Prisons & Structural Violence in the ’Hood

Written by SpearIt

“Fuck or Fight?”  This question, like the fuse of a 10-second stare-down, is how too many men are first introduced to life in a prison cellblock.  Although one might not have ever pondered these questions, the curve is high, and one quickly learns that the best response is “neither.”  However, in the prison setting, power and respect are currency, and how one ranks may directly relate to assault and rape of other inmates.  Empirical Research attests that systemic sexual violence prevails in some prisons systems, in both adult and juvenile facilities, but that is just the beginning.

The problem of gendered violence behind bars derives partly from masculinity norms on the outside: this would include exposure to pornography, including rape and snuff varieties, prostitution, strip clubs or even video games that offer a woman for sex after achieving a certain game level—all forms of objectifying female bodies and women themselves.  Sexist attitudes of machismo, chauvinism, and hetero-patriarchy reproduce in the prison setting in stunning and spectacular fashion, a biblical redux, woman created from the body of man.  Exposure to prison rape may transform inmates such that who comes out of prison is not merely the chauvinist who went in, but someone far more threatening.Social reproductions of masculinity in prison build from the violence of bondage itself, creating toxic potions of manliness that seep into the public from the flow of released inmates, the majority of whom return to the same neighborhoods from which they came.  The scale of the problem is dramatic for these communities since they feed the largest prison operation in the world, and perhaps, world history.  Not only are these communities burdened by high rates of incarceration, they absorb the post-traumatic stress disorders of those returning home, not to mention increased risk to HIV/AIDs or other STDs, some of which causally relates to unprotected prison sex.  The destructive cycle is complete when the inmate returns home to replicate debaucheries learned in prison against family, friends, acquaintances, and neighbors.

Behind bars, constructions of masculinity are complex, and prisons host an array of sexual activity, especially where gangs preside.  Of course the term “gangbang” derives from the practice of multiple individuals raping another.  Gay and transgender inmates are particularly vulnerable, and are typically housed away from the general population.  Gender roles, however, are not so neatly divisible, and ambiguity in meaning results since an inmate’s interpretation of a given event determines meaning.  In this environment, violence is a means to various ends, and sexual violence intends to inflict a different type of pain and humiliation than mere beatings.  Although there are many mechanisms for expressing violence, prisoners repeatedly resort to the penis, fingers, fists, sticks, and knives to punish the same orifice that engenders hierarchy.  When one is penetrator, masculinity is cemented; in contrast, one is stripped of masculinity when penetrated.  Even though the sex appears homosexual from the outside, the very essence of prison masculinity may be at stake when inmates are made into “boys,” “bitches,” or “sissies.”

Guards sometimes become enmeshed in the cycle of violence.  They are both victims of rape by inmates as well as perpetrators of rape against inmates and have been known to run prostitution rings at female prisons.  In addition to direct personal threats, guards are notorious for fomenting violence among inmates, including organizing “gladiator fights,” orchestrating rape rooms, and facilitating the attack of inmates by “booty bandits.”  Documentary research shows that institutional attitudes may foster abusive conditions in the name controlling inmates.  One warden describes the problem: “we have sex, all types of vices…and sometimes those things keeps ’em busy, keeps them out of our hair.  And there again I don’t condone it, and if we catch ’em we’ll punish ’em; and I know it goes on and it probably does have some element of helping us keep control.”

Institutional policies and conditions also contribute to the problem.  Overcrowding stands as a paramount obstacle to maintaining sexual integrity in prison since today’s “cell” might mean a converted cafeteria filled with bunks.  Long gone are the days of two inmates in a cell; today one could have several to several dozen cellmates or more, arrangements that broaden the scope for attacks.  Compounding overcrowding, financial woes in some systems have resulted in reduced prison staff, the obvious consequence of which is fewer eyes watching over a greater number of inmates.

Other systemic failure in prison includes the procedures involved in reporting sexual violence.  Rape in prison is stigmatic as on the outside, but inmates face more severe consequences than their counterparts on the outside.  For example, by going on record to prosecute a fellow inmate, one will likely be placed in protective custody, that is, under conditions similar to solitary confinement.  Thus, “snitching” not only makes one vulnerable to reprisal from other inmates, but also merits a one-way ticket to a unit intended for the harshest punishment short of death, typically where validated gangsters, incorrigibles, and the mentally ill dwell.

Attitudes in the judiciary have not been historically helpful for alleviating sexual violence in prison.  Although as early as U.S. v. Bailey (1980), Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun noted in his dissent that “A youthful inmate can be subjected to a homosexual gang rape his first night in jail, or, it has been said, even in the van on the way to jail.”  Despite such proclamations, the Court has made the bar high for holding a prison accountable for sexual assault.  In today’s jurisprudence, a prisoner must prove that the prison agents acted with “deliberate indifference,” that is, reckless or conscious disregard of risk or harm created by the prison condition.  This evidentiary standard effectively means that sexual assault claims will almost always be doomed as collateral to the punishment.  The point was iterated by Justice Clarence Thomas in his concurrence in Farmer v. Brennan (1994), which involved the rape of a transgender inmate: “Conditions of confinement are not punishment in any recognized sense of the term, unless imposed as part of a sentence…because the unfortunate attack that befell petitioner was not part of his sentence, it did not constitute ‘punishment’ under the Eighth Amendment.”

Problems in prison pose a special threat for women and children in marginal spaces—the ghettoes, hoods, and barrios—communities characterized by a general reluctance to rely on law enforcement for resolving domestic matters, which may result in under-reporting of sex crimes as well.  These communities bear the greatest risk of being victimized by sexual attack, including men as rapper Nas has narrated: “some niggas fuck they enemies in they ass when they catch ’em, weird-ass niggas are dangerous, so don’t test ’em.”  The lyrics attest that prisons and ghettoes bare one another’s burdens in deadly symmetry.  Just how prevalent the problem is only at the beginning of inquiry, but without doubt, the upcoming decades will see the return of more inmates than ever back to the streets from which they came.

Congress has taken action on the problem of prison rape by passing the Prisoner Rape Elimination Act of 2003.  Part of the Act’s mandate requires a commission to develop national standards for the Department of Justice for combating sexual abuse in confinement settings.  The commission proposals were released earlier this year, rules, which if adopted, would impact almost all jails and prisons, state and federal.  Human Rights Watch recently released a report that calls the proposals “weak” for their exclusion of immigration facilities, failure to secure necessary staffing, and failure to minimize obstacles for sexually abused inmates to access judicial relief, among other deficiencies.

Justice has been slow since the passing of this legislation, and even if there is some positive effect, it only addresses what happens behind bars, overlooking the cultural nature of the problem, the sexism and gender biases of society that shape an inmate’s psychology long before he ever enters a cell and hears that fateful question.  Faith in legislation should be tempered by the fact that anti-rape statutes have had minimal, if any, reduction of rape in society, casting a long shadow of doubt on prospects for prison reform.