Outing sexual offenders in prison

Ian V. McPhail

Individuals who commit sexual crimes are a vilified group, both in the community and in prisons, which shouldn’t be a surprising statement. Most of us are familiar with methods used to “out” these individuals in the community, especially in places with public sex offender registries. We likely have read stories of posters being put up in neighbourhoods in the US in order to “out” these individuals and warn those living there that this person represents a threat (when in fact a not-so-familiar refrain holds more true: perpetrators are more likely to be know by the victims than they are to be strangers).

Many of us are likely not as familiar with the methods used to “out” these individuals while they are in prison, that is, exposing the nature of their crimes to other inmates. Exposure of the nature of an inmate’s sex crimes in prison creates a dangerous environment for them, as sexual offenders are exposed to multiple types of victimization (Ricciardelli & Moir, 2013; Spencer, 2009). While some of us might have the initial reaction to think or say, “Good, serves them right,” the repercussions for these individuals, both in terms of their physical and psychological well-being, is concerning and should be a concern for citizens of a just society. Abuses visited on individuals in prisons, regardless on the nature of their crimes, that are additional to the fundamental punishment of restricting their liberty are likely counter-productive to the processes of retribution and rehabilitation.

While we may not feel sympathy or experience humanitarian concern when individuals who sexually offend are “outed” in prison, there are pragmatic reasons to be concerned about the processes through which individuals come to be victimized in prison: if we are interested in achieving the ideal of “no more victims”, then victimization in prisons is inevitably a problem that will need to be addressed, both for the offenders’ sakes and potential future victims as well. Science is making us more aware of the role trauma plays in criminal behaviour (here, here); indeed, modern risk assessment tools explicitly account for the role suffering trauma across the lifespan can play in future violence (Douglas, Hart, Webster, & Belfrage, 2013). This developing understanding of trauma raises the concern that trauma suffered in prisons may have a negative effect on individual’s behaviour as they exit prison and attempt to reintegrate into society. Also, traumatic experiences are linked to problematic substance use, which is generally considered a risk factor for criminal behaviour, including sexual recidivism. Trauma, if it contributes to problematic substance use by these individuals, may play a mediating role in increasing the risk of future sexual violence by released inmates.

Recent research published in the British Journal of Criminology by Rosemary Ricciardelli and Dale Spencer has provided some insights into how the nature of offenders’ crimes may come to be exposed while serving time in Canadian prisons. The study developed themes about the methods used to “out” sex offenders by using transcripts from interviews with individuals who had been incarcerated in Ontario federal prisons for sexual offences. In general, the authors suggested that individuals serving time for sex offences attempt to hide the nature of their offences. An example from my experience: in a treatment group session I observed, one man told me during a session break that he convinced other offenders he was in prison for assaulting his boss with a ladder in an attempt to “pass” as a non-sexual offender. He had a short sentence and was apparently successful during his time on the inside. However, the interviews with non-sexual and sexual offenders examined by these researchers suggest that there are a number of methods used, both by inmates and correctional officers, to “out” offenders who have committed sex crimes.

While I won’t give a full treatment to the conceptual ideas that Ricciardelli and Spencer use to describe and interpret offender narratives, I found the methods used to “out” sex offenders are of particular interest. One group identified as responsible for “outing” offenders is correctional officers. Some interviewees reported that correctional officers would threaten them with exposure in an attempt to gain compliance. Sex offenders and non-sex offenders reported experiencing this type of threat from correctional officers. In other instances, correctional officers would directly inform other inmates of an individual’s sexual offence history, either in conversation or exposing an inmate’s “papers” (official documents listing their offences and criminal history). Another means correctional officers used to “out” sex offender: other inmates would be indirectly informed about another’s sex offence history through verbal slander in a public space in the prison.

Another example from my experience: an offender that I was working with had been “outed” by a correctional officer who, while walking down the range, called the inmate a derogatory name that was suggestive of a sexual perversion on the inmate’s part. With open cells, inmates in the adjacent cells heard the comment and knew what he was in for. This resulted in a number of negative consequences for the inmate. He was harassed almost daily by other inmates on the range, with a litany of derogatory names shouted at him through the course of the day. He was constantly anxious and alert for potential assaults. He moved between segregation ranges in the hopes of escaping the verbal barrage. Perhaps more problematic, he was victimized by other inmates in the form of having excreta thrown at him while in his cell.

