Practice without prospect: The imaginary response to the recording and investigations of sexual assault in prison

Published date01 May 2024
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/13624806231184825
AuthorJoanne Wilkinson,Jenny Fleming
Date01 May 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Practice without prospect:
The imaginary response to the
recording and investigations
of sexual assault in prison
Joanne Wilkinson
College of Policing, UK
Jenny Fleming
University of Southampton, UK
Abstract
This article draws on Incident Reporting System data from the National Offender
Management Service over a ten-year period (20042014) and limited, small-scale inter-
views with four custodial managers. Pat Carlens work (2008) on imaginary penalities
provides the theoretical framework for an assessment of the reporting, recording and
initial response to sexual assaults in prisons in England and Wales. The article argues
that the recording of sexual assaults became part of a response to new management sys-
tems that emphasised compliance, process and audit rather than realising safety in cus-
tody. Although the data shows substantial levels of initial activity among staff it is, in
essence, practice without prospect. The article suggests that outcomes generally for
sexual assaults in prisons in England and Wales are uncertain. Incident reporting has
become a bureaucratic process or paper shadow, which Goffman described as showing
what has been done by whom, what is to be done, and who last had responsibility for it
(Goffman 1961: 73).
Keywords
prison, sexual assault, imaginary penalities, safety in custody
Corresponding author:
Jenny Fleming, Social Sciences, University of Southampton, Murray Building, Bldng 58, Highf‌ield Campus,
Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK.
Email: j.f‌leming@soton.ac.uk
Article
Theoretical Criminology
2024, Vol. 28(2) 195211
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/13624806231184825
journals.sagepub.com/home/tcr
Introduction
The reporting, recording and initial response to sexual assaults in prisons in England and
Wales has been a neglected area of academic enquiry (Wilkinson and Fleming 2021).
Although there has continued to be a focus on criminal justice responses to rape and
sexual assaults committed in the community, this interest has not extended to those incarcer-
ated in prisons in England and Wales. This article draws on National Offender Management
Service (NOMS) data covering all reported sexual assault cases in adult mensprisonsin
England and Wales for the period 20042014. The data includes all prisoner-on-prisoner
incidents involving adult males, substantiated or unsubstantiated, classif‌ied as being a
sexual assault, recorded on the Incident Recording System (IRS) and managed during
the data sample period by NOMS. The IRS data and its analysis are supplemented for
context with small-scale interviews with four custodial management staff.
In exploring prison off‌icersrecorded data, the article draws on the work of Pat Carlen
(2008) and other theorists (Bennett, 2016; Crewe, 2009; Feeley and Simon, 1992;
Garland, 2001; Goffman, 1961; Liebling, 2000). The article assesses the applicability
of Carlens imaginary penalities theory to explain activity that epitomises the initial
response to reports of sexual assault in prisons, but results in few formal outcomes and
may collectively be described as practice without prospect. The IRS data, where
recorded, refers to outcomes as incidents having been referred to police, subject to a
police investigation, prosecution pending, subject to prison internal disciplinary pro-
cesses and an unknowncategory. This article discusses outcomes in the same
context. In discussing the reliability of the outcomes data, the Ministry of Justice
(MoJ) (2015) makes clear that outcomes, that is those that result in adjudications or pro-
secutions, are uncertain and diff‌icult to identify in the data as collected. As such, they are
not included as off‌icial statistics in the Safety and Custody bulletins because the data is
not deemed to be of suff‌icient quality to be published as Off‌icial Statistics. The article
demonstrates that the recording of sexual assaults in the period under review became part
of an audit system reporting on order rather than necessarily delivering its commitment to
safety in custody. We draw on Bennetts work (2016) to demonstrate that the new man-
agerialist ideas of the 1990s compounded compliance with systems and audit rather than
specif‌ically responding to prisonersneeds.
The article is in f‌ive parts. Following some brief contextual information, the f‌irst part
provides the theoretical framework established by Carlen (2008), Goffman (1961) and
others for an assessment of the reporting, recording and initial response to sexual assaults
in prisons in England and Wales. The following section details NOMS data and methods
covering all reported sexual assaultcases in adult mens prisons in England and Wales for
the period 20042014. The third section provides analysis of the NOMS data in terms of
the outcomes recorded. The fourth section provides perceptions from four custodial man-
agers (CMs) about their initial responses to reported sexual assaults in prisons and their
attitudes towards the general process. Primarily, these interviews were used to assist in
the researchersunderstanding of the reporting and recording process. Quotes used in
this article should be considered in that context. The f‌inal section discussesthe applicabil-
ity of Carlens theory to an explanation of high levels of recorded activity in response to
reports of sexual assault in contrast with the stated outcomes.
196 Theoretical Criminology 28(2)

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