Self-Esteem, Gender, and Sexuality: How the Alabama Department of Corrections Limits Individuality and Privacy of Inmates

By: David Ware

Section I: Introduction
The Alabama Department of Corrections states that one of its main goals is to promote esteem building amongst the inmates in its custody.[1] Becoming incarcerated already comes with anxiety and hardship, so it would make sense for our prison system to promote the self-esteem of inmates. There are certain variables that are essential to building and maintaining a high self-esteem, which include privacy and individuality. However, when looking at the mandates, rules, and regulations imposed on prisoners, it is impossible for an inmate to fully enjoy privacy and individuality. Through constant searches and seizures, overcrowding, and lack of personal space, privacy is utterly impossible.[2] Additionally, through the use of regulations surrounding hair and clothing, the Department of Corrections inhibits the self-expression of its inmates, thereby limiting their outward expression of individuality.[3] While these rules and regulations surrounding privacy and individuality impact all prisoners, inmates who are not cisgender and/or heterosexual are hit even harder. For queer individuals, outward expression is paramount to becoming their truest selves.[4] Strict rules surrounding clothing and hair significantly impact the self-expression of queer inmates, and thus high self-esteem is difficult to achieve and maintain. Although the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) proposes that one of its main goals is esteem building, its strict rules surrounding individuality and privacy make attaining a high self-esteem virtually impossible for inmates, especially those who are queer.

Section II: Privacy and Individuality Are a Function of Self-Esteem
Expressing one’s self and having personal privacy are key factors in maintaining and building esteem. However, self-expression and privacy are not rights that are granted to inmates throughout our prison system. Upon receiving an inmate, the ADOC sacrifices both the physical and psychological privacy of those in its custody.[5] Inmates are photographed, fingerprinted, and given full physical and dental examinations.[6] Once the physical examination is complete, inmates are expected to provide any and all information pertaining to, but not limited to, “criminal history, any prior drug or alcohol abuse, education, prior employment, any prior abuse history, specific needs you may have, and other areas.”[7] At this point any and all personal information, and the physique of an inmate, is on full display to prison staff. There is no presence of mental or bodily autonomy, as now all of the staff is aware of each inmate’s entire physical and mental self.

Once in the prison, the privacy of inmates continues to be sacrificed in all facets of prison life. Inmates are put in confined quarters with other inmates.[8] There are regular searches and seizures of property.[9] No bathroom or shower privacy is awarded to most prisoners.[10] In the event that an inmate is sexually assaulted, prison staff, in addition to medical staff, must be informed.[11] All phone calls and mail can be monitored and recorded.[12] If an inmate is in need of medical attention, prison guards must be informed of the issue, in addition to the actual physician.[13] Essentially, during reception of an inmate, and throughout an inmate’s time at a prison, there is no sense of personal privacy.

When looking at self-expression, the ADOC has strict rules surrounding the presentation and appearance of prisoners. Inmates must keep their hair clean and neatly trimmed.[14] “[Female] hairstyles disproportionately longer in one area than the other (excluding bangs and natural baldness), weaves, dreadlocks, Mohawks, and shaved heads are prohibited as are lines, designs, patterns, or symbols shaved, shaped, or woven into the hair.”[15] For male inmates “barbers are instructed in regard to proper haircuts and are not permitted to give special haircuts,” meaning that hair must be off the neck and ears.[16] For clothes, inmates are given state-issued prison uniforms, and are forbidden from altering them in any way.[17] The only form of identification on these uniforms is the inmate’s ID number, not their name.[18] Additionally, if an inmate chooses to alter their appearance “significantly,” they will be required to purchase a new prison ID at their own expense.[19]

So, how do these violations of privacy and individuality impact self-esteem? When looking at privacy, inmates’ entire lives, both physical and mental, are put on full display. Prison staff and other inmates are able to have an intimate view into an individual’s life, which would otherwise not be present. This results in a sense of exposure, humiliating and objectifying the inmate. Additionally, when looking at the lack of individuality present, inmates are forced to conform to the standards that the ADOC deems acceptable. Inmates are not able to outwardly express how they see themselves, resulting in a lack of personal identity, and therefore, a lack of confidence in oneself. Additionally, inmates are identified by an ID number rather than their name, again resulting in a lack of personal identity.

Section III: The Impacts on Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation
For queer inmates, the impacts of the loss of privacy and individuality are even greater. Inmates who identify with a different gender than the one assigned to them at birth are forced to live with, shower with, and change with inmates who identity with the gender they were assigned at birth.[20] The only way for an inmate who is not cisgender to be given any accommodations is to go through a formal diagnosis process to “prove” that inmate has “gender dysphoria.”[21] This process is long and extensive, involving psychiatrists, physicians, the Medical Director, the Mental Health Administrator, and a plethora of other staff.[22] Then the inmate’s diagnosis must be presented to the “Gender Dysphoria Committee” for approval and treatment.[23] If an inmate wishes to have accommodations for their gender identity, they must go through a long and invasive process, completely stripping them of their privacy. Additionally, it is important to point out that the little accommodation that the ADOC provides to non-cisgender inmates is along a strict gender binary: “male” or “female.” The ADOC’s formal definition for gender dysphoria is “the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one’s biological sex.”[24] The presence of this gender binary limits the ability of inmates that identify with a gender other than “male” or “female” (i.e., “non-binary” identities), meaning that, even if an inmate goes through the formal process of being diagnosed with gender dysphoria, there are no accommodations if they do not fall into the gender binary.

