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How to help prevent deviant sexual behavior in prison

Although we’ll never eliminate it, there are some steps we can take as administrators to curb the behavior and make both staff and inmates feel safer

By Laura Bedard, Ph.D.

For me, one of the worst things about working in a prison is having to witness, or hear about, deviant sexual behavior. As the warden, I cringe every time a disciplinary report crosses my desk for masturbation, exhibition or some other form of sexual misconduct. Although we’ll never eliminate it, there are some steps we can take as administrators to curb the behavior and make both staff and inmates feel safer at our facilities.

First, we need to tell inmates that we have zero tolerance for any sexual act in prison. I personally speak to every inmate who enters the facility about my expectations of their behavior. I tell them if they are caught engaging in any sexual activity, be it with other inmates, staff, volunteers or acts of public masturbation, I will hold them accountable to the fullest extent.

This includes having the local sheriff (with whom I have an excellent relationship) coming over and arresting them.

Inmates also know if they are convicted of such acts, I will (and do), call their momma, their baby’s momma, their grand momma — anyone who will listen. I usually read the disciplinary report and then ask the family member for help in getting the inmate to stop any future behavior.

The response has been interesting to say the least. Some relatives are very apologetic of their family member’s behavior. Others at first act out in denial in the beginning, but then reconcile the situation towards the end of our conversation. Of course, a few think we’ve made the whole thing up. I do think the open discussions with family members have helped reduce the number of incidents we’ve had in the past five months.

We also need to make sure that the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is publicized to both staff and inmates. Showing the National Institute of Correction’s PREA video on a continuous loop for orientation inmates, making certain PREA posters are visible in the housing units and actually painting the PREA hotline on the walls are all steps we’ve taken to ensure a PREA free environment. We talk about the issue at inmate Town Hall meetings. We inform new inmates how they can become beholden to more seasoned convicts and to be aware when a convict is trying to get them in their good graces.

Lastly, staff needs to know that this is a priority. They need to learn not to be embarrassed by such acts but to take firm and swift action towards violators. I personally teach the PREA section of our pre-service training for all new staff so they know this issue is a priority for all wardens. I ask my executive team to also mention that we have zero tolerance. An open and honest discussion about deviant sexual behavior is necessary to maintain a safe facility.

Being PREA free is our goal. I want inmates and staff to feel safe in our facility. Being proactive is one way of ensuring a reduction in deviant sexual behavior in your facility.

Laura E. Bedard began her work in corrections as a jail administrator in 1984. During her tenure as administrative faculty for the College of Criminology at Florida State University, she ran a study-abroad program in the Czech Republic lecturing on crime topics in an emerging democracy. In 2005, she became the first female Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. There she was responsible for 27,000 state employees and over 200,000 offenders in the third largest correctional system in the country. Dr. Bedard has published and lectured on a number of corrections-related topics including women in prison, mental health issues and correctional leadership. Dr. Bedard is currently serving as the Chief of Corrections for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford, Florida.