Stigmatized among the Stigmatized: Sex Offenders in Canadian Penitentiaries

Article excerpt

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). …


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