HARTFORD -- Connecticut prison officials are asking for a new law that would label inmates who commit lewd acts in their cells as sex offenders.

Department officials say it's an ongoing problem at prisons such as the high security Northern Correctional Institution, where some inmates purposefully masturbate in front of staff, often female guards, counselors or other prison workers.

"If they were on the outside and they did something like this, they would be arrested and held accountable as a sex offender," said Brian Garnett, a department spokesman. "And frankly, the same thing should hold true on the inside." Lisamarie Fontano, president of AFSCME Local 387, which represents prison workers, says about 500 such instances were written up at Northern last year. She said the problem involves a relatively small group of inmates, and has very little to do with sex.

"It's about power," she said. "If you can demoralize somebody, and some of the acts that women have described to me are absolutely horrific, then by all means the inmates feel more powerful over them." The legislation would make public indecency in a correctional institution a class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, a sentence that would be mandated to be tacked on to any current sentence. It also would designate the convict as a sex offender.

The bill would only apply to inmates who are deemed to be targeting staff with their activity, and would not be used when someone inadvertently walks in on an inmate in a private moment, Garnett said.

Garnett said it has proven difficult to charge inmates under current sexual assault statutes for behavior that happens in their cells.

Fontano said internal discipline hasn't deterred the behavior, but she believes inmates will stop if they know they will be labeled as a sex offender when they leave prison.

"This would be something that would be with them for the rest of their lives," she said. "This isn't something where you lose commissary privileges within the walls of the facility. Typically, a male prisoner does not want to be labeled as a sex offender." The bill has passed out of committee and is awaiting action by the full Legislature, which adjourns on May 9.

The move to pass legislation comes at the same time that the department is removing all pornography, material that contains "pictorial depictions of sexual activity or nudity," from the prisons. Inmates were given a year to get rid of all their porn and the total ban takes effect in July.

The ban is intended to improve the work environment for prison staffers who might be inadvertently exposed to the material.

Garnett said the two issues are not related, but said both are expected to have a positive impact on the work environment in the prisons "Our first responsibility is protection of the public and our second is protection of our staff," Garnett said. "That is always foremost in our mind and these are examples of what we are trying to do at this point in time."