Stigmatized among the stigmatized: sex offenders in Canadian penitentiaries.

AuthorRicciardelli, Rosemary

Corrections scholars have noted an increase in the number of incarcerated sex offenders (SOs) in Canadian and American prisons since the early 1990s (see Corrections Compendium 2002). In the United States, between 1989 and 1991, a 48% increase in the number of SOs was noted in prisons. Later, in 2002, 12 American corrections systems again reported increases in their SO population. The most recent American statistics available indicate that sex offenders make up 15% of this population between 2006 and 2008 12 American systems experienced an increase in incarcerated SOs, few systems reported a decrease and most reported no change in rates (Corrections Compendium 2008).

In Canada, recent federal statistics, provided in a research report prepared by Axford (2011) for Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), noted that, of the 22,445 offenders under the supervision of CSC on 31 December 2008, 3,154 (14.5%) were SOs and only 22 were women (Axford 2011). Moreover, of these 3,154 SOs, 2,179 were federally incarcerated, comprising 16.9% of the federal incarcerated population (Axford 2011). Despite these numbers, which exclude all provincially incarcerated SOs in Canada, it is clear that, in Canada and the United States, the SO prison population is considerably larger compared to past decades and appears to be growing. In light of these realities, this research investigates the stigma beyond that of being a criminal carried by sex offenders from the perspective of incarcerated prisoners in Canada. Specifically, the dynamics behind the stigma are explored as well how this stigma develops and affects the lived experiences of incarcerated sex offender and others within the institution.

The criminal and sexual deviants

Scholars have noted the range of discrediting attributes that can "shame" or affect social status (Link and Phelan 2001). The status of ex-offender has been described as one of the most stigmatizing statuses in Western societies (Akerstrom 1986; Albrecht, Walker, and Levy 1982; Bontrager, Bales, and Chiricos 2005; Clear, Rose, and Ryder 2001; Edwards 2000; Goffman 1963). Yet, even more stigmatizing is the status of SO--one who victimized women or children--(Lacombe 2008; Levenson and Cotter 2005; Spencer 2009; Tewksbury 2005; Walsh 1990; Winnick 2008; Zevitz and Farcus 2000). Waldram (2007) explains, "[T]hose individuals we routinely label as predators ... [we often consider] as evil" as well (963). Simon (1998) and Melossi (2000), in line with the historical work of Lombroso, noted that, beyond being criminals, SOs were perceived as monsters--neither respected, tolerated, nor accepted in society (Petrunik 2002).

Not surprisingly, the stigmatizing label inflicted on persons convicted of sexual offences is magnified by the intense supervision to which they are subjected post-incarceration (e.g., SO registries and community notification) (La Fond 1998; Levi 2000; Petersilia 2003; Robbers 2009; Sample and Bray 2003; Schmalleger 2002; Spencer 2009; Winick 1998; Winnick and Bodkin 2008). This label also heightens negative perceptions of SOs (beyond those of ex-convicts) among the general population, where they are viewed as inherently evil, perverted predators to be feared (Gavin 2005; Robbers 2009; Soothill and Walby 1991; Spencer 2009; Waldram 2007, 2012; Winnick and Bodkin 2008). Marshall (1996) has argued that it is because SOs are often indistinguishable from other members of society and often function well in daily living that they are so feared. Thus, SOs are rejected by society at large.


A stigma is "a sign of severe censure or condemnation" (OED Online, s.v. "stigma") that, Goffman (1963) argues, attaches to an individual with a trait or attribute viewed as negative as a result of an ideology shaped by stereotypes. In consequence of this "branding," individuals with that attribute are viewed negatively, as inferior, dangerous, or less than human. A stigma leads to the devaluing of someone's social identity based on her or his flaw or "mark" within a social context (Ricciardelli and Clow 2012; Crocker, Major, and Steele 1998; Goffman 1963; Jones, Scott, and Hastorf 1984; Major and O'Brien 2005; Markowitz 2005; Scheff 1966). Often a stigma acquires a master status--one that defines who a person is--and as the stigmatic attribute increases in visibility or becomes more well known, it can alter how that person is perceived by others (Goffman 1963; Markowitz 2005).

