Outing sexual offenders in prison
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.
McPhail, I. V. (2014, May 6). Outing sexual offenders in prison. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p2RS15-4s.
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