Inside/outside: Men in prison

How do class, masculinity, sexuality and race intersect in and with the prison system? Is prison any sort of solution to crime? David Denborough has the story.

This article seeks to explore some of the ways in which prison systems interact with the dynamics of race, gender and particularly class. It is not intended to criticise departments in charge of prisons for I realise that they are only one player in far broader cultural systems. It is instead directed particularly at those middle-class and ruling-class Australians who are all too easily convinced to negate their responsibilities to create a society where crime needs no longer exist, and instead opt to punish harder, and for longer, the most disadvantaged of society.

Prison is a world with its own language, culture and ways of being. In one short article I have had to ignore the dedication of individual staff, the innovation of various new programs, and the absolute magic of humour that cuts across all boundaries. I have had to oversimplify what is a complex and contradictory world.


I HAVE been working in a maximum security institution for 18 months. When I first entered the prison system, as a 22-year-old, middle-class, private school-educated gubba (white man), I discovered for the first time that I was a "squarehead". I was intrigued to find out what it meant. I was told, "It means a stuck-up poof who can't fuck."

The ways that class, gender and sexuality issues intertwine never cease to amaze me. "Squarehead" was the inmates' way of pointing out that I have benefited from class relations in this society while they have been exploited. It was notice to me that I needed to develop principles and ways of working across a class divide that would be respectful to their experiences. Well, at least that's how I interpreted it. My first task was to try to understand what role prison plays in terms of class conflict.

Yes there's a class war

WORKING-CLASS people traditionally have been vastly over represented within Australian prisons. Indeed Australia itself was once England's dumping ground for an entire under-class. In many ways this dynamic continues today as unemployed people are over represented in gaol by five times. This is due to at least seven factors. (The first two are the suggestions of Australian academic Bob Connell.)

  • A substantial amount of crime is actually resistance to social inequalities. These inequalities affect the working class who resist often in highly visible ways, which are subsequently policed and result in incarceration.
  • Related to this resistance, working-class men, denied access to economic and cultural resources, may develop ways of being men in which violent and/or criminal activity is accepted and even viewed as honourable.
  • A good deal of crime, including much drug-related crime, is prompted by poverty.
  • The discriminatory policing of Aboriginal populations and the social dislocation caused by over 200 years of white oppression lead to high rates of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  • The wealthy are less likely to be sentenced to prison for the same offences, because of their better access to resources, support and references and because of simple judicial prejudice.
  • The wealthy commit crimes that are less often detected and less harshly punished such as price fixing, insider trading, environmental pollution, fraudulent bankruptcies, drug-trafficking, breaches of occupational health and safety regulations and tax avoidance.
  • More particularly, the legal system only really punishes physical interpersonal violence, which is only one behaviour that men use to control and dominate. It is working-class men who are commonly policed for using interpersonal violence while wealthier men have access to other methods of domination and control through the power of industry, finances, media, bureaucracies and indeed the armed forces.

As a result of all these factors, when I walk into the prison system I often feel as if I am walking into a key site of class warfare. The fronts move and change depending upon the political climate. When political establishments resort to "law and order" platforms to win votes, this invariably leads to increased policing and incarceration of the disadvantaged, often in times of greater-than-usual economic hardship.

It is crucial to understand crime in terms of class conflict: to politicise crime. It is also crucial to acknowledge that in working class men's violent crimes they are not only the victims of social injustice but they are also contributing to a system in which force and domination are seen as legitimate ways of life. Particularly in cases of violence against women, working-class men are playing out power dynamics upon others just as these have been played out on them.

In the trenches

THE battle front of this class war within the prison system historically has been between inmates and "screws" (prison officers) as this is the point where the working-class "crims' meet the system face to face. There was once a powerful solidarity between inmates and a recognition of such a struggle which would at times culminate in violence and riots. The lines were clearly drawn - between the working class crims and the system. Both officers and inmates are from extremely similar backgrounds, making the situation more complex. The policing of the working class is done by other members of the working class who are in turn hated like no others. Screws and the police are seen as class traitors who cannot be forgiven. In reality, of course, officers are relatively powerless, simply one step up the rung of a hierarchical, military-like structure. Indeed, some inmates point out that prison officers seem to have even less opportunity for personal and professional development than inmates.

There have been enormous changes over the past decade. The antagonism between "screw' and "crim' is still there but it is no longer the battle front that it once was. Improvements to officer training and recruitment and improvements to prison life including new programs, more flexible property rules, more activities for inmates and less violence have all contributed to a lessening of tension. But there are two further important factors.

Inmates' attempts to maintain a degree of solidarity have received two crucial challenges. Firstly, a dramatic change in the prison population has occurred with many inmates now in on drug-related crimes. There is a perception among inmates that drugs have eroded their solidarity and trust. Other inmates argue that an increased and more formalised use of prison informers has had a similar effect. To some extent inmates are now policed by other inmates and must always be careful about who they trust in case they are "dogs" (informers). Dogs are seen as traitors and punished at any opportunity.

For some inmates improved relations between inmate and officer have been experienced as disempowering. Older inmates will tell you they preferred it how it used to be when at least there was a sense of identity and an avenue for resistance. On the other hand, watching officers and inmates share stories of their experiences and relationships in a group is inspiring, and would never have happened ten years ago.