This view of stigmatized individuals is reflective of the expectations people have about others' social identities. It is this characterization, based on assumptions, that Goffman (1963: 4) called the "virtual social identity." Such an identity is not grounded in factor reality; rather, it is a set of expected attributes belonging to the social group with which the individual is associated and, by proxy, the individual too. This virtual identity differs from the individual's "actual social identity" which comprises the attributes an individual truly possesses (Goffman 1963: 5).

Relying on Giorgio Agamben and using his terminology, Spencer (2009) accounts for the social positioning of the SO--the origins and cultural justification for the manifestations of the SO stigma--as being politically equivalent to "homo sacer" or the individual of "bare life" (222). The homo sacer is any person that is stripped of his or her human rights and regulated by the holders of "sovereign power" (Spencer 2009: 220). These "leaders" treat him or her (or any SO) in a manner "outside and above the law," violently yet with impunity, and significantly, their actions are viewed as socially acceptable (Spencer 2009: 222). Spencer (2009) posits that any individual with the status of homo sacer is subject to living in a "state of exception" where he or she is abandoned "by the law" and thus left to exist in an unregulated "lawless space" (Spencer 2009: 223; citing Agamben). The political positioning of the homo sacer, or in this case the SO, dictates that although he or she is "physically in the community, [he or she] is constituted as not of the community" (Spencer 2009: 233). The homo sacer is considered "impure" and "dirty" because he or she violates what is considered culturally "sacred"--representative of "divine law or principle," the highest of societally held ideals (Spencer 2009: 222). It is this unforgiveable violation of sacred ideals that justifies the creation of a discrediting virtual identity for SOs, persons who are viewed as preying on the innocent and weak. SOs are deviants within an already stigmatized population (i.e., criminals) and, due to their socially discrediting crimes and devalued political position, are viewed as deserving of harsh punishments and poor treatment. They are criminal deviants, yet are considered deviators from other criminals because their charges breach sacred obligations. SOs are despised and dehumanized while being further stripped of their human rights. Waldram (2007) rightly suggests that, in our current society, Goffman could have been speaking of SOs when he noted that "by definition, of course, we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human" (Goffman 1963: 4).

Indeed, this process of being labelled influences an individual's socially reflexive self-concept and, as Maruna, Lebel, Mitchell, and Naples (2004) argue, limits, in consequence, the rehabilitative potential of prisoners during and post release from prison. In light of the ostracizing and pacifying effects of labelling both within and beyond the prison, the potential relationship between desistance and labelling needs to be acknowledged as well as its hampering effects within penal institutions, where criminal identities and behaviours are affirmed and demonstrated (Maruna et al. 2004).

Stigmatized by professionals and paraprofessionals in corrections

Historically and at present, professionals and other prisoners in the prison environment have negative attitudes toward SOs; specifically, prison officers and police officers have more negative attitudes toward SOs than probation officers, psychologists, and other prisoners (Feild 1978; Higgins and Ireland 2009; Hogue 1993; Melvin, Gramling, and Gardner 1985; Sykes 1958). For example, Weekes, Pelletier, and Beaudette (1995) examined correctional officer attitudes toward SOs in the United States. They found that correctional officers had more negative attitudes toward SOs in comparison to other offenders and that their attitudes toward SOs whose victims were children were more negative than those toward SOs who victimized women. These findings are consistent with Higgins and Ireland (2009) who noted that correctional officers held the most negative attitudes toward SOs in comparison to those held by forensic staff and the general public.

In interviewing professionals and paraprofessionals working with SOs in the United Kingdom, Lea, Auburn, and Kibblewhite (1999) found that although police officers had the worst views of SOs, paraprofessionals and professionals felt that their practices were most affected by such stigmas. This was largely because they "continually have to work around the stereotyping of SOs by both professionals and lay people alike" (Lea et al. 1999: 110). Moreover, Lea et al. (1999) found that their respondents were torn between their personal feelings toward SOs and their professional responsibilities.

Stigmatized by other prisoners" A vulnerable population

SOs hold a dual stigma that transcends their prison experience--their stigma is reinforced among other prisoners. Vaughn and Sapp (1989) note that the "societal rejection of SOs, child molesters, and sex deviants creates both a low social status for such offenders anda negative treatment environment in the prison" (74). Not surprisingly, a status hierarchy exists among SOs, where rapists are slightly higher in status than paedophiles and those who victimize children (Gebhard, Gagnon, Pomeroy, and Christenson 1965; Vaughn...

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