A proposal to impose tougher sentences on inmates who expose themselves to prison officers cleared an initial hurdle in the legislature Wednesday after lawmakers scaled back the original proposal.
Under the original version of House Bill 969, people in prison who expose themselves could be charged with Class F felonies. Class F felonies include involuntary manslaughter, assault inflicting serious bodily injury, participating in prostitution of a minor, and possessing a weapon of mass destruction.
On Wednesday night, the House voted unanimously to lessen the bill’s punishment to a Class I felony. Other Class I felonies include possession of cocaine, breaking or entering a motor vehicle, and forging a check.
If convicted, the new punishment would be added to the end of the inmate's current sentence.
Critics of the bill have said it unfairly affects prisoners with mental illnesses, who may have little control over their impulses.
Supporters have said tougher penalties are needed to protect correctional officers who claim to be subject to harassment.
"The amendment weakens the deterrent contained in the original language of the bill. SEANC looks forward to making our case to the Senate on this issue," said Robert Broome, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.
He said prisons currently punish inmates who expose themselves by placing them in restrictive housing, taking their privileges or restricting their bank access -- "non of which is an effective deterrent."
It's the second time the bill has been scaled back. Lawmakers considering the bill in a committee had removed the word "masturbation" and instead proposed making it a felony to "knowingly and willfully expose genitalia to an employee."
Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat, and Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican from Chowan County, were among those concerned that inmates could face years of additional prison time for attempting to pleasure themselves privately.
Meyer said the change would ensure that "if someone is on their cot underneath a blanket, they wouldn't be able to be charged with that type of activity."
"They have urges like the rest of us have — or used to," Steinburg said. "There could be some unintended consequences here."
Meyer's amendment making the change was approved in a 7-6 vote, but SEANC voiced support for the original version of the bill.
"I've heard more concern over people's right to their masturbation than I've heard about the rights of officers to go to work without someone weaponizing their masturbation," SEANC lobbyist Ardis Watkins said.
'In no other profession'
In the same committee meeting last week, Patricia Moore, a retired corrections officer, explained her experience to lawmakers.
"Every day that I went to work, I was sexually assaulted by an offender," she said. She described instances where she'd pass by an inmate's cell and "there is an offender standing on his bed masturbating right at you."
She said she filed disciplinary action, but under prison rules, the inmate was allowed to ask her a series of questions — and he then asked her to describe the appearance of his genitalia in detail.
"I had to sit down and answer every one of those questions," she said, adding that the inmate was ultimately not punished. Moore dismissed concerns from advocates for mentally ill inmates who worried that some inmates' behavior could be the result of untreated mental illness.
"It's not mental health," she said. "It's the way they have power over you."
Kenneth Lassiter, director of the prison system, said the ability to file felony charges is "another tool" to "help our staff feel safe."
"In no other profession does a woman have to go to work and watch a man expose his penis," Lassiter said.