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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Sex in Prison: Myths and Realities

Nickie Phillips

Prison_Life_by_sultan_f

Crimcast welcomes Tammy L. Castle, co-editor along with Catherine D. Marcum of Sex in Prison: Myths and Realities (2014), to discuss issues surrounding sexual behavior, sexuality, and policies regarding sex in prison. Dr. Castle’s book brings together work from experts covering a variety of topics such as sexual assault, health issues, challenges facing LGBT inmates, and the implications of incarcerating millions of people in institutions that prohibit sexual intimacy.

How did you become interested in the topic of sex in prison?

I began writing about sexual behavior in prison while working as a research assistant for a professor in my graduate program. He had recently finished interviews with inmates about the topic, and I worked with him on several manuscripts that were published using that data. I also contributed a chapter to his book, which explored the contemporary practice of and policies related to sexual behavior in prison. The research at that time was dated, in part due to the stigma associated with researching such a topic both inside and outside the academy. It was because of my prior research in this area that Dr. Marcum contacted me to contribute a chapter and serve as co-editor of the book.

Your book reports that collecting accurate statistics on the extent of rape and sexual assault of men and women in prison is extremely difficult. Catherine Marcum, in her chapter “Examining Prison Sex Culture,” reports that sexual assault rates vary from 1 to 41 percent. How can we make sense of such a disparity?

The first issue to consider is the difficulty of collecting this type of data in prison/jail. Although the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) signed in 2003 requires the Bureau of Justice Statistics to report sexual assault rates, they can only report incidents that come to the attention of prison/jail staff. As noted in the book, inmates are hesitant to report for a variety of reasons including the stigma of being assaulted, fear of retribution by other inmates or staff (if a staff member was the perpetrator), and the desire to avoid the negative consequences of reporting (e.g. removal from general population).

Also, the number of sexual assaults reported varies from facility to facility. In some institutions, sexual coercion through manipulation is much more common. The institutions vary in what behavior gets defined as a sexual assault.

Your book addresses an overlooked area of research, that of consensual sex in prison. Kristine Levan points out that, aside from the obvious power imbalance between guards and inmates, some researchers have found that most sexual activity that occurs in prison is consensual. Why do you think that the myth persists among the general public that nearly all prison sex is coercive?

Photo: Jelle Vancoppenolle

Prisons are closed institutions—secure and often located in rural areas—and it is difficult for the general public to find information on the realities of prison life. For that reason, most of what they know comes from the media. The depictions of prison sex in the media are almost always sensational, whether it is being romanticized (as in the TV show ‘Orange is the New Black’) or portrayed only as a violent act (e.g. gang rape). The commonly held myth that prison rape occurs frequently, and is a natural consequence of living in prison, is found in most films that depict prison life.

Given that many members of the public are opposed to any perceived “amenities” or activities that prisoners might find pleasurable, why might a policy of conjugal visitation be worthwhile for both the inmates and society-at-large?

It is difficult to influence public opinion on attitudes toward inmates and amenities. Even with sexual assault, the public is often less than sympathetic to a “deserving” population. However, conjugal visitation in several states represents one component of a larger program aimed at family preservation. In other countries, specifically in Latin America, family preservation programs are more much common and accepted. Surveys on inmate amenities find stronger support for family visitation programs among the general public, who view the family members as “undeserving” of the negative impact of incarceration on the family unit.

These programs have been found to impact adjustment both during and after incarceration. Studies have shown that increased visitation results in fewer infractions while in prison, and provides participants with incentives to behave. Maintaining the connection with family also lowers recidivism rates and produces a “normalizing effect” on the inmates. Finally, states with conjugal visitation programs report lower rates of sexual assault. Some prison staff argue that programs such as these lower tension and hostility in the institutions overall.

What are the most overlooked health issues with regard to sex in prison?

As Potter and Rosky discussed in their chapter on health issues, disease transmission among inmates is the most pressing health concern. Some inmates enter prison with bacterial STDs or HIV, and then spread it via sexual contact. However because most correctional health data is not published it is difficult to estimate the rates of transmission. Most prison sex policies are prohibitive rather than preventative, although correctional facilities can decide whether to support harm reduction measures in an effort to reduce transmission.

Tell us about your current research and let us know if we can expect future work from you in this area.

This book culminates several years I spent working on the topic, and given the access to data provided by the PREA, I do feel that there is more work to be done by scholars who wish to explore this taboo subject. My other research interests include comparative justice and media, including my recent article Achieving Justice through the International Criminal Court in Northern Uganda: Is Indigneous/Restorative Justice a Better Approach? that examines the dimensions of justice and role of the International Criminal Court in Northern Uganda.

Tammy L. Castle

Tammy L. Castle is an Associate Professor in the Department of Justice Studies at James Madison University. She has published broadly in the areas of sexual violence and prisons, although her current research focuses on hate propaganda. For further information or discussion about the book, please contact her at: castletl@jmu.edu.