Ricciardelli and Spencer also noted that offenders would directly confronted each other about the nature of their crimes to ensure that they were “solid” and belonged on a general population range. Individuals in this study reported that they would show their “papers” after their status as a non-sexual offender was challenged. In other circumstances, inmates would “fish” for information about another inmate’s offences, either through casual conversation or through more deceptive means, like establishing a friendship and trust as a way of getting information about another’s offences. The research suggests there are multiple ways an individual is “outed” as a sex offender, some outside of their control (via correctional officers and official documentation) and others via interactions with other inmates. Through this research, we can start to see the complex and precarious position individuals within prison find themselves to be in, and the many ways interpersonal missteps can expose inmates to danger.

From my experience working in prisons and forensic hospitals, there are a few other noteworthy ways that an offender’s crimes are exposed and the consequences of this are multi-faceted for the offenders involved. As with the examples above, here are a few additional anecdotes to provide some other considerations for how individuals are “outed” in prisons.

As mentioned above, Ricciardelli and Spencer discuss that official “papers” can be dangerous on a range. I was referred an assessment with an offender who had recently been transferred in to the prison as a result of misbehaviour at a lower security prison. Due to the nature of his offences, the assessment would focus on identifying treatment targets and the intensity of treatment. He ultimately declined to participate in the interview with me and as part of the ethics of completing an assessment when the offender declines to participate in an interview, I sent him a copy of the report and indicated we could review it together if he wished. The report came back to me a few days later, with a note that indicated he did not wish to review the report and that he did not want to retain a copy of the report. Upon reflection, being new to the prison meant there was a good chance that he would be pressured by other offenders to show his paperwork. Having this type of assessment presented as a potential danger to him “passing” as having non-sexual offences on his record. Therefore, in addition to Ricciardelli and Spencer’s focus on the ways correctional officers intentionally “out” inmates with sexual offence histories, the behaviour of any staff member within a prison, regardless of good intentions, can function to “out” these individuals.

The architecture of a prison and the use of space in a prison can also lend itself to “outing” inmates. As a student researcher, I was collecting data at a medium-security federal institution with both sex offenders and non-sex offenders. The building where I was doing the testing was split into two main sections: one had the inmate payroll department, general program rooms, and classrooms; the other had a few group rooms dedicated for the provision of sexual offender treatment and offices for the staff that provided this treatment. The psychologist that was facilitating my data collection advised that I meet inmates coming to participate in the study in the main reception area in the side of the building with the classrooms and inmate payroll department. This way, no offenders would be “outed” or misidentified as having had committed sex offences by walking in the front door of the “sex offender side” of the building. This was especially necessary as all the inmates knew what went on in that side of the building. Bearing this in mind, I met inmates on the other side and led them down a hallway and through a back door to the other side of the building. Even with this precaution, some offenders who said they were “not one of those” offenders expressed discomfort with even going into that side of the building. Regardless, the key lesson here is that architecture and the use of space can provide a means of “outing” individuals while in prison.

This line of research appears to have a number of additional directions to explore and has real applications to the way staff act while performing their duties, as prisons are places where most actions are not neutral and can have costly effects on the offenders we work with. Thinking about, researching, and reducing the incidence of “outing” sexual offenders is worthwhile because of the potential negative physical and psychological impacts trauma can have on incarcerated individuals and that trauma may contribute to other criminogenic problems, such as substance use, upon their release into the community. Research such as the study conducted by Ricciardelli and Spencer provide possible avenues for improvement and further exploration.

Suggested citation:
McPhail, I. V. (2014, May 6). Outing sexual offenders in prison. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from


Want to submit your own post? Click here to find out how!

Email us:
Follow us: @nextgenforensic

4 thoughts on “Outing sexual offenders in prison”

  1. It has been my experience working in prisons for several years that it is almost inevitable that sex offenders will be “outed” in an environment where any of the stages of treatment (including interviews/evaluations) occurs. The reality is that this is a population that can be very good at recognizing patterns when motivated to do so. The issue of prison architecture mentioned above is certainly reflective of this. Certainly it becomes much more obvious when dealing with therapeutic communities. Ideally in such a scenario the residential and treatment portions of a program would be streamlined physically, but as is the practical in prisons this is not always feasible. Even so, what about other non-segregatable factors such as medical services, recreation, commissary (if not delivered), education, etc?

    Does this become an argument in favor of dedicated sex offender prisons then? This year marks the tenth anniversary of my first clinical placement in a state prison in Pennsylvania. I recall at that time the DOC was considered dedicating one of their prisons to housing sex offender exclusively. As a thoroughly wet behind the ears prototherapist I was far too busy taking in the fundamentals to focus on this conversation, but if I recall correctly the concern was less about creating a safe treatment environment and more about creating a safe environment that would be easier for the DOC to manage. That is, after all, what prison management is about at the end of the day, management. While I was working for the sex offender program in Vermont we moved from the “largest” facility in the state to the smallest facility, only 100 beds. Here, roughly 80-ish% of the facility was dedicated to sex offenders. In practice, this drastically reduced the harassment faced by general population inmates, as the non-sex offenders housed here would participate in a day-work program.

