Hybristophilia or “Bonnie & Clyde syndrome” is a paraphilia in which sexual arousal, romantic fulfilment or even orgasm is contingent upon being with a partner known to have committed a criminal offence or some form of moral outrage. We’ve all seen the extreme examples: Moors Murderer Peter Sutcliffe receiving mail from dozens of ardent fans and the bizarre spectacle of Charles Manson’s engagement, while still imprisoned to a woman 53 years his junior (although apparently, her motive was to take possession of his corpse after death and install him in a Lenin style glass mausoleum in California.Which is in its own way terribly disturbing). But the surrealism and cult following which attaches itself to celebrity serial killers, masks something more mundane but no less sinister.
The 2015 escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from Clinton Correctional Facility in New York State draws attention to the risks posed by prison staff engaging in romantic or sexual relationships with prisoners. Drawing comparisons to the Stephen King novella and film Shawshank Redemption, Matt and Sweat tunnelled out of the facility using hacksaw blades and chisels provided by Department of Correction employee Joyce Mitchell. A manhunt of blockbuster proportions followed complete with desperate last stand and gunfight at its conclusion a fortnight later.
While this made for excellent copy for editors everywhere and fuelled the grisly “round the clock” voyeurism with which television usually treats such incidents, what was less widely reported upon was the relationship between Mitchell and her co-conspirators. Mitchell and Matt had been particularly close: in her confession, Mitchell alleged that Matt had planned to murder her husband upon his escape from prison (even going so far as to give her pills to incapacitate him) before she had a change of heart. Mitchell had also planned to be the pairs getaway driver before a last-minute U-turn. What prompted her to give risk everything, including a $57,000 per annum salary for a man she hardly knew?
Professor John Money, an American sexologist coined the term for this type of dysfunctional relationship. He defined hybristophilia as deriving sexual arousal and pleasure from having sexual partners who, “…have committed an outrage or crime, such as rape, murder – multiple murders - or armed robbery.” Dr. Money noted that archetypal “tough guys” whose vulnerabilities surface in prison became increasingly attractive. Attraction in these cases increases in direct proportion to the heinousness of the crime. While hybristophilia does occur between male officers and both male and female prisoners, it is quite rare. The vast majority of recorded cases involve female staff and male inmates.
Multiple factors contribute to hybristophilia, though for inmates, it is often primarily born of utility. For example, using emotional manipulation or blackmail to gain staff involvement in smuggling, to curry favour, or in extreme cases like Clinton Correctional incident, escape. While it’s certainly not impossible for relationships to be the result of mutual affection, in most recorded cases this is a by-product rather than the driving motivation.
Prison staff are also at the risk of coercion either to enter or relationship or as the result of one. Inmates can easily exploit simple mistakes made by officers: letting the guard drop just once can be all it takes. To illustrate what I mean, here’s a hypothetical scenario, temptation to flirt spins into an unexpected kiss, that kiss can then be photographed on an illegal mobile and used to coerce or blackmail the staff member.
This may sound as though it’s come straight from a lurid tabloid scandal piece, but I witnessed one case remarkably like this in a high-security prison and I heard about many more. A particularly nasty incident I heard through the Thameside prison grapevine, involved a female prison officer being covertly filmed performing oral sex on an inmate. The film was then used to blackmail the officer in question into bringing contraband into the prison. For her, the choice was simple, comply or risk losing her job and possibly her liberty. Inappropriate conduct with an inmate often comes with a custodial sentence, like prison officer Hannah Stewart, jailed for 12 months in 2014 after her sexual relationship with an inmate was discovered or Dawn Sheard slapped with a 10-month sentence in 2016 for sleeping with a prisoner while on duty.
