Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Gender and Incarceration: How Men and Women Experience Life Behind Bars

Gender and Incarceration: How Men and Women
Experience Life Behind Bars

Reviews by Silja J.A. Talvi

Prison Masculinities, edited by Don Sabo, Terry A. Kupers, and Willie London. Temple University Press, Philadelphia: 2001.

Counseling Female Offenders and Victims: A Strengths-Restorative Approach, Katherine van Wormer, Springer Publishing Company, New York: 2001.

The new anthology, Prison Masculinities, brings the stress-inducing and often dangerous atmosphere in men's prisons to the written page. Real, raw, and uncensored, Prison Masculinities has already become a crucial addition to the list of prison-related books which seek to expand our understanding of the circumstances surrounding the exorbitant rates of nationwide incarceration, as well as the complex phenomenon of male violence and sexuality in prison.

The theme that binds this impressive collection together is one which has been largely absent from existing analysis of the U.S. prison system: an examination of the role of prison as a patriarchal and hyper-masculine institution, and the role played by prisons in reproducing destructive forms of masculinity.

Edited by D'Youville College social sciences professor Don Sabo, psychiatrist Terry A. Kupers, and prisoner/writer Willie London, Prison Masculinities brings together 40 thought-provoking essays and poems written by prisoners, academicians and activists from across the U.S, all with a focus on men behind bars.

For incarcerated men, prison accentuates what the editors refer to as "hegemonic masculinity," revolving around male dominance, heterosexism, whiteness, violence and ruthless competition, while the institutions themselves demonstrate what the editors define as the four cornerstones of patriarchal institutions: Homosociality, sex segregation, hierarchy and violence.

Within this framework, the editors offer valuable insight into the "prison code" as they say it exists nearly universally in American male prisons: Never admit fear. Do not snitch. Act tough. Do not help authorities. Do not trust anyone. Always be ready to fight.

"Prison is not an environment conducive to building friendships," writes a New York State prisoner, Derrick Corley. "Prison is a negative, hostile environment filled with people trying their best to survive."

It is a code shared by prisoners and guards alike, point out the editors; within the ranks of prison guards, virtually all the same `values' are prized. Moreover, explain the editors, some members of prison staff may use the code to enforce ordertolerating sexual domination between prisoners, for instance, "because it serves to divide them into perpetrators and victims, thus diminishing the likelihood of united resistance."

Many poems and essays in Prison Masculinities specifically delve into the alarmingly prevalent phenomenon of prison rape. In essays including Kupers' "Rape and the Prison Code," "The Story of a Black Punk," and Stephen Donaldson's "A Million Jockers, Punks and Queens," the authors explore, with absolute frankness, the harsh reality of sexual relations and domination within men's prisons, which often relegates men into roles of jockers (dominant men), punks (the largely heterosexual men pressed into sexual servitude) and queens (a small and highly desirable class of effeminate gays).

Essays such as these do not make for easy or casual reading; the horror of sexual violence behind prison walls is communicated with startling and disturbing detail, but the passages are delivered with an intelligence and honesty for which the reader is ultimately grateful.

The book's most powerful personal essay comes from a prisoner at San Quentin, Jarvis Masters, who sets out to talk to his fellow prisoners about child abuse in a piece entitled "Scars."

Most prisoners, as Masters explains, won't even allow themselves to use the term "child abuse," but the author uses the scars on the bodies of his fellow prisoners as a kind of ice-breaker to get the men talking about their early victimization. The stories that unfoldtales of severe beatings and whippingsshine a new light on the hardened expressions and muscular bodies of San Quentin's toughest prisoners. With superb and shocking insight, Masters relates the experiences of these men as victims of severe childhood abuse to their existence within the prisons that house them:

"Secretly, we all like it here. This place welcomes a man who is full of rage and violence. Here he is not abnormal or perceived as different. Here rage is nothing new, and for men scarred by child abuse and violent lives, the prison is an extension of inner life. We learn to abuse and reabuse ourselves by moving in and out of places like San Quentin."

As Masters' essay elucidates, the scars of child abuse and adult imprisonment run deep, and the critical discussion about crime and imprisonment must, by definition, include the perspective of men who are trapped within a system that all too often serves to bolster feelings of anger, alienation and, most commonly, an underlying sense of self-loathing. See page 34 to order Prison Masculinities.

