Shawn Syms, Women prisoners make love, guards leer, Xtra!, September 03, 2010
According to RCMP policy — specifically section 126.96.36.199.2 — "limitations of space and guard personnel will exist in some locations, necessitating opposite-gender monitoring of prisoners, but, where possible and practical, reasonable effort should be made to ensure that prisoner modesty is preserved." But four RCMP officers (and three civilian staff members) at a Kamloops, BC, police station apparently thought it was okay to watch female prisoners having sex in a holding cell on Aug 18.
One shudders to think what came out of these guys' mouths — not to mention where their hands were — as they spied on the inmates via closed-circuit TV. I won't make any assumptions about that. But this recent incident — and the resultant media coverage — has raised many questions about sexuality, privacy, consent and power differentials in a correctional context, especially since it was revealed that one of the women may be HIV-positive. And that they were both being held in the drunk tank for public intoxication.
Various media reports have suggested the sexual encounter may have lasted 30 to 60 minutes. The fact that sex that doesn't involve men can go longer than three minutes is not news. But coverage has focused less on the guards' voyeurism and more on the fact they were "doing nothing to stop" the consensual woman-on-woman interlude.
Guards gathered around a monitor peeping on intimate acts between prisoners "sets an unprofessional and dangerous tone in a detention setting," according to Lovisa Stannow, executive director of the prisoner-advocacy organization Just Detention International (JDI), which focuses on sexual safety for prisoners. "You are clearly taking advantage of your position as a guard, not to mention inappropriately sexualizing the work environment."
This incident reflects "horrible" gender discrimination, says Claudia Medina of Prisoners HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN). "If it were two men engaging in sex, would they be watching the screen so intently?" This reflects how people behind bars are not afforded the same dignity as the rest of us, she says. Medina says this fits a profile of inappropriate behaviour by correctional staff that has been reported to her organization by inmates. "Women do receive sexual harassment from guards within the prison system. We have heard of incidents of rape by guards." Unlike the current Kamloops controversy, she adds, "most of the time that doesn't end up in the newspaper."
What about the fact that one of the women is alleged to have HIV? An anonymous justice official leaked to the Toronto Star that the incident is being evaluated to determine if the supposedly poz woman should be charged with aggravated sexual assault. And RCMP spokesperson Tim Shields told the Canadian Press that since the women were picked up for drunkenness, the notion of consent is called into question.
These issues are a diversion, says Medina of PASAN, noting that no information has been provided about the nature of the sex acts or whether HIV status was discussed. "As we know, the risks of transmission for women-to-women acts are generally low anyway," she adds. Anti-criminalization advocates have repeatedly pointed out that specific activities pose the risk for HIV transmission, rather than whether or not one person's HIV status was disclosed. "It's the responsibility of all people, whether they are negative or positive, to take precautions to protect themselves during consensual sex."
The impact of alcohol would be relevant if we were talking about someone using a substance to facilitate a sexual assault — but that's not the case here. A vast amount of consensual sex — regardless of where it occurs — takes place when one or both persons are under the influence. This can sometimes influence risky behaviour, Medina acknowledges, but we cannot — and should not — assume the worst just because a person may have HIV. She says if correctional authorities genuinely care about HIV transmission, they would focus more attention on the availability of safer sex supplies such as dental dams, lube and condoms, as well as clean needles for tattooing and drug use.
In the US context, most sexual harassment and violence in jails and prisons originates with guards and staff, says JDI's Stannow. The Conservative government's focus on increasing jail populations through mandatory minimum sentences and an ideological "tough on crime" approach are things "any thoughtful Canadian should consider a red flag," she says.
"The Canadian government would make an enormous mistake if it mimicked the way the criminal justice system is run in the United States in terms of the very harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the dramatic overcrowding." This leads to an influx of new prisoners who wouldn't otherwise be there, making them targets for exploitation and abuse by staff and other inmates alike. Queer and transgender prisoners are especially vulnerable, she says.
The RCMP and the City of Kamloops have done the right thing — suspending and criminally investigating the men involved in this incident. Can we hope the visibility of the case might lead to a greater focus on the rights, dignity and sexual safety of prisoners in general?