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Home > Women in Corrections > Calling It What It Is

Calling It What It Is

April 13th, 2011

Corrections staff, especially women staff, are at times confronted with the sight of a male offender who exposes himself to them or masturbates in front of them for sexual gratification, or to shock or humiliate them.

Women correctional workers have described such encounters to me as highly disgusting, even to the point of interfering with their sex lives at home until they worked through their emotional impact. They were also distressed because at times the attitude of a few of their male counterparts was that such incidents were part of the job and that the women workers should just get used to them. Perhaps men do not relate to the threat implied by such behavior—the threat of sexual dominance and sexual assault, or being the object of someone’s pornographic fantasies. (However, some men corrections officers also told me that this behavior “creeps them out.”)

On the street such behavior is considered criminal—a misdemeanor—and it is labeled “public lewdness” or “indecent exposure.” Those confronted with it are labeled victims of this crime. In the free world penalties for indecent exposure are fines, jail time, probation, court-ordered counseling, and, for repeat offenses, mandatory registration as a sex offender. In Colorado indecent exposure is a Class 1 misdemeanor, but it is a Class 6 felony if committed after having been previously convicted of two similar offenses. In Colorado just one conviction of indecent exposure will require registration as a sex offender.

This article was written by a woman former correctional worker who shares her experiences from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Currently there is zero tolerance for this behavior in many departments and agencies. The sexual offense of indecent exposure (whether against women and/or men staff) is a problem for all staff, as sexual offenses constitute a security threat for all correctional workers. What is addressed in this article is a correctional worker problem, not a woman correctional worker problem. CST

What I share here are my experiences around the issue of inmate indecent exposure. What I went through varied depending on the staff I worked with. Some did not tolerate this behavior and some did. Today there are agencies and departments where zero tolerance for this behavior is in fact practiced.

I began my career in corrections in the late 1980’s. At that time women were escorted while inside, and most of the women were in administrative roles. However, shortly after I started my career policies began to change and women were finally allowed to be inside without escort. This new attitude brought with it more incidents of inmates exposing themselves to or masturbating intentionally in front of women staff. It is my opinion that such behavior was taken more seriously early on than later by the male staff and a large number of the inmate population. Back then the prevailing attitude of the male staff and a large portion of the inmates was that this type of behavior was not only unacceptable, but that there would be harsh punishment for the offenders, not only by the Department, but by their inmate peers also. In those days inmates policed themselves and they had a much stricter code they lived by. Women were treated with a lot more respect than we are today in this one area. By the time I retired, however, my experience was that the behavior was considered by some male staff to be part of where we work, and that we need to just “get over it.” As a result now not only are women employees disrespected in this way, men staff are confronted by this type of behavior as well.

It is expected that inmates will misbehave and break the rules, but their misbehavior should never be looked at as part of the job. On the street genital exposure and public masturbation are considered criminal behaviors. That is what they should be considered on the inside as well. As corrections professionals we should be very aware that we teach inmates how to treat us. If we begin to look at criminal behavior as part of the job, we become part of the problem. Also, aren’t we expected to teach inmates how they are supposed to conduct themselves when they are released back into society? Do we want them to get back out thinking they can expose themselves and masturbate in public with impunity whenever and wherever they feel like it?

The first time I encountered this type of behavior I got very scared. My legs were trembling when I confronted the inmate and escorted him to the Lieutenant’s Office. The inmate was a well-known sex offender, and I had been warned ahead of time about him. I was so relieved when he came along quietly with me to the Lieutenant’s office without further incident.  The Lieutenant took over and was very concerned about me. He asked me if I was okay and assured me that he would take care of it. He even asked me if I wanted help writing the incident report, to ensure that the inmate would be appropriately punished for his unacceptable behavior. It was not looked at as part of my job!!!! It was considered a sexual crime, and it was treated as such.

Flash forward to the late 1990’s, and see how the attitudes changed among some individuals. For some of my coworkers it was now just a part of where I worked, and they expected to have it happen to every female working inside. What a shame that we allowed dealing with this to become part of our jobs! I realize that there are some inmates that will expose themselves no matter what the consequences, but the majority of the inmates would never even think of disrespecting female or male staff members in this way. What do these inmates who respect  staff learn when they see other inmates exposing themselves and getting away with it? Yes, we are responsible for teaching people how to treat us.

Did some of my coworkers become so desensitized to criminal behavior that they were not willing to see it for what it really was, a sex crime? If this happened on the street, arrests would be made, court dates would be established, and strict punishment would be administered. What made it different on the inside? Could it possibly be attitudes changed with the familiarity of women working on the inside?

While working inside, I had to write an incident report for five incidents of “engaging in a sexual act.”  I remember each one vividly. I also remember how some male staff treated each incident. In the beginning my initial response was fear. By the end of my career my response was anger. In the beginning I was treated with respect and concern by my supervisors and male co-workers. In the end, I was treated with no respect or concern. It was just expected to happen and I was expected to not take it personally. I can’t tell you which one made me the maddest, the sex crime itself or the  disrespect I received from a few of my supervisors, co-workers and even the disciplinary hearing officers who handled the incident reports.

Inmates can be expected to act out in the worst of ways, but I never expected the response or attitude I received from some of the staff when I was confronted with this type of behavior by an inmate.

So the real questions are why, why did this become so accepted inside by some staff, and how do we change that attitude?