This binary carries over into the self-expression of inmates, as the regulations surrounding the appearance of inmates only allow outward expression of the definition of “male” and “female” prescribed by the ADOC. If inmates have not gone through the formal process to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, or if they identify as non-binary, they are forced to maintain an appearance that may be inconsistent with how they view themselves. This results in non-cisgender inmates facing a loss of individuality, self-perception, and self-actualization.

The impacts of lack of individuality also carry over to non-heterosexual inmates. Similar to non-cisgender inmates, self-expression is essential to non-heterosexual individuals. In many instances, non-heterosexual individuals grow up surrounded by heteronormativity: the proposal that the default sexuality is heterosexual, and that individuals should conform to those expectations. A key part of the self-actualization (“coming out of the closet”) of non-heterosexual individuals is self-expression.[25] When living in a heteronormative environment, individuals are expected to conform to societal standards, including personal appearance, even if those standards are not in alignment with how an individual wishes to present their self. This is why the strict regulation of appearance by the ADOC significantly impacts non-heterosexual inmates. It forces them to conform to an appearance that the ADOC deems appropriate, which is not necessarily how they wish to present themselves. This prevents non-heterosexual inmates from outwardly expressing their truest selves, resulting in a lack of individuality, personal identity, and self-actualization.

Section IV: Summation
The ADOC has strict rules and regulations in place that significantly impact inmate privacy and self-expression. From the moment that prisoners arrive at a prison, they are screened and searched, given medical and dental exams, and asked personal questions about their past.[26] When in prison, inmates lack personal space throughout the prison, from their cells to showers, and are additionally subjected to constant searches and seizures of personal property.[27] Inmates are also subjected to strict rules and regulations surrounding their appearance, resulting in a lack of individuality.[28] The stripping of privacy and individuality is an oppressive force that leaves inmates vulnerable and stripped of personal identity. When looking at queer inmates (both non-cisgender and non-heterosexual), this oppressive force does even more damage. Transgender inmates are forced to fully disclose all information pertaining to their gender identity and to go through a formal diagnosis process if they wish to have any accommodations.[29] Additionally, the limitations on self-expression ensure that queer inmates are unable to outwardly express how they view themselves, resulting in a lack of self-actualization, individuality, and confidence. Through both the formal gender dysphoria diagnosis process and regulations surrounding self-expression, the ADOC implements a strict gender binary that requires prisoners to conform to their definition of “male” and “female” that the ADOC deems acceptable. This leaves no room for the self-actualization of inmates who do not fit within this gender binary.

In order for the Alabama Department of Corrections to truly promote esteem building, both privacy and individuality must also become a priority of the ADOC. This would both support the overall prison population, and especially help with gender and sexuality affirmation.

[1] Alabama Department of Corrections, Male Inmate Handbook (2017).; Alabama Department of Corrections, Female Inmate Handbook (2017).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] David J. Hutson, Standing out/fitting in: Identity, Appearance, and Authenticity in Gay and Lesbian Communities, 33 Symbolic Interaction, 213, (2010).

[5] Alabama Department of Corrections, supra note 1, at 1.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.; Alabama Department of Corrections, Admin. Regul. 454, Inmate Sexual Abuse and Harassment (2016).

[14] Alabama Department of Corrections, supra note 1, at 1.

[15] Alabama Department of Corrections, Female Inmate Handbook (2017).

[16] Alabama Department of Corrections, Male Inmate Handbook (2017).

[17] Alabama Department of Corrections, supra note 1, at 1.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Alabama Department of Corrections, supra note 1, at 1.; Alabama Department of Corrections, Admin. Regul. 637, Gender Dysphoria (2018).

[21] Alabama Department of Corrections, Admin. Regul. 637, Gender Dysphoria (2018).; Alabama Department of Corrections, Admin. Regul. 454, Inmate Sexual Abuse and Harassment (2016).; Prison Rape Elimination Act, S. 1435, 108th Cong. (2003).

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Alabama Department of Corrections, Admin. Regul. 637, Gender Dysphoria (2018).

[25] Hutson, supra note 4, at 1.

[26] Alabama Department of Corrections, supra note 1, at 1.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Alabama Department of Corrections, Admin. Regul. 637, Gender Dysphoria (2018).; Alabama Department of Corrections, Admin. Regul. 454, Inmate Sexual Abuse and Harassment (2016).; Prison Rape Elimination Act, S. 1435, 108th Cong. (2003).