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Prisons: Prisons for Women - Prison Subcultures

social structure life based

The study of prison subcultures investigates the way prisoners adjust to prison, the way they learn to "do their time," and the resulting prison social structure. By the 1960s and 1970s, scholars began to study the subculture of women's prisons and found that it was much different than life in male prisons. The first two of theses important works (Ward and Kassebaum; Giallombardo) discussed a prison social structure based on family, traditional sex-roles, and same-sex relations. In Women's Prison: Sex and Social Structure, Ward and Kassebaum found the women in prison felt a loss of control over their lives and anxiety over the course of their prison term. In order to alleviate these feelings, women participated in a prisoner social system to regain a sense of control and belonging while in prison. Included in these feelings of loss were "affectional starvation" resulting from their loss of family and male partners. Ward and Kassebaum suggested women prisoners developed the "pseudo family" and relationships with other prisoners to make up for this loss. Giallombardo's Society of Womenalso described the world of imprisoned women based on sex-role adaptation and family or kinship structures. She stated that the social order of women's prison is based on an adaptation of traditional feminine roles, such as mother, daughter, and wife. Masculine sex roles find expression in the prison social roles of the "stud." Giallombardo argued that the family or kinship structure of the women's prison is also based on this sex-role framework.

In a third classic study, Making It in Prison: The Square, the Cool, and the Life, Heffernan described how women prisoners organize their prison identities around two things: their preprison identities and their differential adaptation to the prison subculture. Women who did not define themselves as serious criminals prior to prison adopted "the Square" orientation to prison life, and continued to hold conventional behaviors and attitudes during their imprisonment. In contrast, women who adapted to prison life as "the Cool" became heavily invested in a prison-based identity and developed a form of doing time that was based on prison values. Finally, some women retained their street identity of the petty criminal and adopted "the Life" as their style of doing time. These three studies found remarkable similarities: Prison culture among women was tied to gender expectations of sexuality and family relationships and these expectations also shaped the way women developed their lives within prison.

Decades later, In the Mix: Struggle and Survival in a Women's Prison described the daily life of the women's prison, with an emphasis on the gendered nature of its social structure, roles, and normative frameworks. Owen also found that prison culture for women was tied directly to the role of women in society as well as to a dynamic social structure that was shaped by the conditions of women's lives in prison and in the "free world." Like Heffernan, In the Mix describes the lives of women before prison and suggests that these lives shape their adaptation to prison culture. Owen found that economic marginalization, histories of personal and substance abuse, and self-destructive behavior are defining features of inmate's lives prior to prison. She also saw that the amount of time women have to serve and their kinds of work and housing assignments affect the way women in prison "program," developing a pattern to their daily life and relationships that determines the way women adapt to prison. Since about 80 percent of the women in prison are mothers, great importance was placed on relationships with their children. Finally, Owen described "the mix" as part of prison culture that supported the rule-breaking behavior that propels women into prison. This study concluded that prison subcultures for women are very different from the violent and predatory structure of the contemporary male prison. Owen did not find the presence of gangs—a central feature of the contemporary male prison—at the prison she studied. Women experience "pains of imprisonment" but their prison culture offers them other ways to survive and adapt to these deprivations.

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