Sexual Harassment by Inmates Against Nurses

A nursing colleague recently asked for advice about how to address the problem of inmates masturbating and making verbal threats during nursing encounters. It is a problem nearly all correctional nurses will face at some point in their career. This post is written to ask nurses how they have dealt with inmates who expose themselves or masturbate in front of the nurse while administering medication, evaluating a health care complaint or responding to a man down call.

While nurses put up with some anti-social behavior in almost any setting, nurses really can be challenged with the pervasiveness of this in a correctional setting. Some nurses will confront the behavior, others will ignore it, and some dish it right back all in an effort of controlling the offensive behavior and getting nursing care delivered. However unchecked exhibitionism is a form of violence towards others that is not acceptable even in a correctional facility. In 2006, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court’s ruling under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act finding for the employee and noted that prison officials in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation may “not ignore sexually hostile conduct and must take corrective action to safeguard the rights of victims, whether they be guards or inmates”. Similar litigation has been successful in Florida.

Nurses should not attempt to confront the problem alone and have good cause to look to their immediate employer as well as prison officials to address the problem of sexually hostile conduct. Another colleague, who is a corrections expert, recommends addressing the problem in an integrated way that includes making expectations for behavior explicit, delineating graduated consequences that include criminal charges and involvement of the local prosecutor. Here is a list of items which if in place at a correctional facility provide the means to address sexual misconduct:

  • There is an inmate handbook including written rules of conduct for inmates that specifically addresses the issue of exhibitionist masturbation and other forms of sexual misconduct.
  • The handbook also delineates the inmate disciplinary process- what specific offenses bring what penalties – including a description of the inmate disciplinary process.
  • The handbook is available in the languages of those who are incarcerated and written at a 5th grade level for those with low literacy skills.
  • Inmates are provided an orientation at intake – that is documented (video or in person) and goes over the rules, including the rules regarding exposure, masturbation and other forms of sexual misconduct.
  • This information is repeated by the housing unit officer, posted on the housing unit or televised in the living areas.
  • There are facility policies and procedures for staff that describe:
    • inmate housing unit management
    • inmate rules of conduct (including exhibitionism, masturbation in public and other forms of sexual misconduct)
    • how rules of conduct will be enforced and
    • the inmate disciplinary process.

          Also there is evidence that staff training about the facility policies and procedures has taken place     and repeated as necessary.

  • There are provisions for management of inmates with mental illness, or suspected of mental illness, related to in-custody behaviors and related discipline, and treatment.
  • There is documentation that inmates who engage in prohibited behavior receive disciplinary notices, participate in a disciplinary process, and if found guilty serve disciplinary sanctions. These sanctions may include but are not limited to disciplinary segregation.
  • For offenses such as exhibitionist masturbation one effective strategy to develop behavior contracts. For example, if the inmate serves X days of disciplinary sanctions without incident they get X days off their sentence.
  • There is a record of disciplinary notices, hearings, sanctions, etc. for these specific offenses.
  • There is a process by which staff notify their supervisors and/or the leadership regarding offensive inmate behavior.
  • The facility has programming and other services that can be withheld from inmates who violate policies/procedures and found guilty of disciplinary infractions.
  • Inmates who engage in this behavior repeatedly are charged via law enforcement and referred for prosecution. At one facility a prosecutor actually speaks to the inmates about how if they engage in this behavior and are administratively and/or criminally charged – how it effects their sentencing at trial, parole consideration, and conditions of release. Most inmates don’t think about the longer term consequences on their own so it helps to point it out.
  • Finally the agency should be aggressive in referring for prosecution – if the prosecutor declines- then the facility should focus on ways to convince the prosecutor to change their position.

Are these measures in place at the correctional facility you work at? You might want to review the inmate handbook at your facility and see if there are explicit guidelines about sexually hostile behavior and the consequences. Have you had experience addressing the problem of inmate masturbation during delivery of health care? If so, what was successful? Please share your experience by responding in the comments section of this post.

Read more about correctional nursing in our book the Essentials of Correctional Nursing. Order a copy directly from the publisher or from Amazon today!

Photo credit: © Maridav – Fotolia.com

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