For the upper and middle classes, power can effectively be expressed through economic, vocational, and academic avenues. For the lower classes, however, many of these routes to upward social mobility are denied, leaving only direct physical means for obtaining power or control (Miller, 1958). Correspondingly, a standard based on physical prowess and ability can develop (Messerschmidt, 1999). Many perform physically oriented jobs, and likewise find the physical realm of achievement to be their best hope in moving upward through the social order (Messerschmidt, 1999). Such an example might be the “ghetto kid” turned pro football or basketball star, or the rural small-town kid turned Marine Corps hometown hero. These images them- selves are stereotypes that serve to maintain the power structure as well as the means of achievement.
With the prison population being drawn disproportionately from the less affluent members of society, it should come as no surprise that prison norms may, in various subtle ways, exem- plify power status norms held by the lower classes (Miller, 1958; Tucker, 1981). The members of the “prison society” are even less socially powerful than their socioeconomic counterparts who are not incarcerated. For these members, physical prowess and coercion become the primary method of achieving power in the prison setting. Thus, aside from some rare exceptions, such as successful “writ writers” or inmates who have affluent family members, those who are physically powerful tend to also be the most socially powerful within the prison. Within the male inmate subculture, the expression of physical prowess as power
is frequently paired with roles of masculinity, which, in turn, rein- forces the subculture of physical prowess within the prison set- ting (Messerschmidt, 1999).
The meaning of masculinity is different in prison than in mainstream society. In prison the meaning is reinforced as men in this location act to affirm their masculinity in the limited ways that are available (Messerschmidt, 1999). This results in a modi- fied form of “hegemonic masculinity,” which emphasizes negative attitudes toward authority, control over others, aggressiveness, and social reinforcement for violent acts (Messerschmidt, 1999). Previously learned sexual and social styles of masculinity, as exer- cised in the broader society, are adapted and altered within prison so that the male inmate does not lose his position of dominance and control. To fail to do so results in the male inmate accepting a subservient role, or as it is termed in the prison subculture, the role and label of a “woman” (Tucker, 1981). In essence, sexual violence among inmates is a statement of power, status, and control.
It is through both the means and the threat of violence that dominance and control are achieved, with the victim ultimately being given the label of “punk.” This is true even in cases that prison officials may term “voluntary” or “consensual” sex. This connection between forced and voluntary homosexuality was illus- trated in interviews conducted by Davis (1982), during which he found that “consensual” homosexuals tended to be subjugated heterosexuals who had been forced to engage in sex to avoid physical harm. This process, referred to as being “turned out” or “punked out,” effectively redefines and labels the victim’s role in prison as that of a punk, or subjugated homosexual (Tucker, 1981). Thus, the homosexual orientation and label placed upon the devi- ant is not one of self-choice or personal preference, but is forced upon him by more powerful members of the inmate subculture.
Labeling Theory as a Paradigm for Prison Rape Etiology
According to Lemert (1999), the deviant is a product of gradual, unconscious processes that are part of socialization, especially subcul- tural socialization. Lemert also asserted that the personality change that occurs from accepting and internalizing a deviant label is not always gradual but can be sudden. As Lemert (1999) states, “it must be taken into consideration that traumatic experiences often speed up changes in personality” (p. 386). This is especially true for inmates who are vic- tims of prison gang rape in which multiple assailants attack and repeat- edly rape an inmate-victim. For the victim of gang rape, entering into a sexual relationship with one man in return for protection can be an adaptive coping mechanism for survival within the prison subculture.
Lemert (1999) further states that “when a person begins to employ his deviant behavior or role . . . as a means of defense, attack, or adjustment to the overt and covert problems created by the
Chapter 10: Prison Subculture and Prison Gang Influence 243
consequent societal reaction to him, his deviance is secondary” (p. 388). In the previous example, the initial gang rape can be thought of as the source of primary deviance, whereas the deliberate decision to engage in “consensual” homosexuality with one partner essentially results in a more solidified self-identity. But this process creates a degree of cogni- tive dissonance within the individual, which, when resolved, tends to leave the victim more willing to engage in future homosexual conduct. Indeed, this dissonance is the crux of this adjustment process where the victim’s original identity is juxtaposed against his or her newly ascribed identity, resulting in an eventual psychological metamorpho- sis from the point of primary deviance to that of secondary deviance through future acts of homosexuality (Festinger, 1958; Lemert, 1999). Throughout the process of coping with this dissonance, typical acute symptoms of this trauma, such as intrusive recollections and/or dreams about the assault, intense distress over stimuli that remind the victim of the assault, hypervigilance, difficulties sleeping and eating, and unex- plained or exaggerated outbursts of anger, are likely to be experienced. Those who cannot successfully navigate this dissonance present with the previous symptoms on a chronic level, coupled with more serious and self-damaging psychological impairments associated with rape trauma (e.g., self-mutilation and suicide). The fact that these victims must repetitively subject themselves to subsequent victimization natu- rally exacerbates their likelihood for long-term psychological impair- ment and emotional injury.
