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Book Forum: Psychopathy and Violence   |    
Prison Masculinities
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:1801-1802. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.10.1801
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Philadelphia, Pa.

Edited by Don Sabo, Terry Kupers, and Willie London. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2001, 296 pp., $55.65; $17.47 (paper).

This is a fascinating book! It is well written and well edited by three diverse editors—a professor of sociology, a psychiatrist, and a poet who happens to be a prisoner in a New York correctional institution. These three men have combined their talents, their interests, and their efforts to produce a book that is revolutionary, inspiring, and upsetting, all at the same time. The book is so rich in its breadth and depth that it would be difficult to summarize it in a few sentences. It really must be read not only by those who are concerned about the conditions within our prison system in the United States but also by those who are concerned about the effects of that system on the men (and women) who ultimately return to the community often worse off than when they were first arrested.

Most individuals who are incarcerated have not committed violent crimes. Many have, but the majority have not. Yet, while in prison, the chapter authors point out, young men have to learn to adopt a violent attitude in order to survive. They use the word "masculinities" not only in its sexual connotation but primarily as a gender issue to illustrate the problems that men in prison have as a result of the culture of "masculinization."

The editors speak of the prison code in a homosocial environment. They speak about "doing masculinities in prison." They give the following examples regarding the core commandments within the prison:

Even if you do not feel tough enough to cope, act as if you are. Suffer in silence. Never admit you are afraid. Whatever you see "going down"…do not get involved and do not say anything. Do not snitch—the penalty can be death. Unless you want to be branded a punk, do not do anything that will make other prisoners think you are gay, effeminate, or a sissy. Act hard and avoid any semblance of softness. Do not help the authorities in any way. Do not trust anyone. Always be ready to fight, especially when your manhood is challenged, and act as if you do not mind hurting or even killing someone (this is sometimes the only way to avoid being put in a position of having to hurt or kill).

That last statement is chilling: it shows that the culture within the prison teaches the individual to act as though he is ready to kill someone in order to avoid a situation where he may have to kill someone.

In other sections, the chapter authors point out the failure of the prison system as it is now constituted. They discuss, for example, the release of individuals directly from solitary confinement to the street, where they have no possibility of getting a job, have not learned how to socialize effectively within the prison system, and are expected to get a job if they are to maintain their parole status. They point to the failure of the system and the return of many individuals to the prisons.

This book is primarily a political treatise on the use of masculinities or male gender issues to perpetuate a failing system and to keep various people in power or in business. In addition, the editors raise the question of race and its political issue in the prison system. They point to the overwhelming majority of men of color in the prison system far beyond their representation in the community at large. Angela Davis, one of the chapter authors, presents her views of "Race, Gender, and Prison History: From the Convict Lease System to the Supermax Prison." From the standpoint of sexual problems for men in a homosocial environment where sex is not allowed, the chapter titled "Caged and Celibate," by Mumia Abu-Jamal, depicts the problems for the men who are not supposed to engage in sexual activities.

What is unique about this book is the inclusion of several pieces by inmates or former inmates reflecting their experiences in the prison system. There are treatises, firsthand accounts, and poetry that reflect the extremely difficult conditions faced by inmates in our prison system. The authors even distinguish among the various people who are incarcerated by the labels we give them, e.g., a prisoner is "a positive thinker, always thinking freedom…not a snitch, trustworthy among prisoners." A convict is one who has been "convicted of a crime, has a con mentality of trying to get over on anyone in any way possible, guilty but considers himself to be a ‘victim of the system.’ " And an inmate is one who will "do anything, has no individual will or resistance, acts as a snitch. The term ‘inmate’ is used to deceive the public and prisoners about the abuses and injustice in the prison system."

Reading this book led me to three thoughts. First, I was reminded of the treatise by Dr. Herbert Thomas (1), a very thoughtful psychoanalyst and correctional psychiatrist, who studied the concept of shame in the prisoners in the state correctional institution at Pittsburgh, where he has worked for many years. People entering the system have a sense of shame for having been caught and labeled as inmates, convicts, or prisoners. They may experience further shame at the hands of guards who may be sadistic and humiliating to them. If they are unfortunate enough to be sexually abused or raped by another inmate, they will experience even further shame and loss of self-esteem.

Second, women have talked about rape as a violent act of domination rather than a sexual act. Clearly, in prisons, homosexual rape is an act of violence and domination and unlikely to be sexually motivated in some cases.

The third association I had while reading the book was with the very fine drama on prison life on the Home Box Office network titled Oz. On the cover of the book, Tom Fontana, the creator of Oz, is quoted as saying, "Every legislator in America should be locked in solitary and forced to read this book."

I would not go as far as Mr. Fontana, but I would highly recommend the reading of this book to any thoughtful psychiatrist, mental health worker, or corrections officer who cares about the mental health of our prisoners and who also cares about the welfare of our community, which is exposed to the inmates who are released from prison, many of whom are more violent and less socially able than they were before they were incarcerated.

Finally, the book has a section on rehabilitation that offers suggestions about changing the system to allow for a more appropriate environment for men who must be locked away for committing crimes. The masculinities culture described by the editors and the authors of this fine book needs to be studied, explored, and modified in order to improve the mental health of our inmates as well as to protect society when these inmates return to live among us. We are all involved, even though the prison system has been set in isolation and away from the consciousness of us all. We do not like to think about what happens to people once they are whisked away to prison to serve their time for committing crimes against society. However, this book reminds us that we must be aware of the conditions in prison and must help to change the situation for the benefit not only of the prisoners, inmates, and convicts, but also their families, their friends, and the community at large.

Thomas HE: The Shame Response to Rejection. Sewickley, Pa, Albanel, 1997


Thomas HE: The Shame Response to Rejection. Sewickley, Pa, Albanel, 1997

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