Inside Europe's biggest sex offenders' prison

Inmate at Whatton Prison

Europe's biggest prison for sex offenders is in Nottinghamshire. How does it try to rehabilitate the inmates, asks Rex Bloomstein.

"Whatton's a great leveller," says Lynn Saunders, governor of HMP Whatton, the largest prison for adult male sex offenders not just in the UK, but in Europe.

"We've got everybody here you could imagine," she adds, "vicars, teachers, airline pilots, police officers, prison officers, doctors… people with learning disabilities, who have low IQ and complex mental health problems."

Built in Nottinghamshire in the 1960s, Whatton has a capacity of 841 inmates of all ages. Around 70% of them have committed offences against children, the rest against adults. The prison's nickname locally is "the Paedo Palace".

Approximately half of the prisoners are on determinate sentences so they know their release date, the rest do not. Whatton is a specialist treatment centre for rehabilitation, offering a wide range of sex offender treatment programmes, more than any other prison in the UK.

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The overwhelming majority of Whatton's inmates have accepted their crimes and are working to address them and the range of offences they have been convicted for varies considerably. They include contact offences - touching, penetrative sex, incest, sexually related violence or even murder. Then there are non-contact offences, for example downloading illegal sexualised images of children.

Since the revelations about high-profile entertainment figures such as Jimmy Savile and the subsequent police investigation, Operation Yewtree, there are now more sex offenders in the prison system than ever before. There are about 11,700 out of a total population of nearly 85,000 in England and Wales, with an 8% spike in 2014.

For the first time ever, I was given unprecedented access to HMP Whatton to find out what's being done there to rehabilitate some of the most despised and feared people in society.


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Inside the Sex Offenders' Prison airs on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 BST on Tuesday 31 March. You can catch up on the iPlayer.


Dave Potter, who is one of Whatton's most experienced facilitators of treatment programmes, says both child and adult sex offenders are mixed up together to avoid any collusion between them over their crimes:

"We don't treat rapists as better than people who have offended against children, or internet offenders, because each sexual offence has created victims and has destroyed lives, no matter whom the offence is against, it's really important there is no hierarchy."

Mike has been in prison for most of his adult life. Twenty-eight years ago he was convicted of raping a 38-year-old woman in her own home. Before coming to Whatton he admits he looked down on child sex offenders, who are often segregated on to vulnerable prisoner wings in other jails.

"I never liked them," he says. "I thought it's the lowest crime you can commit. But when I turned around and took a look at the crime that I've committed, it's against an adult. It doesn't matter. The thought process is still the same."

Mike has been in Whatton for seven years and says the culture of this prison is very different: "Nobody judges you. Not even the staff, they don't look upon you as scum, it makes a big difference."

Prisoners such as Mike take part in either one-to-one or group treatment sessions of up to nine inmates as they come to terms with their "path to offending".

"What we do at Whatton," Potter says, "is to try and get them to understand the harm done to others, harm done to themselves, and ways of identifying that warning sign when they get out, that they are on the path to offending again."

Unlike Mike, Steve has only come into Whatton recently, after committing an offence against his step-daughter. He breaks down and cries during my interview with him.

"For me personally, this is a hell every single day. We talk about remorse and guilt and the shame for what I've done, not only to my victim but to my family and to my wider community, and everything that I was doing beforehand has all gone.

"I've got nothing. I don't even have the proverbial pot to pee in any more. The loss is just overwhelming and constant everyday."

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Image caption Governor Lynn Saudners: Dealing with some 'very damaged people'

Steve is typical of so many prisoners in Whatton in that most sex offences are not committed by strangers, but by family members in the home, or people who are known to the victim.

It was moving to hear him reveal his pain and despair but, on reflection, I was troubled that I felt sympathetic towards a man who had abused his step-daughter. But this is the point of Whatton, to deal humanely with people that most would find it impossible to empathise with.

"We're dealing with people here not monsters," says governor Lynn Saunders. "We're dealing with someone's father, someone's son, someone's brother, someone's neighbour, someone's uncle. When you talk to people about that and say: 'How would you want those people dealt with? What would you like to happen to them?' They actually have surprisingly compassionate responses. We deal with some very damaged people."

However, negative emotions such as the shame and guilt displayed by prisoners such as Steve are, according to Whatton's staff, a huge barrier to the treatment process. Instead, they focus on inmates' qualities and strengths as a way of helping them stop offending again in the future.

There's a paradox here. On the one hand, we want sex offenders to be profoundly remorseful about their crimes, but the process of rehabilitation at Whatton demands they get beyond that.

"People sometimes find this hard to get their head around this," says Potter. "In groups, a lot of the work we do is aimed at building the self-esteem of people that have committed a sexual offence, because a lot of sexual offending is as a direct result of low self-esteem. In groups we try and build their sense of self worth."

Eventually, most of Whatton's sex offenders will go back into the community. According to Saunders, their re-offending rate is surprisingly low - 6% compared with 50% for the general prison population. Ultimately, she says public protection is paramount - they must make sure that people are kept safe.

The issue of risk is of primary concern to most members of the public. Potter acknowledges there are never any guarantees that prisoners won't reoffend again but he says: "With the work that we do I profoundly believe that we give them the tools to help them manage their risks. I'm damn sure that if we don't do anything with them, that we don't offer them any help then what's to stop them re-offending?

"If they go out with the stigma 'sex-offender, I'm no good, I'm worthless why not re-offend?' They have nothing to lose."


More from the Magazine: Operation Ore

Image copyright Nick Lowndes

On a cold, cloudy December day in 2002, Jonathan was about to take his class of children to chapel. His life as he knew it was about to end. His headmaster appeared at the door and asked him to go with him. "There are two policemen who want to talk to you," he said. The school where Jonathan taught geography was an unlikely place for police officers to turn up. A private prep school set in extensive grounds, it offered education to boys and girls from nursery age to 13. Jonathan had a secret life. His dark side was about to be exposed. The waiting police told him they had found online payment records linking him to child abuse websites.

Did Operation Ore change British society?


The names of the prisoners have been changed.

Inside the Sex Offenders' Prison airs on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 BST on Tuesday 31 March. You can catch up on the iPlayer.

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