If there was ever a marginalized male group directly and powerfully affected by the masculinity construct, it’s jail and prison inmates. No, I didn’t just finish up an Oz marathon (honestly, I haven’t seen a single episode of the prison drama, so there will be no show references dropped in this post henceforth), but I did stumble across a series of studies dissecting the insidious, damaging culture of hypermasculinity in jails and prisons. Considering that there are roughly 1.4 million men behind bars in the United States, it’s a relevant issue directly impacting a sizable population—and judging by the amount of scholarly attention directed to masculinity within prison culture, I’d wager that it’s one of the most scrutinized “male ecosystems” (my own fictional terminology, there) in academia.
Quoting a 2005 prison sociology study: “Male prison is a society dominated by discourses of masculinity due to a sharp hierarchy that exists not only between prisoners and guards but also among prisoners themselves.”
Moreover, those incarcerated male societies are bursting at the seams. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 93 percent of the prison population is male, and a majority of inmates are serving time for violent offenses (as opposed to property offenses), including robbery, assault and murder. Once inside the prison system, inmate-on-inmate sexual violence has become so commonplace that Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003 to fund data-gathering and intervention and treatment programs. While inmate-perpetrated sexual assault and coercion happens among female prisoners, too, multiple studies have confirmed a more pervasive pattern among male prisoners, even when controlling for population size gaps. For example, results from a Midwestern state prison survey determined a 22 percent incidence rate of for male inmates, compared with a 7 percent incidence rate for female inmates.
Sexual violence in prison is a springboard for conversations about hypermasculinity in the male prison culture because fear of victimization often fuels it. University of California psychology professor Craig Haney describes this “prison culture of hypermasculinity” as one of “the most profound and far-reaching injustices that plague our jails and prisons.” Within the toxic environment, Haney writes that, “the strong prey on the weak and gain status and power through the domination and abuse of fellow human beings.”
The go-to method of avoiding being targeted is to embrace and embody hegemonic constructs of masculinity that still permeate at-large gender dynamics: domination, independence, heterosexuality, aggressiveness, and a capacity for violence. In addition to affiliating with gangs for protection, inmates must project that ultimate masculine ideal. Stuck in a homogenized, tightly controlled and dehumanizing “total institution,” in sociology speak, wherein everyone wears the same thing, eats the same thing, and sleeps and showers in the same paltry conditions, the only means to autonomy is through hardened hypermasculinity. In this way, the gendered patterns of crime on the outside become further magnified and mutated into this über-macho mentality on the inside, depending on one’s physicality, race, and alleged criminal history.
For young, black men who are disproportionately locked up, so much so that juvenile justice researchers refer to the legal system as the “school to prison pipeline,” Prof. Hanley goes on to explain how hypermasculinity informs their concept of manhood:
The great majority of adolescent boys and young men who are being pushed and pulled through this pipeline are very often denied the opportunity to learn other models of manhood, are rarely taught gentler and less confrontational ways of standing up or standing out, or given the opportunity to excel through the exercise of their intellect or sensitivity rather than physical intimidation.
What’s the ultimate product of these overcrowded prisons that bear out the most individually and socially destructive false notions of masculinity? Double-digit recidivism rates that keep young men hazed in the hypermasculine prison culture returning to the cellblock. Research from Pew Charitable Trusts found that nationwide, four in 10 state prisoners will be locked up again within three years after being released.
Surprisingly though, I’m not ending this post on a completely woe-to-the-world downer note. No, I don’t have a MacArthur award-worthy solution for slashing that 1.4 million inmate population, but intervention programs focused on small-group counseling in prison settings have had reported success with dismantling those hypermasculinity constructs. However, uprooting systemic hypermasculinity in prison settings is another matter—one that could legitimately make the difference between life and death for thousands of men.