Sexual yearnings are as natural as any other human emotion, and perhaps the most powerful. That is especially true in prison, where even the mere exposure to the opposite sex is rare. Forced to live for years and even decades in a toxic brew of abuse, violence and isolation, we long for the sweetness of a kiss, the intimacy of a caress and the respite of passionate lovemaking.
Most men are like me: I go into my cell, grab a bottle of cocoa butter and a clean washcloth, then gaze at a few pics to help me please myself without offending anyone around me. I’m fortunate to still have lady friends in my life who are understanding and comfortable with their own bodies, sending me racy pics that push at the edges of what the prison allows. Other men stimulate themselves using contraband porn. And then there are those who become like monks, refusing to even look at provocative photos of women, and immersing themselves in exercise or prayer.
But as with all adverse situations, when human health and resiliency are pushed to the limits, some men respond in less healthy ways. I expect that what I describe below won’t be easy or pleasant to read. However, it’s important for a society that perpetuates mass incarceration to confront the inevitable consequences. I share this with you for that purpose.
The sexual tension that permeates the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is so thick you can cut it with a steak knife.
I’m sitting in a USP (high-security penitentiary) day room, watching Good Morning America and reading a little of “Waiting for An Echo” by Christine Montross during each commercial break. I can literally feel the masculine energy shift toward the entrance of the housing unit. I don’t bother to peel my eyes from the book or remove my headphones that I wear to listen to the news on the television, but I still can’t help but notice the other prisoners seated around me begin to stir— standing up, making subtle adjustments to their uniforms, placing their radios and headsets into the seats of their assigned chairs as black, white and brown prisoners walk in the same direction toward the feminine voice of the attractive, middle-aged registered nurse. She’s summoning specific prisoners by their last names and federal numbers to be swab tested for COVID.
Realizing that a female is in the unit that houses 128 men who have been deprived of heterosexual sexual stimulation for years and even decades, I tend to pay extra attention to my surroundings, aware that her mere presence could trigger one or more of my fellow prisoners to expose themselves to this first responder, disrespectfully masturbating in plain sight of every other prisoner. These sexually frustrated prisoners are called “jackers” (short for “dick jackers”) in the BOP.
Jacking off in front of female staff is truly an epidemic in the American prison system, and it transcends race, age and geographic origin. The irony, however, is that these men are not serving sentences for sex offenses such as rape, human trafficking or domestic violence. Their crimes are typically “ordinary”: handgun charges, narcotic distribution and robbery. The large majority of jackers don’t even have life sentences; most will be released in less than five to 10 years.
So, why do they do it?
During my late 1980s stretch in Maryland’s juvenile system, I can’t recall a single young prisoner exhibiting this sort of behavior, despite being sexually active when they went in. This was during the height of the crack epidemic. “Young, dumb and full of cum” kids like myself came into prison after being initiated into the life of a low-level, street-corner hustler who could easily trade $10 worth of crack for sex with a slew of female addicts. Still, none of us chose to flash our penis to a female staff member.
It wasn’t until I was 16 in 1999, when I was charged as an adult and sent to the Upper Marlboro Detention Center, that I encountered adult prisoners dick jacking in front of female staffers who they believed were turned on by these red-light-special performances. These women were mainly working-class African Americans who were undeservingly subjected to this degrading treatment.
You may have seen the big-screen adaption of Robert Harris’ cult classic “Silence of the Lambs.” It has a scene in which the young agent Clarice Starling interviews Hannibal Lector in the psychiatric hospital. Another prisoner calls her over to his cell under the guise that he needs medical attention after slitting his wrists. But when she goes over, she discovers he is masturbating, and he flings a handful of semen at her. Unfortunately, that gross madness really happens, frequently, inside the American penal colony.
Some female officers choose to simply ignore this deviant behavior, acting like they don’t see it. They don’t want the hassle of writing up an incident report, including cataloging and packing up the prisoner’s personal property as he is sent to the hole (solitary confinement). Unfortunately, when a female guard takes that approach, these sexually frustrated prisoners conclude that she must be OK with their disrespectful actions.
