“I like big butts, and I cannot lie…” sings the famous line from Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s song Baby Got Back. Sadly, the Seattle native’s preference stands in opposition to his home state’s prison system. The Washington Department of Corrections (WADOC) doesn’t like big butts at all — or any size butt — if it is a woman’s or an individual who identifies as such.

There have always been rules against sexually explicit content in prisons, but those rules have gotten more restrictive and arbitrary, especially over the last ten years. Two decades ago, prisoners could receive fully nude photos as long as there was no depiction of penetration or signs of abuse or harm. But in 2014, WADOC cracked down and banned images with the female nipple. A few years later, in 2017, WADOC updated their policy to restrict anything that displayed the female butt (male nipples and butts are still allowed). Over time, the policy has expanded into a vague ban on anything that could be considered sexually explicit. In practice, this policy allows the guards working in mail rooms to reject anything they deem inappropriate, including images of fully clothed people. 

As with most rules in prison, the ban is confusing and arbitrarily enforced. Violating it, even unwittingly, carries the risk of punishment. “They threatened to give me a major infraction,” said Pedro Navarro, a man incarcerated in Washington state who had a picture of a woman in a bikini on the wall in his cell. “Not a minor, but a serious infraction that comes with real consequences, including the loss of good time,” Navarro added, explaining how that one image could impact his release date. 

These policies have also made it even harder for people who are incarcerated to maintain close relationships with loved ones on the outside. In December 2020, one of our partners went to a fancy mountain spa in Europe. With blue lights and marble columns, the spa had an ambiance and serenity hard to find during the height of Covid. In an attempt to capture the tranquility of the retreat and share the peace she found in a small mountain resort, her friend took a photo of her sitting at the edge of the pool for her to send in. The photo featured her back, long hair flowing down, the white swimsuit she wore, and blue-lit waters sweeping into the horizon.

We were all confounded when Washington DOC (WADOC) labeled the photo “sexually explicit,” as the photo was — by any metric — not sexual at all. The censorship notice stated the reason for rejection as a “display of the female buttocks intended for sexual gratification.” The picture — confiscated by the prison mailroom — was now at the mercy of an appeal process where the same entity that rejected the picture would “review” their decision. Knowing the likelihood of winning such an appeal, the woman — chalking up the financial cost of sending the photo a second time and the indignation of alleged impropriety — cropped the photo to exclude her clothed buttocks and resent the photo. Days later, the photo passed inspection, and she was (finally) able to share the intended moment with her loved one.

Even a picture of a woman in a sundress can be deemed too suggestive to make it past prison staff. On March 31, 2021, Tanya Gomes snapped two pictures of herself in a dress she had bought for vacation — one front view and one back. She liked her outfit and was excited to show it to her incarcerated loved one. WADOC approved the front view image but rejected the one of the back. 

This censorship cost Gomes emotionally and financially.  When normal behavior exhibited in public spaces is deemed “sexually explicit” by authority figures, it generates insecurity, forcing her to second guess her expressions of femininity — as if women don’t deal with that enough. Additionally, communication costs are exorbitantly high for people in prison, and Gomes was not reimbursed for the rejected photo. Now, every time she tries to send a photo, she wonders if she’s wasting money simply trying to share snapshots of her life with her loved one. 

“It’s already hard as it is not being able to experience life together. Sending pictures and videos keeps the relationship active,” Gomes said. “It is extremely difficult to do that when something as basic as a sundress gets rejected.”

WADOC’s gender-based censorship policies have caused confusion. Until 2022 it remained unclear where the nipple or buttocks of a transgender woman might fall within the policy. This year the policy language changed to include female and transgender women, but other questions still remain. Are non-binary buttocks subject to censorship? What about a transgender man? For that matter, what state employee assigns the gender identity of a nipple-bearing individual in photographs sent in to prisoners?

The fact is, all such determinations are subjective, and the arbiter of “explicit” is a guard working a prison mailroom.

This should be a precarious legal ground for the state to play on. Should a state assert the right to set normative standards around a sexual expression or assign gender to individuals while enforcing gender-based policy restrictions? This is a matter for the courts to decide. But these policies certainly fly in the face of changing societal standards around gender and sexuality.

The ban on the “big butts” raises additional concerns amongst Prisoners of Color who sense a kind of pointed nature behind the ban. Many view the policy as an exercise of cultural bias — some see racial animus as a driver behind this policy change.

Baby Got Back was more than a catchy tune from the ’90s. It helped define a feminine quality idolized in hip-hop culture that stood distinct from the mainstream. Namely, the booty. Mix-A-Lot juxtaposes this distinction in his song by casting aside the mainstream idol of the time, Jane Fonda, noting that “Fonda ain’t got a mota in the back of her Honda,” thereby elevating the large booty within hip hop culture.

Cultural conflicts between policymakers and the incarcerated remain ubiquitous. People of Color continue to be overrepresented in the prison population while underrepresented amongst the US population and our policymakers. With the justice system’s long history of racism, policies like the ban on the booty feel too familiar.

“This is just another attack on the culture. They’ve been doing it for years. Nothing new,” said Joseph McClain, a member of the Black Prisoners Caucus who has been incarcerated for two decades.

McClain may be correct. While displays of the female buttocks were elevated to erotica, other female body parts known to be the subject of men’s infatuations, like feet, long legs, or thick thighs, were not. It is hard to find unbiased logic behind censorship so fraught with disparity.

WADOC’s efforts to censor the female body raise serious questions along racial, gender, and sexual orientation issues that should be answered — then rectified. Of course, this would require a kind of introspective quality generally lacking within the Department. But these policies are not only controversial; they also have harmful impacts on prisoners, their relationships, and female staff working in the institutions.

Maintaining a healthy relationship while incarcerated is incredibly difficult. To retain a strong relationship with a partner, there are certain areas that need to be fed: emotional support, a robust friendship, and sexual desire. The first two are relatively possible through letters, visits, digital messages, and phone calls. However, the final of the three can be a struggle. Finding ways to express the sexual side of the relationship takes energy and the willingness of the couple to be extremely creative. Prisoners and their partners often use letters, digital messages, and phone calls to share their experience. But doing so always comes at the cost of getting attacked by the Department’s mailroom staff.

When letters or digital messages are found to contain what WADOC constitutes “sexually explicit” material, meaning anything that mentions a word or phrase related to sex, the mail is red flagged, rejected, and those individuals are targeted for months.

Mailroom staff will spend hours pouring over each word in messages and letters that enter their hands related to “offenders” of their ludicrous policies — invading intimate areas of personal relationships while creating unnecessary stress and discomfort to couples. The Department’s claim in doing this is to maintain the “safety and security” of the prison and those in their care.

Such extreme censorship makes a very natural interaction between adult couples feel icky and gross as if they are doing something wrong. And by removing this necessary relationship element, another wall is placed to divide the couple — in addition to the towering one that holds prisoners captive.

Many would argue this level of censorship not only works to dismantle relationships between prisoners and their partners but causes harm to those forced to live a life without a healthy way to express sexual desire, which is as human as the need for clean air and water. Some of the effects of this can be seen through the over-sexualization of female guards and staff working at the prison. 

It’s clear that state and federal law policies were never put in place to stop two adults from having and maintaining a healthy relationship. A quick read of Miller v. California makes it clear what the standards of obscenities are, yet prison administrations seem to be immune from using standards the court has set for society. For decades the courts have allowed prison administrations to freely create inappropriate policies to block such things between prisoners and our partners. Each year, the policies continue to get even more strict and foolish. It’s time for the courts to stop accepting the excuse of “safety and security” as a way to exclude prisoners from having positive — and very normal — relationships.