Today: Apr 23, 2024

Herland: Women’s prison: Contemplating the XX dynamic

Female prison inmates sometimes assume “family-oriented” relationships, different from male prison dynamics.

Cassandra Cammarata, Staff Writer:
Recently I caught the last eight minutes of a program on some upper level television channel, and I became completely fascinated with what I was met with; the inner social dynamics of a women’s prison. The show was detailing the relationship of a new woman into the population of a specific sector of a prison for women. She was immediately met by a woman who had been profiled earlier as basically the “Den Mother” of the tribe located inside her sector. She immediately swooped in, sitting down with the new addition, and began to ask her about why she was there and as she sat cross-legged in a lower bunk opposite her, genuinely was listening with an ache of emotion that could be read on her face. The “Den Mother” then detailed to the younger woman that she is part of her “family” now, to which each member played a specific “family” role (i.e; mother, father, niece, nephew) and if she needed any type of support, mental or physical, to come and speak with her.
This dynamic shook me, because this is not the intolerably tit-a-tat, aggressive, alienating environment I have seen while watching shows on male prisons. So what incubates this dynamic inside a women’s prison? Why are relationships based more on family-oriented roles inside the walls of XX-only prisons? And where does the woman and her identity as being jailed come into this equation differently than the male prison society?
Growing up, there were two events that gave me insight into the inner workings of prisons, and specifically women’s prisons or a woman’s understanding of the prison system; Emma Goldman and my mother. Reading Emma Goldman growing up, as a burgeoning proto-feminist, I was struck when I encountered her essay on prisons titled “Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure” which was published in her book “Anarchism and Other Essays” in 1917. I was struck by how I felt this document read like it had been written in the present day; there were so many continued disconnects with the idealization of prisons as rehabilitation but in reality they are a festering ground for the aggressive perpetuation and dehumanization of the criminal/man duality/identity. Goldman said, “With all our boasted reforms, our great social changes, and our far-reaching discoveries, human beings continue to be sent to the worst of hells, wherein they are outraged, degraded, and tortured, that society may be ‘protected’ from the phantoms of its own making.” We do not understand nor to we try to understand what makes these people act upon criminal impulses, and therefore we shut them out and lock them away for a prescribed number of days, months, years, even lives and hope they find repentance without any supports to achieve such.
But men’s prisons are populated differently than women’s prisons. From 1986 to 1996, women sentenced to state prison for drug-related charges increased ten-fold, adding 20,000 new women into the prison system, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in Washington, D.C. Prisoners in 1997. And women’s prisons are made up of 70 percent male guards, according to the Amnesty International “Women in Prison: A Fact Sheet.” This creates a power dynamic that is not to be ignored, and could account for the idea of banding together within your own populace all the more alluring, comforting and really your only choice.
The second experience that heightened my knowledge of the social intricacies of a women’s prison was my mother. She was incarcerated for violating her parole on drug charges and was sent to prison for, from what I can remember, at least a year. I never visited her, I couldn’t bring myself to, but I received many letters, with her inmate number printed on both the envelope and even when she signed the letter, which struck a deep chord in me. She would detail in her phone calls the intimidation she felt for not being part of a larger group that had formed in her sector. She said she had hoped to focus on her time and had met some kind souls, but was being pressured to be homogenized within the populace. I wondered why she wouldn’t just join the tribe, but never asked. She spoke to having her hair braided, her candy stolen and more than anything else, how poor the mental health facilities were. My mother needed medication, and she was never able to secure a solid communication within the prison to obtain what she needed when she did. This can only lead more to the disorienting spiral into the suppressive, claustrophobic nature of being imprisoned.
Women only make up seven percent of the prison population, but there numbers have increased drastically, almost incomprehensibly more than that of the male prison population, according to “The Sentencing Project: Women in the Criminal Justice System” in May 2007. Does the more intimate nature of their populace account for the banning together more in tribes within prisons, or is there also a level of female outside roles that are more mimicked and sought for within the confines of a prison? Do women hope to achieve normalcy by projecting their outside natures onto their inside natures?
The show made me question the structure of a women’s prison compared to that of a men’s, but perhaps they both are trying to create a sense of order, or perhaps rebellion, within the monotony by projecting free roles onto their imprisoned bodies. The mind can never be jailed, but the physicality of being imprisoned can rot away extensively your ability to achieve or even desire success or rehabilitation, which for a woman may increase the desire to cling to some form of gender identity, and sometimes without much deliberation of the dynamics it creates.

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