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Men in Prison: A Review

Generally, whenever we review publications in PLN we give you a brief synopsis of their highlights and ordering information. That is because as a newsletter we lack the space to do much more than this. Occasionally a publication will come along that has a lot of good information in and of itself that is worth sharing. This is one of them.

Men's Studies Review (MSR) is published by the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California at Berkeley. Men in Prison is a special issue of their gender studies publication. It is readily apparent that with about 93% of the prison population being male that the criminal justice system has a disproportionate impact on men. MSR puts this in a good perspective beyond what we normally see about the class and racial bias of the prison system. The following are excerpts from "Understanding Men in Prison:The Relevance of Gender Studies", an article by Donald Sabo and Willie London.

"The growth of the prison system can be explained with reference to gender order and masculine hegemony.

"(1) Social inequalities, especially highly visible ones, create social turbulence or low level revolt that then becomes policed. More extensive forms of revolt need to be put down by military force but this can undermine the legitimacy of the ruling groups. Criminal activity, in contrast, is not apt to be perceived by the masses as a result or reflection of social inequality or crises within the state. Hence, low level criminal revolt is seen as a `law and order' issue and/or a police problem rather than an outgrowth of social breakdown or tension-producing inequalities. Both the existence of social inequalities and the false perception of crime mainly as a police matter, therefore, tend to escalate the rate of crime and imprisonment.

"(2) The prison system is apt to flourish in societies with a history of violence as a means of resolving public issues and private disputes. Violent interventions create lots of occasions for arrest and imprisonment as well as legitimating state violence in the form of imprisonment.

"(3) When poor and working class men are denied access to economic or cultural resources, they may develop forms of a `contest' masculinity as a variant of hegemonic masculinity. These alternative or contest masculinities may embrace, valorize, and/or rationalize violent or criminal activity. Hence, it is no accident that the cult of violence and toughness that characterizes underclass or working class gangs appears to be a version of the `kick ass' mentality of the American military and government elite during the Persian Gulf war. ...the `subculture of violence' that permeates the cultural practices of delinquent male gangs, could also be read as a deviant variation of the hegemonically masculine values and practices of higher status male groups such as the police, the military, and some government officials.

"(4) The prison system is apt to expand when the gender, class or race history of a nation is in a state of blocked contradictions; that is, where tension and violence are being constantly produced but the authorities cannot afford to solve the problems that cause the tension and violence because, to do so, would challenge the legitimacy of the system itself."

In discussing prison violence and the reproduction of gender relations, which includes homosexual rape, hierarchies, etc. the authors comment:

"At any given historical moment, there are competing masculinities, some hegemonic, some resistant, some marginalized and some stigmatized. The prevailing cultural definition of masculinity within a political and economic social system is constructed in relation to various subordinated masculinities as well as in relation to feminities. ...the gender order possesses two main structural aspects. First, it is an hierarchal system in which men dominate women in crude and debased, slick and subtle ways. Secondly, there also exists a system of intermale dominance, in which a minority of men dominates the masses of men. This intermale dominance hierarchy exploits the majority of those it beckons to climb its heights.

"Male violence inside and outside prisons is, in part, impelled by gender, class and racial inequalities. Within the larger gender order, the violence associated with the 'war on crime' can be seen not only as a form of class warfare but also a struggle between dominant and marginalized factions of men.

"...middle-class and working-class men (and women) are positioned between the male elites who continue to wage a punitive `war' on crime while refusing to alter the social conditions that create much crime, and a growing class of street criminals and white collar criminals who basically regard the middle- and working class as prey.

"The structural bases of male violence also find expression and extension within the prison itself. Prisons are filled with violent men. The threat and practice of physical or sexual assault are used by inmates to maintain the jailhouse pecking order. Guards rule through the threat and application of force, batons in hand and more lethal weapons at hand. For many prisoners, violent crimes led to incarceration. Others became violent, or at least act as though they are violent, only after being jailed.

"It would be a mistake, however, to perceive prison rape mainly as a power dynamic of intermale dominance hierarchies. Men's struggles to weave webs of domination through rape in prison also reflect and reproduce men's domination of women in the heterosexual world beyond the walls. In the muscled, violent, tattooed world of prison rape, woman is symbolically ever present. The prison phrase `make a woman out of you' means that you will be raped. Rape based relationships between prisoners are often described as relations between `men' and `women' are, in effect, conceptualized as `master' and `slave'.

"The failure to recognize man on man rape can be interpreted as a `socially structured silence' which, in effect, reconstitutes gender inequality by allowing homosexual rape to remain defined as a sexual phenomenon rather than an act of personal and political domination."

This issue contains numerous articles by and about men in prison written by researchers and prisoners themselves. Its well worth reading. Cost is $3.50 for this issue. Specify that you want Volume 9, Number 1 of Mens Studies Review. Write: Mens Studies Review, C/O Institute for Social Change, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA. 94720.

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