Should prison inmates have the right to masturbate?
Photograph by Dan Bannister/iStockphoto.
The snarkosphere had a good laugh last summer when an inmate at a Michigan jail sued the state for depriving him of pornography in spite of his professed “chronic masturbation syndrome.” The case was dismissed in August because the plaintiff, 22-year-old Kyle Richards, a convicted bank robber who got busted after police followed a trail of cash through the snow to his apartment, did not pay a $350 filing fee. But last month Richards pressed his case further, filing a new suit against a Detroit Fox television station for mocking his masturbatory condition with “degrading and slanderous” coverage.
Richards may be a bit of a nut—his suit also names “the United States” as a defendant—but to many inmates, the fight for the right to masturbate is no laughing matter. In October, a group of inmates in Connecticut launched a letter-writing campaign to protest a planned ban on porn in state prisons set to begin next summer. Connecticut officials claim porn undermines prison security and creates a hostile work environment for staff. But the prisoners say access to porn is their constitutional right. They want the state either to nix the nudie-mag ban or provide access to X-rated cable TV in order to alleviate their sensory deprivation.
The deprivation does not end with porn, though. While you might think of masturbation as a sort of last refuge for the incarcerated—a truly inalienable freedom, given the happy proximity of the sex organs—that is not the case. In fact, a number of state prisons regard jerking off as a rule infraction. American University law professor Brenda Smith, who conducted a 50-state survey of prison masturbation policies in 2006, says restrictions are “well-entrenched” in the correctional environment. In North Carolina, for example, it is a violation to “touch the sexual or other intimate parts of oneself or another person for the purpose of sexual gratification.” Violations can lead to disciplinary segregation or the loss of “good time” credits. Tennessee forbids “[a]ny behavior intended for the sexual gratification of the subject.” Ohio prohibits “[s]eductive or obscene acts, including indecent exposure or masturbation.” Kentucky regards inmate masturbation as “[i]nappropriate sexual behavior.” In California, where some 170,000 men and women live behind bars, masturbation is permissible provided it is stopped immediately if noticed by staff, blue balls be damned. If the masturbator perseveres, even if concealed by bed sheets, he can be cited for “Intentionally Sustained Masturbation without Exposure.” These policies are part of a long correctional tradition to forbid all forms of sexual activity. Prison officials say they need the rules to keep order and deter exhibitionism.
In practice, inmates are seldom sanctioned, so long as they touch themselves discreetly. In Connecticut, masturbation is against the rules only when performed “in a lewd and public manner.” Other states have similar policies. But the line between intentional and inadvertent exposure can be blurry in a context where inmates do not control their privacy and cells are sometimes defined as public places. What’s more, some experts on prison sex contend that anti-masturbation and anti-porn policies in prisons are counterproductive because they effectively drive inmates to engage in risky sexual behavior. According to this theory, increased access to pornography—which goes hand-in-hand with increased access to one’s doo-dads—might be just what correctional facilities need to stem prison rape. Is it time for a revolution in prisoners’ masturbatory rights?
It would be quite the turnaround. In centuries past, prison masturbation was a well-known scourge. An 1845 report from Philadelphia County Prison, for instance, identified onanism as the root cause of numerous fatal cases of mania and tuberculosis. The challenge for wardens was that the idleness of prison life seemed naturally to give rise to the vice. “The genital sense is excited in a much more terrible manner than usual when man remains for a long time in solitude,” wrote one mid-19th-century physician who believed exercise could help stem prison wanking. Another prison doc of the era noted that when female inmates were held in the same building as men, rates of “self-abuse” shot through the roof. In 1883, exasperated officials at a Pennsylvania penitentiary posted placards in every cell warning “addicted” wankers that their habit caused “speedy death” and begging them to “Stop, at once Stop!” Doctors at New York’s Elmira Reformatory took a more hands-on approach: They chloroformed masturbators and implanted metal rings through their foreskins.
Recorded cases of masturbation-induced illness and death began to decline in the first decades of the 20th century thanks to the triumph of germ theory and a dawning awareness that microbes like the syphilis spirochete caused disease, not the squandering of bodily fluids. Around the same time, U.S. prison sex policies took a swing to the permissive, when the nation’s first conjugal visitation program opened at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in 1918. Informed by racist beliefs common to the era, the program initially served only black inmates and was designed in part to suppress aggression by letting the prisoners vent their purportedly immense sexual energies. (White inmates weren't allowed to partake in the program until around 1940.) Still, the idea that sexual amenities could or should be part of the American correctional tradition never gained wide acceptance. Prison policy in the U.S. grew more punitive in the ’70s with the emergence of the “victims’ rights” movement and the reinstatement of the death penalty. In 1980, a federal task force decided against allowing conjugal visits in federal prisons amid concerns over contraband smuggling and worries that inmates might game the system by marrying acquaintances. Today only six states allow conjugal visits, down from more than a dozen two decades ago.
Masturbation is one amenity that is hard to take away. The few studies of prison masturbation that exist suggest it is a common behavior, despite restrictions on its performance. A 2001 survey of 142 male inmates in a Southern maximum-security prison found that all but one of them, or 99.3 percent, said they had masturbated while incarcerated. A study of female inmates the same year found a rate of 66.5 percent. Among men, well-educated prisoners were more likely to be frequent masturbators. In both men and women, prisoners who were sexually active behind bars were more likely to touch themselves on a regular basis.
While these studies show masturbation can flourish under adversity, frontal attempts by inmates to win the right to masturbate have failed. In 1992, Otis Rodgers filed suit against the Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation claiming that its policy against masturbation and conjugal visits infringed on his human rights. Rodgers said Ohio’s ban had caused him to endure embarrassment and degradation due to recurring nocturnal emissions. An affidavit identified two reasons for Ohio’s prohibition: First, because of close cell quarters, “such acts are not conducive to the orderly operation of the prison environment”; and, second, “such acts would serve to promote and increase the risks of contracting or spreading any number of anti-social diseases (i.e., venereal disease, AIDS, etc.).” Rodgers lost on appeal; the court ruled that Ohio’s prison administrators were free to set policies at their discretion.
The result is that prisoners do sometimes get in trouble for engaging in autoerotic behavior. Early on the morning of May 16, 2000, in South Carolina’s Lieber Correctional Institution, Officer Patricia Sinkler saw inmate Freddie Williams "in the front entrance of the shower, curtains open, with his left hand propped up against the wall, turned sideways, making back and forth movements with his right hand on his penis,” according to a court document. Sinkler filed a disciplinary report recommending that Williams be charged with sexual misconduct, and he was brought before a hearing officer and convicted. Williams appealed multiple times, insisting he had not intentionally exposed himself; the officer had simply walked past when he was going at it. He lost and had to relinquish 240 good-time credits.
A similar case occurred in Florida in 2006: Broward County inmate Terry Lee Alexander was sitting alone on his bunk masturbating when a female deputy who was monitoring him from a central control room more than 100 feet away took exception to Alexander’s “blatant” exertions and wrote him up. Alexander was charged and convicted of exposure, with the jury determining that a cell is “a limited access public place.” The same deputy had also filed reports on seven other locked-up masturbators. When Alexander’s attorney asked the deputy in court if she had considered calling a SWAT team to halt his client’s activity, she replied, “I wish I had.”
David Merritt Johns is a doctoral student in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.