Research into prison hybristophilia, by Dr. Michael Alexander at the Colorado Technical University – CTU, found that staff members caught up in these affairs typically suffered an unfavourable upbringing or home life coupled with low self-esteem. These psychological factors lead them to feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and instability. They frequently seek nurturing relationships with inappropriate partners and engage in rescue fantasies to seek relief from their feelings. In a prison setting, the employee knows exactly where her partner is, and almost certainly, what he is doing. As a result, the prison environment helps to stabilise these psychological issues for the women.
The inmate has little to lose in these relationships and often appears more caring or loving than he really is. Inmates in prison conditions do not typically have to worry about paying a mortgage, keeping a job or looking after a half dozen screaming kids. It creates an atypical environment, which downplays issues like rage, abuse or violent tendencies. Women, who are engaged in a rescue fantasy of sorts, tend to see the inmate as misunderstood. The juxtaposition of horrific crimes and what may and the apparently calm and charming being before them can lead these women to view him as wrongly accused, as a victim of circumstance, or even reformed. If the prisoner had truly reformed, would they enter these types of relationships? Staff members, on the other hand, have everything to lose. They can lose their job, home and family and potentially if prosecuted, their freedom.
Dr. Alexander’s research also divides Hybristophilia into two common forms, passive and aggressive. Passives are characterised by them believe that they can reform the prisoner. They do not engage in criminal activities such as helping with escape plans or doctoring evidence. Aggressives are quite willing to go along with committing crimes: they can facilitate escapes and even murder in extreme cases. As well as more mundane offences such as smuggling contraband and drugs trafficking.
How big is the problem?
In the UK, it can seem that the only media coverage the issue gets alternates between the thundering moral outrage of certain right wing tabloids and the lurid “kiss and tell” pieces found in other outlets, with little room for the nuance in between. Even these only tend to surface when an officer appears in court charged with the offence. Prosecutions, however, are infrequent. Both the media and the MoJ (perhaps wilfully on the part of the MoJ) underreport the issue.
Despite this, there have been some attempts to gauge the extent of the problem. Most notably The Telegraph, thanks to Conservative MP Philip Davies, reported in 2012 what appears to be the MoJ’s best guess at the number of these illicit liaisons occurring in HMPs. Their numbers show that, between January 2008 and October 2010, only 126 prison workers had such relations in England and Wales. Mr. Davies cautioned, “There are very serious implications for security in prisons." The 33-month investigation highlighted, among other violations, staff that sent inappropriately explicit texts and letters to inmates and the trafficking of contraband into the prison. Staff also had sex inside the prison walls, or met up with the inmates outside work, on town visits, home leaves, or while the prisoners were theoretically at work as part of a prison’s Working Out Scheme. Only a fraction of the 126 cases resulted in prosecutions.
More recent still, a 2016 freedom of information request revealed that in the period 2010-2016 30 officers were sacked and disciplined after striking up “inappropriate relationships” with prisoners. A further 60 guards had sexual and inappropriate relationships with inmates at 36 prisons across the country in the same period. Of these 60, 40 officers were sacked upon discovery of their relationship, 10 received written warnings and the final 10 received other unspecified disciplinary action.
Yet these figures just weren’t borne out by my experience. I served fifteen months, in that time I witnessed staff and prisoners engaged in this type of relationship three times between the two prisons in a little over a year. I also heard about another five cases. The MoJ’s figures which amount to around 1 liaison a week are some way short of the reality I experienced.
What can be done?
Dr. Michael E Alexander, in his study, Romantic Relationships with Inmates, found that of the staff and prisoners he interviewed, the law rarely functioned as an effective deterrent. Even the very real possibility of a prison sentence doesn’t dissuade either party from engaging in these relationships. So, what can be done to prevent these relationships from forming in all but the rarest of conditions?
Fortunately, most of the factors that lead to workplace hybristophilia raise red flags during a full psychological screening in the recruitment and training process. However, in my opinion, these simply don't go far enough: more robust and in-depth psychological assessments and examinations are needed to counter the problem.