Many Blacks in prison today don’t fully understand the sensitive and fragile history of race relations in America (think Emmitt Till, who was lynched after he was accused of merely flirting with a white woman). They weren’t raised with that kind of teaching. Yet they are housed in rural state and federal prisons predominately run by white administrators and guards, and when the jacker prison subculture intersects with racial stereotypes and sexual myths and stigmas, it can be dangerous.
With no other, healthy way to channel their sexual energies, they consume a wide variety of interracial pornographic material. And they believe the fantasies these cookie-cutter misrepresentations sell: that white women are fascinated by the idea of having sex with Black men. They are oblivious to the large degree of nepotism in rural, white-run facilities, where they risk jacking off on a white guard’s wife, sister, aunt or mother. They aren’t familiar with the still prevalent, white segregationist and supremacist view that most Black men are potential rapists and lust after white women, just as most rural white correctional staff view all Black prisoners as liars and untrustworthy.
Neither are they aware of the revolutionary investigative journalism of Ida B. Wells and other individuals of her ilk who risked their careers, lives and freedom to debunk that myth, exposing the fact that hundreds of innocent Black men have been jailed, beaten, castrated and lynched for allegedly raping white women. As the saying goes, “Those who don’t know their history are bound to repeat it.” And indeed, they do. In retaliation for jacking off on white female staff/guards, Black prisoners have been beat, tossed in solitary dressed in nothing but a “Ferguson gown” (a tear-resistant, single-piece garment used to prevent someone from forming a noose to commit suicide) and forced to endure days without being fed.
I stress to Black prisoners with whom I interact that jacking off in front of women is not only disrespectful and dangerous, but also criminal because of the implied threat of rape. I also explain that such sexual misbehavior reinforces false racial stereotypes.
I’ve had prisoners tell me, “Can’t no one tell me what I can and cannot do to please myself or find sexual release under these conditions.” Others try to justify their actions by proclaiming, “Well at least I’m jacking off on a woman and not sleeping with a man.” This thought process is reminiscent of the opportunistic former Black Panther Party minister and self-confessed serial rapist Eldridge Cleaver. He said that a “real” man would rape a woman before indulging in homosexuality.
The idea of using sexual acts as a form of cultural revenge—a sort of pay back for white oppression—is prevalent in a lot of modern hip hop, and has its roots in slavery. (White slave owners raped Black women as a form of control and punishment.) Most of the Black men who spout this perverse philosophy don’t know intelligent, fearless and genuine white activists, like the deceased freedom fighter Marilyn Buck, my editor and human rights activist Pam Bailey, and the progressive collective of white women working at the Free Minds Book Club and Poetry Workshop. These women are our allies, friends and shining examples of the creative contributions women make to the fight for effective and lasting prison reform and—ultimately (fingers crossed)—abolition.
What to do?
The roots of our dysfunction are deep. But the most proximate cause of this particular ill is the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The administrators are a sophisticated and militarized gang of control freaks whose policies almost seem designed to produce a population of illiterate, socially retarded and barely functioning individuals. Without question, the BOP and the elected DC officials who sent us here are responsible for the deviant behavior of men forced to live in such an unhealthy environment for decades or more.
By the way, some prison systems are enlightened in this respect. Esquire magazine reports that prisons that allow conjugal visits have better disciplinary records than those that do not. Yet, reports the magazine, fierce resistance to such programs persists. In this era of mass incarceration, all prison programs that incentivize good behavior—also including furloughs and work release—are out of favor. Why, the thinking goes, should we coddle “criminals”? Today, only four states allow conjugal visits—New York, California, Washington and Connecticut (the last was suspended, however, when COVID hit).
Yes, we prisoners are accountable for our actions. But for many young, immature men warehoused in the BOP, their 24/7 reality (in the words of Bell Hooks) is a “perpetual, protracted adolescence where they spend the day watching television or doing nothing. They are prime targets for depression and addiction.”
I can’t scream this loud enough: Norway (known for its enlightened rehabilitation) is the light we must follow toward prison reform. Let’s work together to make a better future for all of us.