Unpacking Harm: Correctional Officer Framing of Sex Offenders and Protective Custody

Date01 December 2020
Published date01 December 2020
The Howard Journal Vol59 No 4. December 2020 DOI: 10.1111/hojo.12385
ISSN 2059-1098, pp. 465–483
Unpacking Harm: Correctional
Officer Framing of Sex Offenders and
Protective Custody
Professor, Department of Sociology, Memorial University of Newfoundland,
Abstract: The experiences of persons convicted or charged with sex-related offences are
informed by trends in how the sex offender population in society is defined and understood.
I draw on data from in-depth semi-structured interviews with 100 Canadian provincial
correctional officers to explore the harms tied to the framing of sex offenders in prison,
including those embedded in institutional structures. I conceptualise how correctional
officers understand sex offenders and how the structures in place to ‘protect’ those labelled
as sex offenders are, unintentionally, harmful in their own right. I argue that officers
rely on evolving strategies of risk mitigation that they must understand, develop, and
learn in the prison context. Emphasis is placed on possible policy or needs that may assist
in recognising how ‘protective custody’ may simply be lip service to further stigmatise an
already marginalised population.
Keywords: correctional officers (COs); framing; integration; protective cus-
tody; sex offenders (SOs); stigma
In society, persons accused or convicted of sex-related offences are scru-
tinised; they bear a stigmatising label and live under the intense surveil-
lance of the institutional and community correctional systems (for exam-
ple, protective custody, sex offender registries, and long-term statutory of-
fender status) and citizens that monitor their movements in society (for ex-
ample, community notifications and social media posting) (LaFond 1998;
Levi 2000; Petersilia 2003; Robbers 2009; Sample and Bray 2003; Schmal-
leger 2002; Spencer 2009; Winick 1998; Winnick and Bodkin 2008). In the
current article, the term ‘sex offender’ refers to any person who ‘offends’
citizens’ morals, values, and ethics because of their actual or believed be-
haviours and/or sexual persuasions and affinities (Ricciardelli and Spencer
2017; Spencer and Ricciardelli 2020). People convicted of sex-related of-
fences are feared, labelled, and hated (Ricciardelli and Moir 2013; Ric-
ciardelli and Spencer 2017). As assumed ‘sexual perpetrators’, they are
viewed as inherently evil; feared because they are believed to have the
2020 The Howard League and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK
The Howard Journal Vol59 No 4. December 2020
ISSN 2059-1098, pp. 465–483
criminal propensity to sexually ‘prey’ on non-consenting persons and
are indistinguishable from non-sex offenders (Dorward and Kolton 1996;
Gavin 2005; Robbers 2009; Soothill and Walby 1991; Spencer 2009; Wal-
dram 2007; Winnick and Bodkin 2008). The sex offender (SO) label is
nearly synonymous with the sexual victimisation of children. In conse-
quence, the offences committed by people who are counted as SOs and in-
carcerated in Canada are much more versatile than the sex offences too of-
ten depicted or implied (that is, paedophilia) in society and social discourse.
In addition, many prisoners are convicted of sexual offences, either as
an index crime or as part of their other convictions yet, despite the grow-
ing numbers, incarcerated SOs remain an understudied population. Across
Canadian prison systems, nearly all prison facilities classified as higher se-
curity (maximum or high medium) offer protective custody to house ‘in-
compatible’ prisoners such as SOs. These units serve to segregate prisoners
who are incompatible with the ‘general prisoner population’ for a variety of
reasons, including their offence, accumulated debt, or transgressions of the
informal norms that govern prison living, in order to maintain the safety of
the institution, prisoners, and staff (Ricciardelli 2014a, 2014b, 2019). Cor-
rectional officers (COs), although occupationally obligated to provide care
and control for those in their custody – including SOs; operationalised in
the current study as incarcerated persons charged, assumed, or convicted
of sex-related offences – are socialised in a society that rejects and fears
those who bear the SO label. How the subpopulation is understood by those
responsible for their safety in custody is even less studied, although re-
searchers have found that COs, compared with all other correctional staff,
view SOs most negatively (Weekes, Pelletier and Beaudette 1995). Recog-
nising this knowledge gap, and the potential impact of COs’ interpretation
of SOs on SOs’ experiences of incarceration, I unpack who in Canadian
provincial prisons constitutes the incarcerated SO population, before the-
orising understandings of the harms imposed on SOs, including those tied
to how they are ‘framed’ by COs and by the spaces they must navigate (for
example, protective custody). I show that who constitutes a SO is unclear
in Canada, and that the concept of protective custody or a non-integrated
prison further ensures that SOs are framed as unworthy and lesser beings.
More explicitly, I arguethat general population and oppositions to integra-
tion (or inclusion) serve the latent function of ensuring that a SO remains
in a position of inferiority with the potentiality to be harmed, bearing both
stigma and shame.
Defining a Sex Offender
Few labels in society receive the same reaction as that of SO (Ricciardelli and
Spencer 2017). Some SOs may have a diagnosed paraphilia, which does
not itself justify or require psychiatric treatment, or a paraphilic disorder,
which does require treatment (American Psychiatric Association 2013). To
be a SO, the person with paraphilic disorder must act on their sexual urges
in a legally prohibited way ‘as defined by psychiatry and/or the law’ (Cor-
rectional Service Canada 2008). The Correctional Service Canada (CSC)
2020 The Howard League and John Wiley & Sons Ltd

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