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Prisoners In America Aren’t Allowed To Masturbate

Is it justified to punish inmates for self-pleasure?

Most of my knowledge about prison sex comes from TV shows like “Orange is the New Black” or “Beyond Scared Straight.” When I recently stumbled upon a story in Tonic about how it’s illegal for US prisoners to masturbate, I was baffled. “Didn’t Big Boo masturbate with a screwdriver?” I thought. “How could this be?”

On a deeper level, the Tonic piece stunned me. It tells the story of Josh Richards,* a 29-year-old serving time for aggravated assault. Richards says that guards accused him of masturbating and stuck him in solitary confinement for nine months — with nothing but a Bible — to punish him for his dirty act.

Why would the government rob prisoners of their already-limited freedoms — especially for such a harmless act? I decided to investigate.

By Googling, I quickly found stories about prisoners who were put in solitary confinement or had their sentences extended for masturbating. In 2007, for example, a prison deputy at a Florida correctional facility saw Terry Lee Alexander — a 20-year-old prisoner doing time for armed robbery — masturbating alone in his cell (which was under video surveillance). The young inmate was promptly convicted of indecent exposure.

That same deputy brought similar charges against seven other prisoners in the span of just six months, local news reported at the time.

Whitey Bulger, the Boston gangster who was convicted of 11 murders in 2013, was also caught masturbating during a guard’s 3 AM rounds. As punishment, Bulger was placed in solitary confinement for 30 days.

Whitey Bulger was thrown in solitary confinement for masturbation. | Boston Globe

Curious about why touching yourself in prison would result in such drastic punishments, dose reached out the Federal Bureau of Prisons — a federal law enforcement agency that imprisons 200,000 people in over 120 prisons across the country.

Justin Long, a member of the Bureau of Prisons’ public affairs team, responded right away. He said the Bureau of Prisons prohibits inmates from “masturbating in public” in order to “ensure the safety, security, and orderly operation” of the prisons.

“Engaging in public masturbation can be intimidating and/or offensive to staff and inmates,” Long said. “In addition, this type of behavior can lead to significant safety and security concerns within the institution (e.g., the act may be a precursor to a sexual assault or it may precipitate fights/assaults between inmates who find this behavior offensive).”

You might have noticed that Long only refers to “public masturbation.” When asked if a prisoner pleasuring him or herself in bed late at night qualified as “public,” Long said if a prisoner masturbates “discretely [and] without a correctional officer nearby,” it’s “generally not sanctioned.”

Long did not answer when asked if it was actually illegal for prisoners to pleasure themselves.

You can’t stop prisoners from having sexual thoughts. “Correctional authorities can write prohibitions until the world is indeed level as a Kansas wheatfield, but they cannot stop men from thinking about sex, from masturbating, nor from other avenues of sexual expression,” said one inmate in an unfiltered personal account of prison masturbation and rape that was published in the “Journal of Sex Research ” in 1980. (I found the article while looking through the library at my alma mater, Columbia College Chicago.)

The same author recalled a time when a 17-year-old inmate was pimped out by a guard to another inmate. After being raped, the boy set himself on fire, committing suicide.

After reading this prisoner’s account, I realized another reason why masturbation in prison could be illegal in prisons: as a preventive measure.

I’d like to imagine that somewhere between 1980 and George W. Bush’s administration, prison administrators had seen enough rape-driven suicides. In return, they banned all sexual acts and started initiatives like the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a state-funded program started under the Bush administration that uses Christianity to rehabilitate prisoners and help them re-enter the workforce. Although InnerChange had some positive effects on inmates, it had a lot of flaws, too. One was its labeling of masturbation as a sin that could lead prisoners back into a life of crime.

I don’t think I’m the only one failing to see the correlation between masturbation and an after-prison job hunt. Again, when I hear about government efforts to deprive prisoners of their God-given right to masturbate, it outrages me. How inhumane, how Orwellian can you get? Luckily, in 2006, a court ruled the InnerChange program unconstitutional for violating the separation between church and state. (The program is now privately funded.)

Even with InnerChange getting its public funding cut, prisons still treat masturbation as a crime. I get the need for safety. But regardless of your political or religious convictions, you have to admit that putting an inmate in solitary confinement or extending their sentence for masturbating is pretty harsh.

Josh Richards is not his real name.