The devil in our midst? Convicted sex offenders after prison

We need to ask uncomfortable questions about the response that convicted sexual offenders receive in the community says Helen Mills

By: 
Helen Mills
Date: 
Thursday, 03 December, 2015

The scale of child sexual abuse revealed by numerous investigations, case reviews and scandals in recent years has rightly provoked critical social reflection. Part of the government’s response has been the establishment of a statutory inquiry into child sexual abuse. This judge-led inquiry has been tasked with providing critical scrutiny of the arrangements surrounding preventing and responding to child sexual abuse, both now and in the past. There is the expectation that this should open the door to an important public debate about how state and non-state institutions in England and Wales can better protect children in the future.

The focus of much of the discussion generated thus far has been about how to ensure better recognition and confrontation of child sexual abuse. This is understandable given what cases such as Jimmy Savile and Rotherham have shown about institutional failures to take seriously and act on allegations of child sex abuse.

Those following the public conversations that followed these cases coming to light may be forgiven for thinking that the complex issues raised by such abhorrent harms are resolved upon a criminal justice conviction, such is the focus on prosecution as the answer. This is far from the case. For one, it ignores that the vast majority of those imprisoned for sexual offences against children are released.

Four years ago I interviewed six such men. These interviews were part of a research study of a hostel for men released from prison following a conviction for a sexual offence. All of those I interviewed had committed sexual offences against a child. Albeit a small study, the experiences revealed by the interviews raise serious questions about the possibilities of resettlement for those with such convictions. Given the serious harms that have been committed, such concerns can be easily dismissed as encouraging seeing a monstrous group as victims. For me, a society that attempts to wash its hands of convicted perpetrators of sexual abuse is further evidence of a society failing to confront the sexual abuse of children. A comprehensive assessment of society’s response to child sexual abuse and its prevention has to include the arrangements for responding to convicted perpetrators of such harms in the community.

Life after prison

On prison release, those I interviewed were effectively stranded in resettlement terms. In addition, the barriers to making progress towards resettlement were such that they did not appear likely to be overcome even in the longer term. The research considered three resettlement outcomes in particular: housing, employment and community reintegration. To take one of these areas, employment.

Among those I interviewed, employment was seemingly impossible to achieve. Some of the reasons given for this had nothing to do with the sexual nature of their offence per se. The men I interviewed tended to be older. They were looking for employment in a field in which they had little or no previous employment experience. They had a significant gap in their curriculum vitae employment history from serving a prison term. However, there was little motivation to tackle these significant challenges given the overall context for their employment engagement: who wants to employ a sex offender?

According to interviewees, approaching finding a job by submitting written applications and being called to interview had proved a dead end. What recognisable routes to employment does this leave for these individuals? To informally pick up work by chance (and potentially avoid disclosure)? To rely on (poor) personal connections? To take up volunteer opportunities within the resettlement organisation from which they accessed support? These were among the possibilities that interviewees discussed. The public protection professionals I also spoke to found these potential avenues problematic regarding managing future risk. Their concerns were that informally picking up work could encourage the concealment of past harms and current status or, in the example of volunteering to work with other ex-prisoners, that this could reinforce a ‘sex offender’ identity and strengthen networks between ex-prisoners with similar convictions. That an employment void may unhelpfully reinforce an unwanted outsider status was also acknowledged by a public protection representative interviewed:

I think employment, the need for disclosure plays a big part in [that] really, how they see they fit into society, I think it might be that a lot of them are of the view that well, they’re not really going to get work, so they don’t really have any sort of motivation.

My point is not to evoke sympathy. Relationships and employment are inherently problematic for this group because their past harms are usually linked to relationships with others. As such it is right that employment, social spaces and relationships are subject to considerable scrutiny by public protection professionals and that restriction has a role to play too. The idea that people who have committed serious harms against children should have any kind of life after serving their prison sentence is likely to be a difficult and uncomfortable notion for most to contemplate.

So why does this matter?

The consequences of demonisation

Perpetrators of sexual abuse risk not being held accountable in circumstances in which they are predominantly ostracised because healthy relationships with others form the bedrock of accountability. Such relationships maximize opportunities for disclosure and awareness about past harms and for the acknowledgment of potential future risks. Creating this possibility requires simultaneous engagement from perpetrators and from the wider community that they live within. This seems inconceivable if the current predominating climate towards those with sexual offence convictions remains largely unchallenged.

Any such intervention into the highly emotive space that discussion about child sexual abuse occupies will be challenging. But if we are to undertake a root and branch reassessment of the structures and cultures that surround child protection, then this necessarily involves asking difficult and uncomfortable questions about the pros and cons of demonising a group who largely fail to reintegrate following their conviction. Such interventions could helpfully build a public dialogue about moving from a society in which those with a conviction for a sexual offence against a child are predominantly ostracised, to a society in which they are accountable.


Helen Mills is Research Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. This is an edited version of a longer article in this quarter's Probation Journal.