To me it all goes back to what we are willing to accept as acceptable. Yes, it is the rule that this behavior will be written up and addressed, but, let’s get real, sometimes this may not happen.  I can think of numerous times in the ‘90s when inmates who exposed themselves were released from seg before finishing their punishment because seg was overcrowded—if it even got that far. I can also remember occasions when nothing was done, when inmates were left in their cells after engaging in their sex act purposely in front of staff.  Sometimes seg was full because inmates were there for insolence—having refused orders to go to work or to class. Which is more disruptive and criminal—public masturbation with the intent to shock or disrespect staff, or not going to class? Or, the incident report was trashed for the sake of the inmate providing intelligence. What did that say to the offender? “This behavior is okay, as long as we get what we need from you.” Where do we draw the line? This had now in some way become leverage to us, instead of behavior that would not be tolerated. By doing this, we had accepted this behavior as part of our jobs. Why even write up the inmate? I had better use of my time than to take time to write the incident report and then discover that it was thrown out for various reasons.

Inmates must never disrespect staff and get away with it, mocking us because we cannot do anything about their actions. If their sexual acting out is not being addressed or taken as serious misconduct on the inmate’s part, inmates are led to believe that they can get away with this type of disrespect toward staff, male or female. If zero tolerance for this type of behavior is not in place and enforced already, it is time to take another look at this, so we can more clearly define what is acceptable within the walls.

A sex crime is a sex crime regardless of where it takes place. You must first adopt that belief. It is not just a part of the job. If it is criminal on the outside, it should be criminal on the inside. Are people allowed to expose themselves and masturbate in front of you on the street? If you came out of Wal-Mart and saw a man engaging in such a sex act in front of you, looking you straight in the eye and targeting you, what would you do? I’d scream and run back inside to call the police. Most of us would get away from the man and call the cops. A few of us may try to make a citizen’s arrest. Police would be looking for the guy all over town, and, once they found him, they would arrest him and bring criminal charges against him.

Don’t we teach children to come and tell us if someone exposes themselves to them or touches them inappropriately? What happens to those instructions when we go to work in a prison or a jail? Should we put them all aside and adopt new ways of thinking, no longer calling a damaging act damaging, or a crime a crime? (Even if it is a misdemeanor, it is still a crime.)

Staff, especially women staff, need to know that their coworkers have their back. If you do not confront an offender, push an incident report or follow through with disciplinary action, you just told me that you are not going to support me or help keep me safe.

Not doing anything about such behavior affects the work environment in many ways. Staff may feel visually assaulted and humiliated, with the inmates in control of the situation. Such incidents might contribute to staff feeling violated, especially if they have been sexually assaulted in the past.  Additionally , a sexualized work environment may result, with off-color jokes among the staff fueled by the inmate’s sexual behavior. Our family lives are also affected, as the slime goes home with us. After every such incident in my career I went home and took a shower, like I was trying to wash the filth off of me.

We should push for prosecution of this type of behavior on the inside. When correctional staff get physically assaulted, it is considered new criminal behavior and is charged as such. If the inmate population thought for one minute that they would be charged with a sex crime and have to face new charges in outside courtrooms, they just might reconsider acting out in this way. On the street repeat offenders of “public lewdness” have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives. If inmates knew that this would happen to them, they’d think twice about exposing their genitals to staff.

Yes, prosecuting a case is costly, but there wouldn’t have to be many such cases. Inmates would quickly find out that in addition to more time, they’d have new limitations about halfway houses where they could be released, their parole conditions, and their time with their children, among other details. And believe me, they would not like to have their girlfriends, wives, mothers or daughters find out that they are now registered as sex offenders.

Some traditions, attitudes and belief systems must change before this behavior can be properly addressed and punished, if this is not the policy already . Make the decision today to not allow any sex crime toward staff to go unpunished. Push for accountability within the walls and, in turn, the inmate population will conform.

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ctudor Women in Corrections

  1. Neil
    May 12th, 2011 at 21:46 | #1

    Personally, I think if you are going to have women acting as corrections officers with male inmates, then this is a part of the job. Unlike on the street, where men have legal and normal sexual outlets, what outlet does a man have in a prison cell. Masturbation is better than raping another inmate or a guard.

    What I really want to know is how the double standard took hold where women access guard male inmates in showers and other sensitive situations, but the same is not the case for male guards and female inmates. If women want to be treated equally, then welcome to the male reality of masturbation. Get over it.

  2. June 17th, 2011 at 14:48 | #2

    Neil, it’s one thing for an inmate to masturbate privately and discreetly. It’s another to flaunt the behavior in the face of staff passing by as an act of defiance, disrespect and sexual aggression. As to the shower situation, that I am not not aware of how many states or counties permit that.

  3. Kate
    October 5th, 2011 at 01:32 | #3


    I really enjoyed reading your article. I have been working at the jail for about a year now, and “indecent exposure” seems to be a major problem there, especially when you get to work with the state inmates who pretty much care less about any sort of sanctions or incident reports. Their charges speak for themselves - capital murders, robberies 1st…they have no respect to themselves; no wonder they do not respect anyone else, including the female staff. I have heard the statement “don’t take it personally, it’s just a part of our job” before. I disagree. If anyone of these jokers tries to masturbate in front of me, I automatically write them up. They do not like it because they know this paperwork will follow them to any prison they get transferred too…I heard from many female COs “I give them two warnings, the third one is a write up.” That is probably one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever heard….there is no such thing as a “warning” for me…I do not disrespect you and you have no right to disrespect me. I am not going to look under your covers to see what are you doing at night since I am not willing to be a part of the “male reality of masturbation” but you will not be standing by the bars, looking at me while masturbating. If you do, we have a problem. I currently work night shifts so as you imagine, I deal with this problem almost every night. I totally agree with you - there should be a charge added for any act of “indecent exposure.” I am convinced that it would persuade majority of the inmates to think twice before masturbating. Neglecting this problem definitely will not fix it. As you said: “Some traditions, attitudes and belief systems must change before this behavior can be properly addressed and punished.” Very true, I agree with you 100%.

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