Electric shocks used to 'cure' gay prisoners

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Gay prisoners were given electric-shock treatment and the female sex hormone oestrogen during the 1950s in a government-backed scheme to "cure" them. Secret papers showed yesterday that inmates were shown slides of men and if they did not switch off the pictures within eight seconds they were given a shock.

Some prisoners on the scheme even asked to be castrated and although in some cases surgery was formally approved, prison officials later decided "castration of body does not mean castration of mind" and returned to hormone treatment and aversion therapy instead.

A memo by officials to Rab Butler, then Home Secretary, revealed their frustrations with the scheme. Most gay prisoners - or "inverts", as they were called - refused treatment or were on too short sentences for the programme to be effective. Of 1,065 men surveyed, 81 per cent refused treatment and 13 per cent were described as unsuitable. The key criterion for a prisoner being suitable for treatment was that he "must have a sincere wish to be relieved of tension resulting from his sexual deviation". But the papers claimed that of 36 men who completed the electric-shock course, 25 showed an improvement.

The report said: "It seem probable that of the very limited number who have undergone some form of treatment while in prison, about half have benefited from it - in the sense that they are less likely in the future to indulge in homosexual behaviour." The paper even divided gay prisoners into different personality types, noting "it is the temperamentally female type who is the canker".

The programme was carried out at four prisons where inmates' social and medical backgrounds were examined. The Home Office-funded research was done by academics at Birbeck College, London and involved inmates at Wormwood Scrubs, Wakefield, Maidstone and Leyhill prisons. The papers detailing the tests were due to have been released in 2011 but have been hurried through the system after a Home Office review. They show the confusion that existed in government departments until homosexual relations between consenting male adults were decriminalised in 1967. - Ian Burrell

The leader of the seamen's union tried in vain to keep homosexuality illegal on British Merchant Navy ships as the Sexual Offences Bill made its progress into law in 1966, according to Public Record Office files released yesterday. William Hogarth, secretary of the National Union of Seamen, sought Harold Wilson's help to prevent the Bill applying to his members. He said: "Unless special consideration is given to the position of the Merchant Navy, it could become an attractive venue for homosexuals." This unknown factor in the fraught discussions leading to the passing of Leo Abse's Bill the following year emerged in a release of Home Office papers on homosexual reform, some of the originally closed for more than a century.