Overcoming the Pathologies of Hypermasculinity in Prison

Sharon Dolovich is one of my favorite writers on prisons.  I’ve especially appreciated her work on the K6G unit of the L.A. County Jail.  This is a segregated unit reserved for gay men and transgender women.  Her latest article on K6G explores the relatively positive experience of inmates in the unit so as to illuminate the core pathologies of life elsewhere in the Jail, and by extension in most male penal institutions across the country.

As Dolovich sees things, hypermasculinity is the defining characteristic of life in the general inmate population.  Here’s how she describes life in the GP units:  


The first model [of the prison], which reigns in the Jail’s GP units and exists to a greater or lesser extent in men’s prisons and jails all over the count, puts pressure on residents to seem “hard and tough, and [not] show weakness.” This pressure, which I call the hypermasculinity imperative, can feed a culture of belligerence, posturing, emotional repression, and ready violence that rewards both indifference to others and the willingness of the strong to victimize the weak. In such an environment, gangs flourish and trauma abounds.  (971)

In Dolovich’s view, K6G demonstrates that prisons do not have to be like this:

[K6G] is free of any hypermasculinity imperative. In K6G, one instead finds a surprising sense of relative ease, along with open emotional expression, the overt development of mutually supportive friendships and intimate relationships, and demonstrations of creativity and even levity. One also finds in K6G a collective and determined rejection of any efforts to introduce into the unit either the gang code in force in the rest of the Jail or the racial segregation that goes with it. (971)

It might be tempting to attribute the psychologically healthier culture of K6G to the particular characteristics of the gay and transgender inmates who live there.  Dolovich argues, however, that the positive aspects of life in K6G result to a great extent from administrative decisions that could be replicated in general population units.  The key is simply safety:

In men’s prisons, hypermasculine posturing is a mechanism of self- protection employed by people who feel vulnerable to harm; behind bars, people will only relax and let down their guard when they feel safe from physical or sexual violence. Although GP units vary between—and even within—institutions in the degree to which residents feel at risk, there is nearly always a need for men in GP to band together and to collectively project an image of toughness and implacability in order to ensure their mutual protection. And as a general matter, all men in GP must be vigilant to avoid making missteps in the wrong company that, by making themselves seem weak, could expose them to violence as well as ongoing harassment and abuse. By contrast, the relative ease of life in K6G exists not because K6Gs are gay and trans, but because they do not fear being victimized or violently punished by other prisoners for being themselves.

K6G thus suggests a dramatic possibility about the realities of contemporary American penality, one that merits further attention and study: that in American prisons and jails, prisoners’ hypermasculine posturing and ensuing pathologies arise not from an inherent preference for violence, but from a not-unreasonable belief that nothing else will secure their physical safety. To put the point another way, in many cases, it may not be the prisoners who make the prison, but rather the prison—and in particular the widespread failure of the system to treat those in custody as people deserving of protection—that makes the prisoners.20If prisons and jails do sometimes seem to operate as “monster factories,” it may not be because the people the state incarcerates are naturally and essentially monstrous, but because the toxic combination of fear, trauma, and official disregard that can define daily life in custody makes at least some of them feel compelled at times to act that way.  (72-73)

How can personal safety be better ensured in the general population?  Dolovich proposes a number of strategies, drawn in part from her study of what works in K6G:

(1) identifying and separating out likely victims from likely predators for housing purposes;

(2) maintaining a strict boundary between likely victims and likely predators;

(3) monitoring units in an ongoing way to identify emergent predators;

(4) automatically removing predatory individuals as soon as they become known;

(5) ensuring continuity of staffing as much as possible, to allow staff to get to know the people in their custody as individuals; and

(6) fostering a culture of respect toward people in custody as a way of, among other things, creating channels of communication between staff and prisoners to identify threats and resolve problems when they arise, and to counter the demeaning effects of incarceration generally.

(7) bringing about institutional change at all levels to ensure that people in custody are treated with the respect and consideration due all human beings just by virtue of their humanity.

(8) carving off groups of people whose common identities or interests might provide a basis for mutual affinity, and housing them separately from GP; and

(9) providing as many people as possible with the means to remain connected to who they are and to learn and grow as people. (1108-09)

I imagine that trying to do what Dolovich proposes would provoke stiff political resistance in some jurisdictions.  In part, this is because implementing her proposal would probably require an infusion of new resources at many institutions and/or a significant reduction in the incarceration rate; overcrowding and an overstretched corrections staff seem inconsistent with the careful sorting and monitoring that Dolovich envisions, not to mention the whole “treat inmates with respect and consideration” thing.

But perhaps the most important obstacle would simply be that many members of the public actually like the hypermasculinity model, with all of its violence, stress, and dehumanization.  This is what really makes prison punishment — or, at least, one might think that.  By contrast, I suspect that many members of the public (and their elected representatives) would be horrified to hear some of the descriptions of K6G that inmates provided to Dolovich: “fun,” “wow,” “creative,” “party-like,” “easy,” “relaxing,” “nice,” “peaceful,” “serene,” and so forth (986-87, 1017)

Dolovich recognizes the importance of this objection and responds effectively to it (1087-99).  Among other things, she notes that a prison’s failure to protect prisoners from the worst aspects of the hypermasculinity model may violate the Eighth Amendment.  She also relates corrections administration to the ideal of offense-based proportionality in punishment:

The patent inhumanity of prison conditions on the hypermasculinity model indicates the misguided nature of the law-and-order critique of K6G. To some, however, the foregoing may seem to have missed a key point: Offenders are sent to prison because they have committed a crime, perhaps a very serious one. And if while in prison they experience serious physical or psychological pain, it is not because the state is cruel but because prisoners deserve it. . . .

There are, however, two problems with this objection, one practical and one normative. First, as a practical matter, when people in custody are subjected to the physically and psychologically damaging conditions of the hypermasculinity model, the extent of the burden will generally be unrelated to the offense of conviction.  To suggest that this treatment is deserved on account of the victim’s prior crime presumes that the harm inflicted bears some relationship to that prior offense, so that someone who committed a heinous murder is subject to greater trauma, and thus greater harm than, say, an identity thief. But this is not the case; instead, the harms suffered in custody are inflicted across the board, with no necessary correlation to victims’ offenses of conviction. . . .

Second, as a normative matter, when prisoners are incarcerated as punishment, it is the length of the prison term that is supposed to reflect society’s collective judgment as to the seriousness of the crime and thus the degree of the offender’s blameworthiness. Although this assertion may seem to beg the question, it in fact reflects a critical difference between private judgments of moral desert and the necessarily constrained expressions of societal condemnation embodied in the state’s decision to incarcerate. The deliberate infliction of corporal harm was long ago rejected in the United States as a legitimate form of punishment.  Although the death penalty persists, the decision to incarcerate rather than to execute reflects an affirmative choice not to destroy the offender but merely to banish him or her from society for the specified term. In a given case, the choice to banish and not to destroy may fail to satisfy those private citizens who feel the offender merited greater suffering than the state has determined to inflict. But the use of incarceration as punishment represents a collective commitment to constrain the nature of the harm to be inflicted, notwithstanding that the target may deserve worse.  (1090-92)

Dolovich’s article is quite lengthy, but rich in insight.  It appears as “Two Models of the Prison: Accidental Humanity and Hypermasculinity in the L.A. County Jail,” 102 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 965 (2012).