    Now of course, there is still the question of, dare I call it, sex offender on sex offender violence. There are still going to be a fair share of individuals high on psychopathy, antisocial characteristics, narcissistic characteristics, and general institutionalization. There is still the potential for “my crime isn’t as bad as your crime.” From an experiential (as opposed to an empirical) perspective, a little bit of stigma in treatment isn’t altogether a bad thing; it provides an opportunity to focus on the stigma (or rather, management thereof) as a treatment target. This may sound like I’m advocating from the position of “a little bit of suffering is good for the soul,” but realistically, while they will not likely be subject to violence when released they will be subject to stigma, and research has examined that in relation to reoffending. I would suggest that being able to manage the pragmatic stigma associated with the sex offender label is a necessary factor in their success following release.

  2. Hey Michael,

    This is Ian M responding.

    Thanks for your interesting and thoughtful response, especially sharing your experience within institutions.

    It is interesting to hear that you work at an institution that is predominantly housing sex offenders. I’ve heard clinicians this side of the border say something similar, the 70-80% rule, meaning, inmates with sex offence convictions are safer and it is easier to engage them successfully in treatment when the majority of inmates in an institution have these convictions.

    And I think you are right that there is even inmate on inmate violence when both inmates have sex offence convictions on their record, especially in the context of exposure of one’s actual offences. Humans are notorious for developing in-groups and out-groups and acting accordingly, I don’t see why this situation would be any different.

    I did not cover in this post the finer points that Drs. Ricciardelli and Spencer were making about the processes and ways of interpreting the behaviour of the actions of correctional officers in situations where sex offences are exposed. So I encourage you to contact either author for a full text version of the article (I wasn’t able to find a open-access version to link to).

    A few of their points are very potent and, I think, lead in a different direction away from “sex offender only” prisons, and toward more humane treatment and protection of inmates. So I would argue against the idea that this leads us toward more exclusive prison populations in institutions. Instead, work needs to be directed toward staff working in institutions who are exposing someone’s offence history, which I think most of us would agree is unethical and against the policies of most correctional organizations. I diverge from you in thinking that inmate’s offence history will be exposed anyway, so we need to take action to account for this. There seem to be other ways that consider other possibilities and I’d be interested to see those explored rather than “sex offender only” prisons.

    I would like to read more about the idea of stigma in treatment, as I’d like to understand what you are speaking of in a bit more detail.

    Again, thanks for the thoughts,


  3. Ian,

    Sorry for the delayed reply. As I am new to this blog I am not in the habit of checking it regularly… yet.

    While in concept I agree that moving towards a goal that correctional staff will value not outing offenders, in my own perspective this seems a bit too hopeful. This is not to say that I think your sentiment is wrong, rather I’m just too cynical. As much as I love (and currently miss) working in correctional environments, and equally have respect for the majority of the core staff in correctional settings I have been in, I have “seen” too many abuses of power that go far beyond outing offenders, to the extent of actual physical abuse. These are often incidents which get reported, and occasionally get investigated, and rarely have action taken (both internally and externally). I often wonder if it is possible to address basic behavior like confidentiality in light of more complicated abuses. I will at some point pursue the paper by Ricciardelli and Spencer you discuss here, as I am certainly curious if they speak to such an issue.

    Additionally, I would be interested to see how they cover the practical factor of how relationships form between offenders and staff within prison. I think of the difficulties many of us in the “helping” professions have in terms of maintaining confidentiality, despite the fact we have trainings crammed down our throats about confidentiality around every corner both during and after our formal trainings. If even we have difficulty with confidentiality, how hard must it be when you are working in a position where you are both exposed to these individuals on a hour-to-hour, day-to-day basis, with the emphasis being security and safety rather than confidentiality. Here is where I see the logic of the argument, though, in that it does become a security and safety issue, doesn’t it! Unfortunately, shanks make much more compelling foci of security.

    So I am getting a bit diverted from my original intended response regarding the question of stigma. To clarify, I would by no means suggest that stigma be encouraged in a treatment environment. Instead, let’s consider some of the practical aspects of what these individuals will face when they are released. We know that they will face discrimination due to their offenses in the community. Particularly in cases of community notification, Robert McGrath and I published a review in 2012 of many of the consequences offenders will face due to community notification in several jurisdictions across the United States. As is the case with many treatment programs I have been read about over the years, preparation for reintegration is paramount. I don’t recall the specific programs readily but Willis and Grace have published at least two papers I know of about this topic (Sexual Abuse, 2008, Criminal Justice and Behavior, 2009). Our practical discussion on the ground was how can you practice management skills now for the challenges you will face in the future.

