A primary component of the prison culture is violence, whether it is towards oneself or others. This rampant abuse manifests itself verbally, emotionally, and physically. This week’s readings from Prison Nation, Prison Masculinities and the Detroit Free Press demonstrate how violence is used in prison as a means of exhibiting power, dominance, and masculinity over the weak. These acts of violence demean victims and instill a sense of fear. Because of this fear of retaliation and general sense of brokenness, few cases of sexual assault within the prison system are ever reported. This cycle of demeaning abuse wielding power creates a taboo component of the prison system that we often neglect to acknowledge.
A quote from female prisoner Toni Bunton sums up the series from the Detroit Free Press on sexual assault in Michigan prisons: “Being a prisoner is the lowest you can be in life. Being a female prisoner is so much worse” (7). The series tells the story of an 18 year old woman, Bunton, at Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth Township, known for being wild, having few rules, and almost no physical boundaries between guards and prisoners. Bunton was repeatedly raped and sexually abused by correctional officers during her time at Scott. She was systematically, overtly degraded. Bunton “had the humanity beaten out of her” as one psychologist who examined her in jail reported. The most interesting part of Toni’s story is her initial attitude towards her abuse. Toni didn’t report anything because she feared retaliations from the other guards. “He said he would make my life miserable… I felt it was part of the punishment. I blamed myself.” Toni’s sentiments demonstrate how sexual abuse, especially within the confines of the prison system, removes any sense of power and self-worth a prisoner might possess. Only after educating herself did Toni regain the confidence to speak up about her experience and press charges against the Scott Correctional Facility. Education is one of the few ways that any sense of dignity and empowerment can be regained to victims of sexual abuse within the prison system.
An important factor towards understanding sexual abuse within this context is the overt masculine nature of the prison system. Men’s pursuit of masculinity demonstrated through their relationships with each other influence how men end up in prison in the first place, how they function on the “inside”, and what happens to them once they are released back into their communities. Rather than reduce crime, Sabo, Kupers and London claim that imprisonment in the United States perpetuates men’s violent tendencies, thus leading to more crime and violence. Prison, by its nature, is a patriarchal institution. Men increasingly dominate the system with each step up the status ladder. Prison is also a hierarchical system in which the strongest, most dominant figures exercise power over the most vulnerable. The way to survive in prison, whether you are a prisoner or a guard, is to be as “manly” as possible. Men are quick to anger and to defend their manhood. Homosexuality is feared. Ironically, rape is a way for more dominant males to feminize weaker, more vulnerable males. The message delivered is as such: “I, the dominant man, have the right and the power to use you, the loser, sexually, as if you were a woman and my slave” (115). The only way to “make it” while locked up is to be tougher than everyone else.
Sexual abuse, in any arena, is extremely degrading and dehumanizing. The fact that when it is set within the confines of the prison system, sexual abuse goes highly unnoticed, says a lot about how we view the worth of the lives of prisoners. Rape and violence in U.S. prisons is low on the radar of prison authorities and politicians because we already view prisoners as unworthy of humane treatment. We tend to forget about the worth a man or woman’s life who deliberately disobeyed the social norms enforced by the law. This dehumanization through punishment is another reason why the prison system fails to rehabilitate criminals. Only when we treat offenders as worthy of compassion and basic humane treatment will they be able to be reintroduced into society and turn away from a life of crime.