An aggressive prison behavioural subculture that focuses on masculinity and the assertion of dominance determines the experiences and behaviour of men in prison. An examination of the underlying factors that lead to heightened masculinity in an all-male prison reveals an atmosphere of hostility that subsequently influences the experiences of incarcerated males. This essay will discuss the applicability of Marxist theory in understanding and evaluating the experiences of men in prison.
It will ultimately argue that the Marxist theory can aid in assessing the experiences of men in prison, despite a Marxist tendency to ignore the prison subculture reality and the ability of a hypermasculine prison subculture to detract from traditional justifications for punishment. The power dynamics present in a hypermasculine prison environment is highly relevant to Marxist notions of inequality and dominance; however, the process of prisonization leads to a unique prison subculture, subsequently shaping the experiences of imprisoned men.
The past half century has involved a “dramatic shift in penological research away from the study of prison life and its associated pains of imprisonment” (Cesaroni and Alvi, 2010: 304). However, the impact of the prison environment on the prisoner’s experience has been well-established through empirical studies on incarceration. In all-male prisons specifically, the restriction of rights and lack of control leads to a state where masculine dominance is crucial to asserting power by a prisoner.
Over time, the long-term effects of imprisonment lead to a concept of prisonization, which involves the internalization of the prison subculture by the prisoner, demonstrated by Cohen and Taylor in 1974 (Watson 4 Nov 2015). This internalization leads to deeply rooted notions of masculinity resulting in a hypermasculine prison subculture. The need for power and dominance that develops from participating in criminal activity in society establishes the masculine attitude and behaviour is seen in prison.
These attitudes and behaviours are transferred from society to the prison experience, albeit with a significant reduction in the power and influence of the prisoner. The concept of hegemonic masculinity exemplifies this, which “accentuates male dominance, heterosexism, whiteness, violence, and competition” (Cesaroni and Alvi 2010: 308). Hegemonic masculinity provides the foundation for the male prison environment, creating a prison subculture focused on dominance, power, and associated control over the prison system.
The power structure that exists within the hyper-masculine prison environment embodies Marxist theory, since the establishment of male dominance and power demonstrates the hierarchy of the prison system. The prison environment is a concentration of the inequality that exists within a Marxist society. Thus, the power dynamics that are the foundation of this theory exist within the hyper-masculine prison environment, influencing the choices, behavior, and experiences of imprisoned men.
The behaviour that men exhibit or engage in is often dependent on what type of masculinity exists in a given environment or social setting;” and the poer dynamics existing within the prison environment reinforces instances of masculinity, shaping the male prisoner’s behavior and subsequent experience (Cesaroni and Alvi 2010: 309). Since the power dynamics that exist within an unequal society are the foundation of the male prison subculture, the importance of masculinity as a tool for social dominance is emphasized.
The need to assert dominance within an environment that restricts individual control and reinforces state authority defines the limits of individual prisoner control, primarily their appearance and perception of masculinity. The lack of choice and the restrictive power dynamics in prison results in the development and existence of hyper-masculinity within the prison subculture. Importantly, Marxist theory is able to explain the establishment of hegemonic masculinity within the prison subculture with reference to overwhelming power dynamics. The hyper-masculine prison subculture profoundly influences the male prisoner experience.
The constant environment of hostility and aggression exerts a psychological pressure on the male prisoner directly proportional to the duration of their imprisonment. Prisons “sustain, reproduce, and intensify the most negative aspects of masculinity, including physical violence, psychological intimidation, and constant bullying” (Cesaroni and Alvi 2010: 310). Threats, bullying, acts of aggression, and violence are prominent in all-male prison environments. Consequently, prison is not an environment conducive to mental or emotional stability.
Furthermore, the continual victimization of weaker male prisoners reinforces the concept of hegemonic masculinity: in order to ensure protection within the prison environment, the male prisoner is required to become, or appear to become, inordinately masculine. This serves to highlight the importance of delineating the basis for the hyper-masculine prison subculture and the implications it has for the experiences of imprisoned men. The idea of a hypermasculine prison subculture aligns with many Marxist concepts; however, focusing on inequalities within the system as described by Marxist theory obscures the realities of the prison subculture.