But the victim of male prison rape will find it necessary to adjust to this new role since the sexual values of mainstream society are completely inverted within the prison subculture. The inmate perpetrator who willingly engages in predatory homo- sexual activity would typically be given the marginalized label of “homosexual” or “bisexual” in the broader society. Ironically, however, within the prison there is exactly the opposite effect with a corresponding increase in social status and “manhood” for the perpetrator of sexual assault. Within the prison subcul- ture, rapists are considered masculine conquerors of effeminate punks (Weiss & Friar, 1974). The aggressor is not held as homo- sexual in orientation but is simply assuming a position of power within the subcultural norms of prison life. The victim of the prison sexual assault, however, suffers an injury greater than the sexual assault alone, as the victim’s entire social position within the prison is effectively compromised and redefined.
Over time, many inmates who are forced into the subjugated role of punk learn that certain creature comforts can be obtained if they are willing to comply with sexual demands. Thus, many come to identify with and dress the part, to act the part, and even to rational- ize their role. Indeed, this role can frequently go well beyond that of simple sexual services, extending to a relationship of complete and total servitude. Many will submit to cooking, cleaning, mending, and other activities typically held to be “feminine” by the prison subcul- ture as well as mainstream society. Some inmates, upon acceptance of the punk label and resolution of the dissonance associated with secondary deviance, will even go so far as to involve themselves in competitive hypergamy, or the practice of achieving upward mobility through “marriage” within the prison subculture (Tucker, 1981).
While these inmates will frequently rationalize their activity as one of survival, their participation can lead them to a com- plete internalization of the role. With the label fully applied, many “homosexual” inmates will thus make the most of their remaining
time in prison and will strive to obtain whatever securities their role can bring them. When the inmate begins to see himself as a punk and resolves his feelings of dissonance, the label becomes a source of self-identity. While the label of punk denotes lower status within the inmate pecking order, the punk learns to fulfill the role in a manner that allows a relatively trouble-free existence, so long as he continues to live the role. Thus, what was once a forced or coerced label effectively becomes a label with which the victimized inmate identifies and which he accepts as a definition of his self.
Lemert (1999) maintains that role conceptions of the individual must be reinforced by the reactions of others. Many inmates have found that the institutional system simply does not care, lending tacit approval to sexual violence through a form of conscious disregard. According to Scacco (1975), “the shocking fact is that there is both overt and covert implication of officers in the attacks that take place in penal institutions” (p. 30). Likewise, Weiss and Friar (1974) assert that “prisoners are convinced that prison rape is an integral part of the prison punishment sys- tem,” adding that inmates frequently contend that “prison rape is sanctioned by prison authorities. They view it as the ultimate method of control and punishment” (p. X). In this manner, mem- bers of the prison staff essentially serve to perpetuate and exac- erbate the labeling process for “homosexuals” within the prison.
What is more, prison staff, both wittingly and unwittingly, serve to further marginalize the inmates labeled as punks when separating them from the general inmate population. These protective measures have a negative side effect since they can further reinforce the label punks are given. Likewise, the inmate punk is hesitant to go to prison authorities for assistance, due to further negative labels of being an informant or a snitch. Similarly, many inmates may be hesitant to discuss these issues with prison mental health staff for fear that such disclosures will be pro- vided to authorities, ultimately making them a snitch for seeking psycho- logical services for their difficulties. Such labels can have deadly results for the inmate. Thus, the inmate who seeks to avoid the labeling process finds himself with few avenues of escape or emotional assistance. The inmate either must fight off assaults or be cursed with one adverse label or another, if not both “punk” and “snitch.” In either case, the prospects are frequently grim, with the most likely result being that the punk label is assumed by the inmate.
An inmate with the label of punk is cut off and isolated from participating in conventional activities that the dominant inmate enjoys. Once the status of punk is given, it is effectively ironclad, and the punk finds himself marginalized within the prison popu- lation, leading him to seek out others who share a similar set of circumstances (Tannenbaum, 1938). The role of punk is one that allows the “weaker” inmate within the prison power structure to exist, but through an exploitative (rather than consensual) relation- ship. The powerful residents within this inmate subculture have thus effectively labeled the punk, who “voluntarily” assumes the role. The superior masculine role, desired and maintained by the majority of inmates, has been denied the punk, who is now considered deviant by both inmate subculture and larger social norms.
SOURCE: Hanser, R. D. (2003). Labeling theory as a paradigm for the
etiology of prison rape: Implications for understanding and intervention.
Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections. Retrieved from
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