Recently, a friend of mine recounted his night in jail after being arrested following a traffic stop in Charlotte County, Florida. He said he quickly befriended another young man who’d been in jail before. At dinner, they were given a liquid with the appearance of water and the flavor of juice. Confused as to why he was given this unusual liquid, he turned to his new pal for an explanation. “They put hormones in it,” the guy claimed. “So guys can’t get horny in jail.”
This “something in the water” theory has persisted for years across jails and prisons in the U.S. The myth has taken many forms. In some cases, the drinks are laced with hormones; in others, saltpeter/potassium nitrate — allegedly inhibiting one’s sex drive and ability to achieve an erection when dissolved into food and drink — are used instead.
“Has anyone ever heard of the prisons putting estrogen into the male inmates food to make them less aggressive? Has anyone in prison had ‘lumps’ appear on their body, especially the chest area that are unexplained? Please let me know,” asked one user on the PrisonTalk forum in 2003. In another post on the same forum, someone else inquired about a similar theory: “Has anyone heard about saltpeter? It is something they put in food or drink they feed the prisoners. I have heard it slows down the men’s sex drive. And what are the side effects? And is it harmful to them?”
Although neither the Bureau of Prisons nor the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Department responded to my request for comment, for the most part, these claims are quickly shut down, with users replying that prisoners themselves typically make the food, and that the practice would be illegal. “The rumor goes that the reason they do this is to keep rapes low and to keep sexual urges low,” explains YouTuber AfterPrisonShow in a video about the theory. “I gotta be completely honest with you, I didn’t see low sexual urges while I was in prison at all. Guys were jacking off faster than jackrabbits in the corner of their bunk areas. If they were putting this in our food, they probably should have doubled the dose.”
The saltpeter theory has extended into the military as well. In 2001, Snopes fact-checked the theory that saltpeter was fed to new recruits, ultimately debunking it: They concluded that because saltpeter has never been directly linked to decreased sex drive, the military would have no reason to put it in food or beverages. Further, low amounts of saltpeter are already found in processed meats available to the general public (notably, saltpeter, aka nitrites, have been linked to gastrointestinal cancers).
Rather than the result of some covert dosing, they posited that young men in the military may struggle to have an erection due to a “powerful combination of anxiety to succeed, physical exhaustion and a radical change of lifestyle.” Living in close proximity to others could impact sexual desire, too.
For men in prison, the reasoning could be similar. According to a 2006 report from the Bureau of Justice, 23 percent of people in prison and 30 percent of people in jail reported major depressive symptoms. The report notes that between 29 to 35 percent of people in jails and prisons reported a change in sexual desire, and although it doesn’t specify whether this change is marked by an increase or decrease, it’s worth noting that both depression and antidepressant treatments are linked with erectile dysfunction.
In all likelihood, then, the clear “juice” distributed in jails and prisons is just some form of fortified beverage made without dyes. Still, the very suspicion of food and beverages being dosed with mysterious chemicals points to a bigger problem with the criminal justice system as a whole — namely, that incarcerated people feel powerless in dictating their own bodies. Not only do they fear being sexually assaulted, they also fear irreparable damage to their own sexual functions. While the rumors may be largely debunked or rejected, the myth persists.
And considering the absurd privatization of our penal system and all the abuses — both physical and financial — that have come with it, if jails and prisons came forth and publicly denounced the theory, would we even believe them?