COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina's prisons director on Tuesday defended a policy of punishing inmates who perform sex acts by dressing them in pink, despite a lawsuit claiming the rule subjects prisoners to ridicule.
State Corrections Department John Ozmint said the two-year-old punishment deters inmates and protects female officers. His agency has asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit.
"We don't believe the United States Constitution protects an inmate's right to publicly gratify himself," Ozmint said. "We're hopeful federal courts won't look into our Constitution and create such a right."
Inmate Sherone Nealous, 31, filed the lawsuit in June 2006, claiming the Corrections Department "is placing inmates' lives and physical well-being in danger."
"The color 'pink' in an all male environment no doubt causes derision and verbal and physical attacks on a person's manhood. This policy also gives correctional officers an easy avenue to label an inmate," Nealous, who is serving a 10-year sentence for assault and battery with intent to kill, wrote in his lawsuit.
Nealous has never actually donned the pink jumpsuit, according to agency spokesman Josh Gelinas. Nealous is currently separated from the general population, Gelinas said.
Last week, attorneys for the prisons agency asked that the lawsuit be thrown out. A judge has not yet ruled on the request, and jury selection has been scheduled for this fall.
The policy allows prison officials to discipline inmates found performing sex acts in front of corrections officers by making them trade their customary tan jumpsuit in for a pink one, which must then be worn for three months.
The lawsuit estimated about several hundred inmates had worn pink in the past two years.
In some South Carolina prisons, inmates who break the rule are housed together in areas where women are not allowed to work, officials said. "They are trying to humiliate or offend females," Gelinas said.
In the prison agency's most recent argument, the department cited a Florida case where 12 female nurses were awarded nearly $1 million in January in their sexual harassment case against that state's Department of Corrections. A jury held the agency liable for harassment because administrators failed to prevent inmates from exposing themselves and from making "sexually demeaning" comments to women, according to the court filing.
A human rights advocate said officials should focus on taking away privileges, not colors.
"Of course you should protect staff from sexual harassment, but there are other ways to do it besides this degradation and putting people at risk," Jamie Fellner, U.S. director of Human Rights Watch said. "Prisons are funny places, and you start pointing fingers at people for specific things and you can set off all kinds of stuff."
South Carolina is not the first state to think pink in trying to deter inmates' sexual conduct. In the mid 1990s, the director of Alabama's prison system had a policy similar to South Carolina's, though officials said it is no longer used.
In Arizona, controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is known for using pink handcuffs and making inmates wear pink underwear, as well as live in tents and take part in old-style chain gangs in striped uniforms. And officials in some states have tried painting cell walls pink to calm or control inmates, after scientific research in the early 1990s suggested the color made inmates less aggressive.
In June, Ozmint defended another policy that allows prison workers to refuse to serve food to inmates who disobey prison dress codes and grooming policies. He said the policy was backed by a federal appeals court ruling, which said there is a difference between withholding food as a punishment and establishing reasonable rules before inmates can be fed.