Masturbation? Not In Our Prisons

State prison bans on porn and masturbation blur lines on all prisoners’ rights.

Illustration by Justin Riveira

By Katrina Tulloch

Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in the 1974 Procunier v. Martinez case:

“When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded.”

Word. Nor does he stop thinking about tits.

Earlier this year, Dave Johns of Slate Magazine wrote about the right to masturbate in prison. The piece zoomed in on male inmates who received punishment, extended sentences, or lost privileges for “unloading their guns.”

Look, masturbation’s gonna happen. Banning it is not only inhumane, but absurd to enforce. It only becomes a matter of whether the guy gets caught or not. If someone jerking off upsets the guards enough to file a complaint, they might be in the wrong line of work.

Last summer, Connecticut went a step further by banning porn from correctional facilities for two reasons: first, state employees should not be forced to view porn while they’re working; second, porn makes the environment hostile for female prison workers. But we can’t blame porn. Sexual arousal does not instantly equal sexual violence. Banning sexually-charged objects won’t eliminate sexual harassment in prisons. Let them have their Sasha Greys and Jenna Jamesons, and cure their blue balls simultaneously.

Bans on porn and masturbation are rooted in a deeper problem: the vacuum of prisoners’ rights. People argue that we defeat the purpose of the federal justice system by allowing prisoners to indulge in life’s simple pleasures.

But such an entrenched attitude leads to a flaccid stance on all prisoners’ constitutional rights. A good place to draw the line is the 2011 Brown v. Plata case, when prison overcrowding resulted in brutally unconstitutional medical and mental health care.

First Amendment scholar David Hudson wrote that prisons were “constitutional black holes” that constantly deprives the inmate’s rights.

It’s no small matter. Last May, Hudson wrote for the First Amendment Center that prisoners file astronomical numbers of litigation claiming violations of their constitutional rights—more than 20 percent of the federal court docket. Not every prisoner complaint will be motivated by a sincere desire for justice, but everyone deserves a chance to be heard.

But, hey, if prisoners were allowed to freely whittle their shanks, they wouldn’t be as interested in actually whittling their shanks.

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