Within a Marxist perspective, the hypermasculine prison culture becomes an extension of societal inequality, and not a phenomenon resulting from the process of prisonization. The long-term effects of imprisonment, or prisonization, create circumstances that are distinct from modern society, and as men spend longer periods of time imprisoned, the segregation from society and restriction of choices creates a new environment where an appearance of masculinity is paramount.
The hyper-masculine prison subculture that develops from prisonization allows instances of inequality and masculinity to be portrayed in a manner different from society. While there are characteristics of prison that are illustrated by Marxist concepts of inequality, there are uniquely separate factors to consider in the experiences of imprisoned men. One of these is the resistance to prison control by the prisoners.
Cesaroni and Alvi studied the experiences of incarcerated Canadian male youth and demonstrated the existence of two forms of resistance to authority: “confrontational manifestations of power,” such as physical resistance, displays of bravado, and toughness and “everyday forms of subversion and dissent within custodial institutions” (Cesaroni and Alvi 2010: 313). The resistance of the “inconsistent, unfair exercise of power and authority” in these ways supports the hyper-masculine prison subculture that is denied by Marxist theory (Cesaroni and Alvi 2010: 312).
Although there can be resistance by the lower-classes within Marxist society in the form of a communist revolution where the working class becomes the only class, it exists to a different extent; the lower-class proletariat can overthrow the bourgeoisie, but this is not a viable option for prisoners. The power structure of the prison is more permanent, as the process of prisonization ensures that the prison subculture remains separate from mainstream society.
The masculinity that exists within the prison subculture, however, is a continuation of the culture the male prisoner engaged in through criminal activity prior to imprisonment. The foundation of masculinity is therefore the same regardless of residing in a prison or in modern society, as described by Marxist theory. Given this foundation, the specific instances of resistance that are unique to the prison experience ultimately do not detract from the underlying themes of Marxist power dynamics between the powerful state and the powerless prisoners.
The societal inequality extends to the prison subculture, and contributes to hegemonic masculinity of the male prisoner and their subsequent prison experience. The hyper-masculine prison subculture that exists as a result of Marxist power dynamics is relevant to discerning how an atmosphere of hegemonic masculinity affects the traditional justifications for punishment. Many justifications for punishment have no basis when considering prison reality: for example, when the offender is incapacitated or receives “just deserts,” what happens in the prison is of no concern.
However, by Marxist standards rehabilitation is considered a powerful ideological justification; within an aggressive and contentious environment, the male prisoners are consistently subjected to physical and emotional harm – circumstances that are not conducive to rehabilitation (Watson 21 Oct 2015). A hyper-masculine prison subculture does not encourage deterrence from crimes, an additionally important justification for punishment from a Marxist perspective.
In fact, the focus on demonstrating masculinity and dominance has the opposite effect, encouraging prisoners to accept a deviant and aggressive identity. The hyper-masculine prison subculture detracts from the power of justifications for punishment, which has implications for rehabilitative and deterrent purposes within a prison; however, it ultimately does not lessen the applicability of Marxist theory in evaluating the experience of imprisoned men, because the foundation of the hyper-masculine prison subculture remains the same.
The need to establish male dominance and power within a prison environment correlates with the underlying power dynamics existing in a Marxist society, making Marxist theory beneficial in evaluating the experiences of imprisoned men. Marxist theory, however, ignores the realities of the male prison experience: the prison subculture is unique in many aspects, especially in the resistance of prisoners to prison authority in subtle and pervasive ways, as a result of the process of prisonization.
The experiences of imprisoned men and the forms of resistance to authority are not regularly consistent with Marxist theory, but the foundation of the power dynamics in both prisons and society are, despite having different structures. Marxist theory therefore highlights the underlying factors contributing to the existence of hyper-masculine prisoner subculture, and the influence these factors have on the male prisoner experience, with the limitations of experiences and forms of resistance to authority.