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Is Porn in Prison a Human Right?

Sexuality in prison is a controversial topic, with many governments refusing to offer prisoners the "privilege" to watch racy content. Quebec is the latest.

by Brigitte Noël
Oct 21 2015, 4:20pm

Image via Flickr Creative Commons

Last month, Quebec Minister of Public Security Lise Thériault vowed to crack down on inmates' access to "erotic" films by putting parental controls on prison cable TV. The ban was in response to reports that some inmates at Quebec's Amos detention center were watching late-night skin flicks.

The idea that incarcerated men (or women) would be allowed to enjoy a bit of t&a is apparently considered unacceptable by the Quebec government.

"I was horrified to learn this existed," a pearl-clutching Theriault told reporters.

Sexuality in prison is a controversial topic, and the rare studies that explore the subject focus mostly on the impact of conjugal visits or on the same-sex relationships that develop behind bars. The general consensus, though, is that helping inmates relieve sexual tensions can actually lead to a reduction in violence and prison rape. Still, many governments around the world have refused to offer prisoners the "privilege" to watch racy content.

French judge Nina Califano, author of "Sexualité, Incarcérée" (Sexuality, Imprisoned), has written one of the most thorough analyses of the topic and tells VICE News this approach is misguided.

"Sexuality is a basic need that doesn't go away when you are incarcerated," she says. "Prison can be incredibly frustrating: you can't open doors by yourself, you can't see your loved ones. And so the consequences of the absence of sexuality are considerable."

Related: President Obama Heads to Prison in Pursuit of Criminal Justice Reform

Califano argues that allowing inmates to cater to their basic sexual needs — through erotic visual stimulation and masturbation — does more than calm inmates who are behind bars; it is also an important part of ensuring the men and women can later be reintegrated into society. She says inmates that leave prison have support to find work and housing, but that little is done to rehabilitate them on the social front.

"The lack of emotional and sexual relationships [available in prison] is really debilitating when it comes to reinsertion," she explains. "It's like a ticking time bomb, if we pretend this doesn't exist." She adds that while pornographic support is not a panacea, "it's one of the only possible levers that allows a sort of sexuality to be expressed in prison."

Last winter, Quebec inmate Haris Naraine fought back against his prison's decision to cancel two television channels that presented sexually explicit content. His judgement outlines how the Commissioner of Correctional Service Canada (CSC) banned the sexy programming "to maintain a safe and healthful environment."

"It was found that sexually explicit material undermined a person's sense of personal dignity, and in the circumstances under consideration, particularly that of female correctional officers," state the records.

Naraine took his case to federal court, arguing he had been paying for this content and invoking his constitutional right to freedom of expression. The judge sided with the inmate, ruling that the ban could in fact be considered an infringement of Naraine's Charter rights, which could warrant judicial review.

His lawyer Todd Sloan said that from a human rights perspective, prisoners should be able to watch the same programming as the rest of society. "People go to prison as punishment, not for punishment," he says. "They carry the rights they have outside, inside, unless they are necessarily curtailed."

Sloan says the CSC's decision to nix the porn was unjustified. "They were saying that access to this would foreseeably lead to harassment and an atmosphere of hostility within the prison system, but they didn't connect the dots between that and any real evidentiary rationale," he says. "They didn't show examples, they just said 'this exists and this is what we think it will cause'."

Related: No One Seems to Care About Prison Reform in Canada

When asked what research had influenced Theriault's move, her spokesperson Émilie Simard told VICE News the decision was "administrative."

"Some people argue that sex offenders would be able to access [porn] and that this would make them deteriorate," Sloan says. "But as a person who has been around prisons for 30 years, it seems to me this type of outlet is something that will contribute to a more peaceful environment."

Sloan says politicians who opt for Theriault's approach are looking to "soothe the public perception."

Califano says that for elected officials, digging into — or even acknowledging — the topic of sex in prison is considered a political gamble. "The quality of life of inmates isn't something that does well in surveys," she says. "People have a worrisome opinion of what prison should be like, they don't want them to be like hotels."

She says it's time medical and psychiatric professionals speak up. "If you ask experts about the importance of sexuality, whether in prison or not, they'll tell you it's imperative," she explains.

Sloan thinks establishing basic guidelines would be a good start. "They should sit down and find a way that viewing these types of things can be regulated," he says. "I don't mean sanctioned or forbidden, but procedures should be put in place. I don't think it's that complicated, there is safe viewing." 

Follow Brigitte Noël on Twitter: @Brige_Noel

Image via Flickr user miss_millions