Sex in the Slammer: Why Sex is Illegal in Prison

It may seem silly to tackle the problem of sex in prison (or lack thereof) when there are arguably far more pressing issues plaguing the American prison system.

For example, director Ava Duvernay explored the prison industrial system’s dark ties to slavery in 13th, bringing racially charged issues such as the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and forced labor to the forefront of discussion. Rates of recidivism (what Google defines as “the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend”) are high, and employment rates for ex-offenders are depressingly low.

This being said, one must never forget that incarcerated inmates are human beings, and most human beings who have made it past puberty have certain needs. Needs which, if denied over a long period of time, can make one feel extremely dehumanized, never mind incredibly frustrated. There have been no official studies (that I could find) done on the link between frequency of sexual pleasure and good behavior amongst prisoners- probably because sex in prison is incredibly rare. However, it’s proven that inmates who are happier have reduced rates of recidivism. And it’s also proven that orgasms make you happier— duh.

But in 2014, both Mississippi and New Mexico terminated their conjugal visitation programs. Today, such programs only remain in four states: California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington. And keep in mind: these are state prisons. Conjugal visits are virtually nonexistent in federal prisons. This is because of a 1974 court case, Lyons v. Gilligan, which led to the ruling that inmates have no constitutional right to sex with their spouses while in prison. Keyword: spouses. No constitutional right to sex with their spouses, which means virtually no sex with anyone who is not legally a spouse. Up until 2007, conjugal visits were not even allowed for same-sex couples in a domestic partnership.

Well, sometimes there’s no replacement for the real thing, but at least masturbation is a decent substitute for fornication, right?

Wrong. Prisoners who are caught masturbating can be and are often hit with a wide range of punishments. According to Vice, these penalties can include anything from a small fine to a long stay in solitary confinement.

A 29-year-old prisoner was recently hit with 9 months in the SHU (solitary housing unit) after he was caught masturbating by a guard during a night check. The anonymous man told Vice, “I’m two years away from going home—I’m not looking for trouble—and now I’m in the hole and have this on my record.”

Often these inmates are caught pleasuring themselves at late hours of the night, alone in their cells, during random check-ins by guards. So why is this not considered a violation of privacy? The short answer: because public masturbation is illegal in the United States, and all activities in prison are considered public. So, by this logic, masturbation is illegal in prison.

If we look at doing time as a punishment for people who have done bad things, on the surface,  it makes sense to deny offenders simple pleasures. However, if we examine the system more deeply and rethink prison as a place for rehabilitation and growth, this notion becomes far less simple. As conjugal visitations become a thing of the past and guards ramp up punishments for anything sexual, denying inmates pleasure through limiting basic human instincts will harm far more than it will help.

So, this begs the question: should prison inmates be given the right to sex with their loved ones in the form of conjugal visits and masturbation in their own cells? Loaded question, we know, but we want to hear your thoughts! Weight in! Comment below or follow us on social media to join in on the conversation. Because isn’t that what it’s all about? Starting conversations, circulating information, and exploring topics which are otherwise swept under the rug? We’de say so!

Resources:

http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/26/483091741/to-help-a-criminal-go-straight-help-him-change-how-he-thinks

https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/ypvk7g/why-its-illegal-for-prisoners-to-masturbate

http://www.vocativ.com/underworld/sex/conjugal-visits-work/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stress-and-sex/201401/touchy-subject-the-health-benefits-masturbation

Grace P

Grace is a hip hop connoisseur with a degree in Media, Culture and Communications from New York University. She is originally from and currently resides in the D.C. area. She believes that mental health reform is important and that black lives matter.

2 Comments
  1. I think that prisoners should be allowed to masturbate and it’s ridiculous that they can’t. Solitary confinement is an unjust punishment and is actual legalized torture that causes incredible amounts of psychological damage. As far as allowance of sex with spouses, my only concern is what the person is in prison for. If they are imprisoned for sexual assault, rape, or domestic violence, I don’t think that sex with their spouse is completely safe or even consensual. That being said, how would one be able to decide if the relationship is consensual and nonmanipulative? What protective measures would be in place for the spouse and the prisoner?

    1. I understand that the “system” takes away basic human rights in an attempt to make prisoners reflect on the freedom they once had and transform into better people once leaving. Not to say that this is done effectively with all of the issues involved in the criminal justice department. But denying the right to a sexual release is dare I say it “criminal” in its own right. As you noted in your article sex/orgasms are arguably a human right and a strong release of stress and tension. I think it is incredibly wrong to give prisoners extended sentences and harsh treatment for seeking that. But alas this is a cruel world and we’re watching the worst of it in HD every day. Dope Article Grace, Respect!

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