicative of the type of men housed on these units: the lowest of the low, in the prison hierarchy. However, the circumstances surrounding Huckle's death illustrate another micro-hierarchy, in which certain sex crimes are looked down upon by other sex offenders.
Malcolm Leach, a 70-year-old from Oldham, spent 14 months on a VPU at Strangeways after being convicted of sexually assaulting a young girl – a conviction that was eventually quashed, with Leach acquitted. He says the fact he always knew he'd eventually be found innocent made his time inside much easier, and that – as the majority of people on the wing were imprisoned for heinous sex offences – he had no choice but to look past his fellow inmates' crimes and attempt to get on with them.
"They might be wrong 'uns, but when you're all in the same boat you've got to get on with people," he says. "I wouldn't say you exactly make friends with people, but you do make some acquaintances."
Leach confirms that a hierarchy does indeed exist among the offenders on these units, with paedophiles occupying the bottom rung of the ladder. "Somebody who'd abused children was regarded as being lower," he explains. "I wouldn't say they were punished because of it, but they were regarded as a lower class of criminal. Someone who'd raped a woman, it's another very bad crime, but that wasn't seen as being as bad as raping a child."
This is in line with the findings of previous research into inmates on VPUs. A study conducted last year by the Prison and Probation Service found that not only do rapists view themselves as a step up from paedophiles, but that paedophiles also stratify themselves according to the age of the victim, with those who target younger victims seen as worse. Those who have assaulted a child as opposed to being caught in possession of child pornography fall lower down in the pecking order. In seems that in spite of the severity of their crimes, sex offenders still find ways of minimising them by stigmatising others they perceive as being more depraved.
Some sex offenders on the VPU go a step further and believe they shouldn't be lower down in the prison hierarchy than non-sexual offenders, arguing that they should be viewed as equal, if not superior, to them.
According to Alice Ievins of the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology, who has previously studied sex offenders behind bars, this can be for a number of reasons. Some offenders believe it's unfair to make a moral distinction between sexual and non-sexual offences, as both cause harm to their victims. Others turn their noses up at the occupants of the mainstream prison population for believing themselves to be part of a criminal subculture. "They question the idea that there's a sort of 'honour among thieves' among mainstream prisoners, and are quite critical of people who they deem to be 'criminals'," Ievins tells me.
Neil Samworth, a former prison guard, says that during his time working on vulnerable prisoner units, drugs and illicit mobile phones were discovered, indicating prisoners there still dabble in the traditional criminal activities they sometimes denigrated the cons on other wings for engaging in. He also says some of the VPU residents seek kudos from their peers for their crimes in the same way regular common or garden criminals do. "The more disgusting and heinous the crime, the more they strut around the place," he says. "Some of the older prolific paedophiles are sort of worshipped by other people as well."
Max*, who was on a VPU for his own protection after discovering his co-defendants had placed a hit on him, tells me the wings aren't actually particularly safe, and don't always offer the protection they claim to provide. "I heard of young lads being raped," he tells me. "I heard of people being slashed up. I've seen drugs and phones and all sorts."
Max served a long sentence for GBH, spending the entirety of it on the VPU. He questions whether it's wise to house young guys with older sex offenders, and lists people he knew who were sexually assaulted by their cellmates. The Prison and Probation Service's study of VPUs identified predation as a drawback of concentrating large numbers of sex offenders on these units. The author noted that this behaviour is also sometimes carried out by non-sexual offenders on VPUs, and that it's used as a means of asserting power over weaker prisoners.
All things considered, prisoners like Max, who are serving time for non-sexual offences but are vulnerable to being attacked in mainstream locations, are faced with a hard choice: either get beaten up on the main wing or risk sexual assault on the VPU.
Britain's prisons are currently crammed with a record number of sex offenders, with 18 percent of inmates having committed a sex crime and one in eight being paedophiles. The prison service is in a difficult situation: on one hand, it has a duty to protect the safety of sex offenders, but on the other, filling VPUs with them risks creating an environment in which their warped perspectives are the norm.