A gendered world

HIERARCHIES of men and masculinities form within prisons, as everywhere else, with the stronger gaining better access to extremely scarce resources. A dominant masculinity emerges - usually one which revolves around one's crime, propensity to violence, ethnicity and sexuality. A prison "heavy" might be a lifer - someone in for murder, known to be able to defend himself, indeed to have killed before, who is identified as heterosexual.

Contradictions are rife however, with issues such as educational standard, outside contacts, wealth and friendships all offering challenges to the picture above. It is also interesting to note that it is often the lifers who are a calming influence on younger prisoners and who often initiate programs and keep the peace.

The men and masculinities that are most at risk within these hierarchies are young men, gay men, transsexuals and the physically weak. An inmate at risk from other inmates is in an extraordinarily powerless position with little recourse to outside authorities for fear of being branded a "dog". Attempts to gain inmate group or class solidarity are at the expense of the least powerful within the group.

Prison is also in many ways a homoerotic world. One is constantly surrounded by men with astonishingly fit and muscular bodies, many of which are shaved for "better muscle definition". Sexuality in prison is rife with contradiction. Consensual homosexual sex (often involving men who identify as heterosexual) coexists with vehement homophobia. Many men inside will testify to being "poofter bashers". It's also important to consider issues of sexual assault both within prison and in childhood (especially in boys' homes) and for both survivors and perpetrators. Attitudes to women play themselves out in relation to transsexuals and also through phone calls and visits with women partners and interactions with female staff. Many men use pornography in prison and some are concerned as to how this, and impulsive, furtive, desperate sexual contact on visits impacts not only on their relationships but also on the way they view women in general. With the advent of female officers and professional staff, the gender dynamics of prisons are gradually changing. Let us hope the opportunity that this presents for challenging misogynistic attitudes is realised.

Race relations

THE issue of race further complicates power relations within prisons. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up only two percent of the general Australian population but 10 percent of the prison population. As Aboriginal inmates support one another and maintain a large degree of solidarity, this offers some power and a challenge to white inmates. It is a strange and limited power however, for it is located within white man's racist prisons, within white man's laws and within a civilisation that is described by one Aboriginal inmate as "one big prison". Prisons play a large part in the ongoing injustice perpetrated towards the indigenous peoples of this country. Nothing shows this more clearly than the disappointingly slow implementation of the recommendations of the Black Deaths in Custody Royal Commission.

Crime as individual

THE prison system is a symbol of the wider societal message that individuals are solely responsible for social problems such as crime. Such a message manages to move any responsibility away from those groups that collectively have power onto relatively powerless individuals. As a result, people who have benefited from current economic systems need take no responsibility for the poverty and economic exploitation which encourage crime and drug use; men collectively don't need to take responsibility for moving masculinity away from notions of domination, sexism and violence which benefit all men while at the same time lead to male violence; and white Australians don't need to take responsibility for ending racist practices that lead to the over-policing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In the prison system psychology is at times used to rationalise and deny economic, race and gender injustice as factors in crime. This is quite an achievement as they are the most obvious of factors!

The French philosopher, Michel Foucault describes how prisons are not really intended to be any more humane than the "primitive" wheel or gallows. He argues instead that they in fact "punish betterä to insert the power to punish more deeply into the social body." What could be a more powerful method of punishment than firstly turning inmate upon inmate, and secondly, convincing someone that their crime is solely their fault and that they are psychologically dysfunctional as a consequence, when in reality their crime is a reaction to, and at times a form of resistance against, social inequalities?

Moving forward

I AM not so naive as to ignore the fact that many men in prison are a danger to themselves and others. But to place men who are used to using force and domination to control others into a situation where they will have no control over their own lives, in an institutional system with domination and control as its very essence, seems a little counter-productive.

There is no doubt that we must ensure the safety of the community and this may necessitate jail-like structures for limited periods of time where men who are violent undergo programs for reducing violence. Such approaches ought to locate individuals' controlling and dominating ways of relating within a societal context, considering class, race, gender and sexuality differentials, while still encouraging the individual to take responsibility for his actions and the parts he plays in replicating systems of social injustice. The work of Alan Jenkins and Michael White offers an ideal starting point. Such approaches will work far more effectively in humane settings. One cannot expect people to become more respectful after participating in programs that are disrespectful to their experiences, meanings and lives. On a broader societal level all men need to take responsibility for ending men's violence - both its interpersonal expressions and those forms of domination and control exercised through institutions.

It is imperative that the injustices of our present economic system are acknowledged and that we develop alternatives. At the same time we must ensure that our legal system does not criminalise legitimate resistance to poverty and disadvantage. This includes the criminalisation of drug use which punishes the poor as they resort to crime to fuel their habits. Incidentally, such habits have often been formed in the context of child abuse, homelessness and poverty, which are themselves expressions of power relations.

As an absolute priority gubbas such as myself must ensure that the over-policing and incarceration of the indigenous people of this country ceases and that culturally appropriate means of addressing crime are developed.

It is time the issue of people in prison was taken seriously, particularly by middle-class gubbas such as myself. At this very moment behind razor wire and thick stone walls life goes on. I invite you to get to know this other world, take responsibility for it and develop alternatives.


First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 4(3), Spring 1994. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995