Don't Free Willy 

Exhibitionist inmates may be identified as sex offenders.

Tennessee inmates have a new reason not to be caught with their pants down.

As of July 1st, the state's indecent exposure law includes prisoners in correctional centers who are caught exposing themselves to staff or other inmates.

If a person is convicted of indecent exposure three times, he or she must register as a sex offender. The offender's picture, address, and personal information are then posted to the state's online registry.

"Before, when inmates would expose themselves to staff, we would report it to the district attorney's office," says Steve Shular, spokesperson for the Shelby County Sheriff's Office. "But the majority of the time, they weren't able to do anything about it. ... People in jail were not considered to be in a public place."

To be considered indecent, exposure must happen in a public place with others present to witness the act.

So far this year, 254 incidents of indecent exposure have been reported at the Shelby County Jail. Since the new rules have been posted, Shular says indecent exposure has declined.

Generally, inmates expose themselves to guards. "In the shower area, they're in the general observation of the corrections deputies, and they'll stand there and purposely expose themselves," Shular says.

Other times, inmates will shout for a guard's attention and then begin fondling themselves as the guard turns around.

"Sometimes corrections deputies will go check on the status of an inmate and when they arrive at the cell, the inmate will flash them," Shular explains.

Shular says most inmates expose themselves as a way to gain power over the guards. "A sense of power is given to inmates if they feel like they can get away with something that might either offend the corrections deputies or hurt them in some way," Shular says. "It's a way of getting even with the staff."

Before July 1st, offenders were punished with jail sanctions, such as administrative segregation, or would lose privileges. Those sanctions are still in place, along with the possibility of being identified as a sex offender.

Brent Horst, a Nashville attorney who represents sex offenders throughout the state, calls the new rules "overkill."

"This is an easy issue for legislators to get up on their soapbox and beat their chests because the public doesn't care," Horst says. "While most folks who get hit with sex offender charges deserve it, there's a lot of people who get painted with a broad brush."

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