Isn't He Lovely: Hypermasculinity Behind Bars

prisoners wearing orange jumpsuits stand at attention at in the san quentin prison yardIf 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.

by Cristen Conger
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

This is really interesting -

This is really interesting - and sometimes the hypermasculinity and peer pressure around its gendered expectations are used to police inmates, as with the case of SheriffJoe Arpaio forcing male inmates to wear pink underwear as a form of discipline.

Interesting to link to recidivism - I hadn't thought about it before but it'd make sense that those gendered norms are a factor.

I'd like to dig more into

I'd like to dig more into related research from UCLA Law Prof Sharon Dolovich who's done a lot of study on prison environment, too. There's already so much criminal justice system reform needed, and hypermasculinity only compounds the problems in ways, driving those statistics in a way that we might not think about.

Violent Crimes?

I will agree that your article is spot-on; however, relying on "their" statistics will skewer any research. In the United States, we have 5% of the world's population, but house 25% of the world's prison population. 70% of these people are serving time for what are truly non-violent offenses (drug-related). These so-called crimes of drug possession and sales are listed as "violent crimes" in order to justify taking away what are supposed to be inalienable rights, such as the right to keep and bear arms, the right to vote, and the right to hold public office.

My first felony was for an ounce of Marijuana. It should have been two ounces, but between the snitch and the undercover cop, one ounce disappeared. The snitch sold weed to a cop in a bar, was found to be in possession of 1/4 pound, and was let off with a ticket for agreeing to set up his friends. My second felony was for Marijuana seeds. I'd saved my seeds for 7 years to eventually be able to grow my own and not have to deal with drug dealers anymore. Of course, the plastic baggies holding the seeds were weighed into the amount, so the couple hundred seeds I had became 5 ounces (felony weight). My gun rights were then taken away for life (as opposed to the normal 10-year period). The judge said that it was a violent crime, so I asked how he could justify that statement, other than the way the plants would burst forth violently from the ground once I'd added water. When he told me that I'd serve a mandatory sentence if I was ever caught with a firearm, I suggested that if I was ever again found to be exercising my inalienable right to keep and bear arms, I may as well just start pulling the trigger. He sent me for a psychological evaluation. Felony number three was for possession of Methamphetamines. The Cold Spring police department arrested my dealer at the gas station "because he looked agitated" according to court documents. The whole thing was a set-up. They'd arrested a friend of his named Missy, took away her children, and told her that she would have an easier time getting them back if she helped set up "Otis". Once arrested, a search of his home turned up who-knows-how-much more. They told him that he could go to prison, or go to work for them. He sold Meth for the police for the next 18 months. As the biggest drug dealer in town, he was given a $500.00 fine, 6 months unsupervised probation, and a stay of adjudication, meaning he now has no criminal record. The rest of us, his customers, got between five and ten years. The police would make up any lie to pull over the car and search it (in my case they claimed that my passenger "had a green toungue, your Honor, an obvious sign of smoking Marijuana". They would pocket the money, give him the drugs back to sell again, and look like heroes to the community for breaking up a "Meth ring".

If you want to end the cycle of recidivism and so-called violent crime, the first step is to legalize drugs across the board, ending Prohibition and the Police corruption that goes along with it. Imagine a world where drug users could go to a drug store and buy from a licensed pharmacist, with security and nurses on staff, similar to an alcohol user being able to go to a liquor store and buy booze. The price of drugs would come down, lessening armed robbery, burglary and theft. Women would be less likely to prostitute themselves to get the money they need to get their drugs. We would spend $32,000 less per year for every non-violent drug user who was no longer incarcerated, and have fewer women and children on welfare due to dad being locked up. The pharmacist is paid a salary, so is in no way dependent on getting more customers to make money. The drug war violence in this country and Mexico ends overnight. Drugs bought in a pharmacy setting would be pure; not adulterated with Ajax, or God knows what else. The proceeds of these drug sales would go into our tax base, not into the hands of the drug cartels or corrupt cops. I coud go on, but will end my rant here, for your perusal.

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