    I am not familiar with any literature specifically addressing whether there is a benefit to this practice, but given how much we as a field know about how stigma interferes with success in the community in general, sex offender or not, for me and several of the people I have worked with it becomes a question of practical practice-based-evidence as opposed to evidenced-based-practice. Now I am not so naïve to believe that we can prepare offenders for every eventuality, but I would argue that stigma is in of itself a pertinent need to address in preparation for community reintegration as it is very clearly a factor leading to the insulation of sexually deviant interests in the first place. While the question of stigma towards offenders in prisons is certainly an important issue, my focus currently is not so much on this as much as it is on how stigma (and other related factors) insulates offenders from seeking help before committing an offense. Certainly though, it might be worth exploring if stigma is additive; that is, do I (the hypothetical offender) expected to be more stigmatized because I have reoffended, so I need to conceal my pre-offending/offending behaviors better.

  4. Hey Michael,

    It is my turn to apologize for the tardy response. It has apparently been a lazy summer here at the nextgen blog!

    You are not wrong in saying that my position is too hopefully, I’m a perpetual optimist! However, working in prisons, and now being able to visit a variety of jails to train staff, I have also seen some fairly egregious things and have heard attitudes that can only be described as perpetuating the stigma against sex offenders. Change in prison is such an incredibly complex endeavour, however, I think that this issue of lack of confidentiality is very important, as it likely interferes with the aims of rehabilitating offenders (more on this thought a bit later on). However, research on stigma, like the article by Ricciardelli and Spencer, I think is a great step for progress. Why I say that is because we do have, at least in Canada, federal organizational bodies (the Office of the Correctional Investigator) that deal with issues of abuses of power in prisons. And I would hope that conducting this research, promoting it, and discussing it in a public forum (like we are doing) will raise awareness and the research may then inform the practice of individuals like the Correctional Investigator, who in turn would begin asking these questions, discussing the issue of stigma and “outing” offenders in media outlets, and even including recommendations to deal with this practice in the regular reports that come out of their office.

    But the points you make are exceptionally lucid and are accurate portrayals of some of the finer issues surrounding working with offenders in prisons and confidentiality.

    And thank you very much for speaking about working with stigma in treatment. It is clear that your position is well thought out and in practice, is likely to have great benefit for those offenders you have worked with. There are two lines of thinking I want to pursue in responding to your ideas.

    First, I can see an argument for supporting work that prepares sex offenders for re-integration and specific isolating and stressful situations that might arise due to stigmatization in the community. One dynamic risk factor (included in the Stable-2007 risk assessment tool) measures sexualized coping, that is, does the individual cope with negative emotions or stress with sexual behaviour (increased pornography consumption/impersonal sex, etc.)? If the individual does tend to respond in these ways, then they are likely to be at heightened risk to commit a sexual offence. I can certainly see that facing the social stigma and the very real and heavy consequences of bearing the mark of a sex offender can cause negative emotions and stress for these offenders as they attempt to re-integrate into the community. And especially the isolation you would anticipate them facing would promote non-healthy methods of coping with the consequences of stigma.

    So preparing individuals to anticipate and cope effectively with these very real re-integration difficulties seems to me to be addressing an issue that we already know is associated with re-offence, namely poor coping and isolation.

    Second, the idea of stigma as an impediment to entering treatment is a great thought and is something that should be discussed. I would agree with you that stigma is likely an impediment to entering treatment in the community, both for those who have pedophilic/coercive interests but have not offended and for those who have been convicted for a sexual offence. I would extend this idea, though, to line up with Ricciardelli and Spencer were discussing, that stigma in prison is likely to be an issue preventing some offenders with sex offence histories from entering treatment. This might not be the case for offenders with long sentences, as they have the incentive to do treatment for parole purposes, but for those with shorter sentences, avoiding treatment may be a way of potentially avoiding being outed as a sex offender and facing the associated consequences. In this way, stigma in prison might not be “additive” per se, but may contribute to failure to re-integrate in the community.

    There does seem to be a growing sea change about reducing the stigma, both professional and public, surrounding pedophilia and treating non-offending pedophiles. This is evidenced by online groups like Virtuous Pedophiles and b4uact. Leading scientists in the field (James Cantor, Michael Seto) are also making cogent arguments regarding reducing barriers preventing individuals with sexual interests in children from seeking treatment before they offend against a child. From what you’ve said, your research with Robert McGrath maps onto this debate quite nicely.

    Again, thanks for the comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: