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Homosexuality and Rape in Prisons

Updated on June 17, 2015


Sexual abuse occurs frequently in prisons and has been long been identified as a problematic part of prison life. While the law is set by judicial authority and may seemingly meet the punishment we see fit for the crime, the extent of the implicit punishment of prison life extends far beyond a prison sentence. The purpose of this research is to inquire how inmates and guards react to homosexuality and rape in prisons. A secondary question it raises is what this suggests about the extent to which punishment is at the discretion of law enforcers rather than legislation. Homosexual behaviour in prisons will be explained through the depravation model and Syke’s ‘pains of imprisonment’ as well as Goffman’s notion of role dispossession. This suggests that sexually abusive and violent behaviour stems from the conditions within the prison and prison staffs reactions to homosexual behaviour of ignoring, condoning or engaging in it have had detrimental consequences on the prison experience.

Punishment has a long history of torture and capital punishment but this has transitioned to our present day judicial system which uses incapacitation as a means of punishing offenders. According to Beccaria, incapacitation as punishment is the only way to deter criminals or create a cohesive society. He believed that the punishment meted out must be exactly enough to deter the crime committed, which is based on the idea that we are rational actors who act in response to pain and pleasure, seeking to gain pleasure in ways that may be deviant according to social norms (Beccaria, 1819). Although this principle was written in the 18th century, it is never the less still the principle that is used in our modern day justice system. Becarria saw no place for physical torture or sexual abuse as part of punishment and we too, as a society, believe in the sanctity of the body and that physical torture and sexual abuse are a violation of social norms. This is reflected in the Human Rights Act and firmly establishes that sexual abuse as a punishment does not reflect our society’s morals.

The Incapacitation model today can be explained by Goffman’s theory of ‘mortifications of self’. Upon entering a prison, the prisoner is placed in an environment that is alien to anything in the life he has been used to. Goffman refers to this systematic stripping of the self as the mortifications of self. By taking away the relationships, employment, and other sources of identification that helped the prisoner to build their identity, the total institution, this case the prison, then replaces this performance of self with an identification with the prison and this becomes the primary source of self (Goffman, 1961). The separation from the outside world cements this role dispossession, as the regimented rules of the prison become a part of the inmates ‘self’. The privilege system continues the mortification process as they establish ‘house rules’ with rewards and privileges that were previously taken for granted, and punishments as a consequence of breaking rules. As a result of this, the prisoner goes through ‘secondary adjustments’ which reassure the inmate that he still retains some agency, helps develop solidarity (Goffman, 1961) and find alternatives to their former life outside the prison such as homosexual encounters to replace heterosexual relationships.

Prison culture has long been understood to involve homosexuality to satisfy sexual desires due to the deprivation of heterosexual sex opportunities (Blackburn et al, 2010). With increased homosexuality, the threat of prison rape has resulted in an association between prison sexual victimisation and homosexuality. While both consensual homosexual acts and rape are prohibited in prisons, many officers use their discretion when reporting violations of these rules. Correctional officers are responsible for charging violators which would result in disciplinary action against them, however, some use their discretionary power to ignore consensual acts of homosexuality as opposed to coercive sexual favours or rape (Eigenberg). Rape is often used in prisons as a form of punishment, a way of establishing power relations and developing a means for economic exchange within the prison (Gillespie, 2004). Even when homosexual encounters are classified as voluntary, often the implicit threats and fears which influence one inmate submitting to the other indicate that there are coercive pressures that operate within the prison.

Most Dangerous Prison: Prison Life Documentary

Prison guards have attempted to address this by segregating homosexual and transgendered inmates in many prisons due to violence and homophobia from the other inmates, but the segregation has in some cases further punished homosexual inmates. In various prisons around the world, prison guards have reacted to rape by segregating inmates viewed as homosexual, although not always for their own protection. States such as Virginia have been reproved for separating women who were thought to be lesbian in order to decrease sexual activity among them rather than to protect them from victimization (Blackburn et al, 2010). Rape in a prison often goes unrecognised simply because there is no knife being held to the inmates throat while it happens. Some inmates may be approached by another inmate who warn them about bullies and predators who will pick on them and offer to protect them in exchange for sex, the inmate then gets coerced into a homosexual relationship because they feel threatened and fear for their safety (Eigenberg). Others are inducted into gangs and are coerced into homosexual relationships where they are degraded and feel unsafe to refuse.

Although they may not identify as homosexuals, the attitudes of other prisoners and guards towards them are influenced by their behaviour and correspondingly influence who they are housed with, whether they are in cells or dorms, and their sense of security in the prison. A study conducted by the Southern Criminal Justice Association in 2006 indicated that female inmates, younger inmates and those that were homosexual or bisexual, as well as those in cells, were more likely to be accepting of inmates having sex with each other (Blackburn et al, 2010). The longer the time served in jail also had a positive correlation with acceptance of sex between inmates. Other models indicated that male inmates, older inmates and heterosexual inmates are more likely to be for segregation of gay inmates. Some interesting findings were that while living in a cell is seen as a more depriving environment, inmates in environments that were less secure, such as dorms, were more homophobic (Blackburn et al, 2010). The homophobia of other inmates has resulted in violence towards inmates who take part in homosexual sex in prison, as well as inversely, the rape and coercive sex with unwilling prisoners in order to maintain power-relations within the prison.

While there has been a large body of research on male homosexuality and rape in prisons, rape is as common and harmful to female inmates. A study by Jones (as cited in Blackburn, 2008) describes four ways in which women deal with the suppressed sexuality and restriction on heterosexual sex opportunities in prison. Although some choose to be celibate or remain faithful to a partner outside prison, others engage in same-sex which is either consensual or coerced, or engage in masturbation. Sexual violence in the prison is carried out through manipulation, compliance and coercion. Like male rape in prisons, non-consensual homosexual relationships are often not recognised as violent and aggressive as prison guards do not have the skills to recognise it and are sometimes perpetrators themselves. Inmates can be forced into sexual relationships with other inmates and guards through sexual bartering, consent for protection, or coerced into sexual contact through rape or physical violence (Blackburn, 2008). Sexual violence can be committed by a prisoner against staff, one inmate against another inmate, or by a guard against a prisoner. A study by the University of South Dakota comparing the reporting of sexual coercion experiences by men and women in 10 mid-western prisons showed disturbing results about the incidence of rape in prisons that is perpetrated by staff against inmates. Men reported that perpetrators were 72% inmates, 8% guards and 12% inmates and guards together while women reported that perpetrators were 47% inmates and 41% guards (2008).

This research indicates that many inmates turn to homosexual sex as an alternative to heterosexual sex and that while some of these couplings are consensual, others are coercive and violent. Qualitative research describes a wide range of reasons through which inmates are coerced into sexually violent relationships with other inmates and guards. The varying reactions amongst guards towards homosexuality and rape can account for varying prison experiences among inmates as guards accept, ignore or condone and engage in this abuse. These findings make us question why rape goes unaddressed in prisons when it is considered to be so inherently unacceptable as a form of punishment in our society, and what makes guards and inmates sexually abuse other inmates through techniques such as coercion, compliance and manipulation or turn a blind eye to this activity.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The reasons why inmates and guards react as they do to rape and homosexuality in the prison can be explained by the depravation model of prison life and experience. The Depravation model “Rests on the assumption that inmate behavior is a function of the prison environment” (Huebner 2002). It asserts that inmates react in response to deprivations within the prison, and it is the prison that produces certain behaviours in them. Gresham Sykes describes the prison experience as having five pains of imprisonment which operate insidiously on the psychological state of mind of the prisoner and arise out of the prison experience (Sykes, 1958). Prison guards and inmates react to homosexuality either by providing an environment in which homosexual encounters and relationships are acceptable and inmates feel protected by authority if threatened or an environment in which rape is unaddressed and inmates feel vulnerable. The deprivations of liberty, autonomy, heterosexual sex opportunities, security, and goods and services results in inmates using alternatives within the prison to account for these rights that were taken for granted outside its walls (Sykes, 1958).

As the prisoner is already stripped off his sense of self, he or she seeks to build a new identity as a convicted inmate as a consequence of these regimented controls. The primary deprivation of heterosexual sex opportunities is alleviated through the engaging in consensual homosexual sex and can be seen through the change in sexual activity of prisoners since entering the prison. While many were heterosexual outside the prison, many prisoners turn to homosexual sex as consequence of deprivation of heterosexual sex (Sykes and Messinger, 1960). The forming of pseudo families which are hyper-sexualised attempt to stand in for real family arrangements (Blackburn, 2008). Where homosexual sex is coercive or rape is involved, the depravation model would argue that this is a direct result of the prison experience. While inmates might not have been inclined to be violent and aggressive outside the prison, the regimented rules, overcrowding, and environment that encourages a display of physical aggression to prove oneself, are factors that contribute to the inmate becoming sexually violent and coercive. The deprivation of security is keenly felt, one prisoner saying “the worst thing about prison is that you have to live with other prisoners” (Sykes, 1958). Thrust into a foreign environment with criminals who have a history of violence and aggression, many inmates live in fear of their lives. Being in the constant companionship of thieves, rapists, murderers and aggressive homosexuals, every inmate is aware that at some point he will have to defend himself and his possessions, which if he fails to do, will result in him being victimised thereafter as he is seen as weak and easy to pick on. The prisoner’s loss of security makes them anxious that he will be abused by other inmates, and whether he will have the nerve to stand up to this aggression to prove himself in the eyes of other inmates as it questions his manhood which is shaped by his identity as a prisoner.

Clemmer and Fishman have emphasised that the deprivation of heterosexual relationships not only causes sexual frustration but also challenges the inmates sense of his own masculinity. The tense atmosphere of the prison with overcrowding, physical insecurity at all times, and lack of heterosexual sex opportunities produces perversions and anxiety about their own masculinity, for even those who do not resort to homosexuality (Sykes and Messinger, 1960). The depravation model can even be extended to account for the condoning or engaging in sexual abuse by the prison guards. A study by Professor Zimbardo (1971) called the Stanford Prison experiment illustrated that students placed in a make believe scenario where half of them were inmates, the other half guards, took on the characteristics of prisoners and guards. They behaved and responded according to the environment they were placed in, in 24 hours. This suggests that prisonisation not only resocialises prisoners, but guards are also subject to the effects of prisonisation. Idealised guard types such as a dictator might be inclined to use prison rules to assert their own dominancy and sadistic fantasies or sexual perversions (Sykes and Messinger, 1960). Placed in a position of control, which exists only in the prison, prison guards can exploit their position of power to sexually abuse prisoners, resulting in an increase in prisonisation and inmates develop mistrust for authority and society.

Therefore, the punishment that is doled out to a prisoner for a crime he or she has committed goes far beyond the years of imprisonment specified according to the law and judicial discretion to the attitudes and discretion of prison wardens, guards, and other inmates. In many cases, practising homosexuality can and does result in further punishment such as segregation and victimisation, and alternatively non-consensual prisoners are also sexually abused and victimised. Hence the pains of imprisonment within the prison experience does result in further punishment beyond the prison sentence an inmate is sentenced by the courts. The attitudes of inmates and guards to homosexuality and rape can be explained by the depravation model which suggests that these behaviours of sexual aggression and violence arise partly due to the environment within the prison and the external needs that inmates and guards are deprived off.


Beccaria, C. 1819 [2004] “Of Crimes and Punishments” in Classics of Criminology, ed J.E Jacoby. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, pp 352 – 360.

Blackburn, A. 2008. “Sexual Assault in Prison and Beyond: Toward an Understanding of Lifetime Sexual Assault Among Incarcerated Women”. The Prison Journal, pp 351 – 377

Blackburn, A., Fowler, S., Mullings, J., Marquart, J. 2011. “Too Close for Comfort” American Journal of Criminal Justice.

Eigenberg, H. “Correctional Officers and Their Perceptions of Homosexuality, Rape and Prostitution in Male Prisons.” The Prison Journal 8, pp. 415-433.

Gillespie, W. 2004. “The Context of Imprisonment.” In Living in Prison: A History of the Correctional System with an Insider’s View, eds. S. Stanko, W. Gillespie and Crews. Westport: Greenwood Press, pp. 63 – 87.

Goffman, E. 1961. Asylums; Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. London: Penguin Books, pp.23-69.

Struckman Johnson, C. 2006. “A Comparison of Sexual Coercion Experiences Reported by Men and Women in Prison” Journal of interpersonal violence.

Sykes, G. 1958 [1971]. Excerpt from “The Pain of Imprisonment” in The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison. Princeton University Press: Princeton Paperback, pp. 63 – 78.

Sykes, G. and S. Messinger. 1960 [2004]. Excerpts from The Inmate Social System in Classics of Criminology, ed J.E Jacoby. Long Grove IL: Waveland Press, pp 521 – 531.

Zimb ardo, P. 1999 – 2012. Stanford Prison experiment. Avialable from [Accessed 17/05/2012]


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    • Anushka Britto profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Auckland

      Thanks so much thumb17, I'm glad you found it informative!

    • thumbi7 profile image

      JR Krishna 

      3 years ago from India

      This information is very new to me. We never think of the life of prisoners.

      Thanks for sharing this


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