In the popular imagination, women behind bars are still reduced to the realm of "fallen" or damaged women: women and mothers who have failed at life and disappointed their families.

Books about the real experiences of women prisoners are few and far between. And with roughly 164,000 women in prisons and jails nationwide, the issues that they present to the criminal justice system are multifarious.

In her book, Counseling Female Offenders and Victims, University of Northern Iowa Professor Katherine van Wormer, takes an important new step in the direction of addressing many of those issues from the framework of a "strengths-restorative" approach.

Central to van Wormer's intriguing book is the question of how the criminal justice system can be reconceptualized "to address the needs of victims of violence, sexual and otherwise, [and] of offenders who often themselves are victims of abuse."

The dual-pronged approach toward attaining more effective, compassionate treatment/intervention strategies toward both female victims and offenders isin and of itselfa unique step. It is a basic, radical assumption of van Wormer's book that there is no clear cut difference between female victims and offenders.

Van Wormer's points are well-taken. Based on surveys of numerous federal and scientific studies, the author notes the similarities in the life experiences of many female victims and offenders: the linkages between early child abuse and later victimization by partners or strangers, between sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy, depression and drug abuse, and so on.

In essence, van Wormer argues that a belief in human potential and a counseling emphasis on a person's individual strengths will allow both victim and offender alike to gain the kind of personal power necessary to rise out of the circumstances and forms of abuse that they have endured. And, similarly, van Wormer is a firm adherent of the idea that offenders can be rehabilitated, and that "the adversary system is not always the best way to bring this about."

Restorative justice, explains the author, "offers a strong antidote to the political ranting and raving that seems to get votes. In bringing criminal and victim together to heal the wounds of violation, the campaign for restorative justice advocates alternative methods to incarceration when the offender's behavior can be controlled through close supervision."

Most problematic, says van Wormer, has been the damaging notion that the equality of the sexes should translate to sameness in treatment behind bars: what men get, women get.

Gender-neutral policies have thus translated to sterile prison settings, supermax facilities, shackling and video monitoring, and have necessitated the hiring of men in women's prisons. The latter development has brought about countless incidents of sexual abuse, as van Wormer notes.

Another problemthat of increasingly abusive treatment of female prisoners by female guardsseems to be intensifying as prisons experience overcrowding, young and inexperienced personnel, and more to the point, personnel ill-trained to work with a specifically female population.

To the detrimentof all, women in prison are typically not allowed to care for their children on the outside in any kind of meaningful way, notes van Wormer.

"Because U.S. society is individualist, rather than family-based," writes van Wormer, "there has been a serious neglect throughout the system of the consequences when mothers in trouble with the law are ripped away from their children and other relatives by the state."

In contrast, innovative programs in Canada, Australia, Scandinavian countries, Spain, Germany and Poland (and even limited programs in New York and California) allow children to remain with their mothers in prison up to a certain ageor to visit very regularly with them in non-institutional-type settings.

Van Wormer also turns toward a vision of how the counseling female prisoners could evolve and develop into an cost-effective alternative to lengthy sentencing and the harshly punitive conditions of incarceration.

The advantages of a feminist-based strengths approach, explains van Wormer, is that it is realistic "acknowledging societal stress and a woman's resilience at the same time."

Van Wormer uses the opportunity to present a five-stage "empowerment model," built on the steps of effective dialogue between the prisoner and counselor; awareness of life history and goal setting; motivation and feeling work geared toward behavior change; healing (including the prospect of reconciliation); and what she terms "generativity."

In order to live and to eventually rejoin their communities, van Wormer urges that women (and men) in prison must be given mechanisms by which they can reclaim a sense of belonging and importance in the greater scheme of things.

Any goal short of this seems determined to allow men and women to repeat the common, vicious cycle of abuse, mental illness and/or drug abuse, crime and incarceration. It is a cycle for which the United States has already earned worldwide notoriety, and it is a cycle that the authors of these two important books are devoted to breaking.

Surely, they seem to be saying, we can do better than this.

Silja J.A. Talvi is a Seattle-based freelance journalist and essayist. A portion of this review first appeared in The Progressive.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login