A longer and more intensive training period would also help to identify these issues. As trainers get to know their recruits, they will have better insight into the individual’s psychological state, strengths and weakness. Training should also include mandatory sessions on exactly how to deal with attempts of coercion and emotional manipulation from inmates.
However, the UK only dedicates eight weeks to training officers. In contrast, German prison officers receive two years training. There’s a cautionary tale for UK prison administrators in Matt and Sweat’s New York escape: the search for the fugitives stretched to a 1,000-strong search party at an estimated cost of $1m per day. Adequately screening for the markers which marked Joyce Mitchell out as being at risk of manipulation would have cost substantially less.
To give a more mundane example, each time a prison employee is sacked or resigns due to allegations of this nature, the prison service loses valuable experience and another resource it has paid to train, it’s simply not cost-effective. Not to mention how this affects the employees involved on a personal level. All for the sake of expediting training.
A further safeguard against the manipulation of employees by their charges is to better screen the kind of people who become prison guards. To put it bluntly many of the prison guards I experienced should not have been prison guards. Whether due to their youth and inexperience (many of the guards who my care was entrusted to were in their early twenties), lack of skills or issues with low self-esteem: many of them were simply ill-equipped to deal with the realities of prison.
To use a typical example, what chance does a 20-year-old former fast food worker, with little in the way of qualifications or experience and the low self-esteem that comes with being thrown into the lions’ den unprepared (I met a great many in prison), have against wily and manipulative career criminals? Men, who in many cases, have made a living from intimidation, manipulation, and lies? The answer is axiomatic.
Admittedly HM Prison Service is hardly inundated with prospective prison officers, the realities of the job and low pay see to that, but even if it isn’t possible to make a more careful assessment of the people they employ, more could be done to help them. Those officers who bear the hallmarks of being particularly vulnerable (young, female or with self-esteem issues) should be monitored more closely and given extra training if it’s needed.
Dr. Alexander’s research into the subject highlights the need for good leadership within the prison to dissuade staff from getting involved with potentially manipulative inmates. A governor who frequently talks to and checks in with staff is much more likely to dissuade vulnerable officers from crossing the line. Unfortunately, many officers and staff admit to not seeing their governor more than once or twice a year.
Dr. Alexander also found a need for more, and better, support for staff and family members. Family days and workshops help lessen the divided between what happens in the prison and what is known about work in the home. This helps to prevent staff from thinking they have one life inside the walls and another outside.
Finally, there is the possibility of implementing a rotation system, whereby officers are limited to how long they spend overseeing any one group of inmates. This would go some way to stopping any nefarious or inappropriate connections forming in the first place. Though admittedly this brings with it issues around the loss of familiarity with particular inmate’s situations and how to deal with them. As well the rapport built from overseeing one group for any length of time. Both of which can be crucial to the smooth running of a prison wing.
While all these suggestions are already used to some extent by the prison service, as with anything prison related it comes down to a battle between theory and application. Most prisons theoretically have adequate policies in place regarding the co-mingling of staff and offenders. Where things falter, is that while these policies exist, they’re rarely enforced with anything like the vigour need to effectively counter the problem.
The most serious cases result in the firing and/or prosecution of the employee, yet this is incredibly rare, 40 in six years tells a story in itself. In the three cases I happened upon, not one of the employees was disciplined or fired. Two quietly resigned and the other received a lateral transfer. These are only the gravest cases, which rather raises the questions, how common is it, and what happens to those cases which don’t make it to the disciplinary stage?
While the MoJ’s willingness to provide figures shows that the issue is at least on the radar of policy makers, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that much of it goes unreported and unchecked. If this is the case, then the prison service risks not only embarrassing itself when an incident akin to the infamous Matt & Sweat case inevitable happens as a result, but it’s also putting the welfare of its staff and the general public at risk. What’s clear, is that something more than cursory figures or the odd media investigation is needed to get to the heart of what has the potential to pile yet more misery on British prisons.
Written by Rob Stafford and Kreg Mills
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