Observations from Pill Line


As an extra credit assignment for my Antho 206 class, we were asked to do a mini-ethnographic study. Ethnographic studies are rarely earth-shattering or revolutionary in and of themselves. However, they do focus on analyzing a particular setting in detail. With this in mind, I chose to do an ethnographic study on people standing in the A/B morning pill line. Here is my paper and accompanying notes:

Standing in pill line

I observed the interactions of people waiting in line for their morning medication on the A/B side pill line of the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington, over a period of six sessions, averaging twenty minutes each for a total of 120 minutes. The interactions between people in this setting is highly representational of the interactions between people in the men’s prisons of Washington state. Furthermore, these interactions are highly typical of people who have been acculturated to toxic masculinity, particularly the normalization of violence.(1)

Some of the ways that the normalization of violence manifests are subtle, particularly the contrast between the way people who have done time in closed custody and those who have only ever been to medium or minimum custody wait in line. Those who have done time in closed custody generally stand with their back to the wall and glance around regularly in a slow methodical scan of their surroundings. When they first enter the line they will nod, or say a quiet “good morning” to the person in front of them in line, then repeat this when someone gets in line behind them. This is less a greeting and more a symbolic interaction where each of the participants are signaling “I see you and I am not a threat.” If they know each other well, they may have a quiet conversation at this point.

In contrast to this, those who have never done time in a closed custody generally stand facing forward in line, will try to engage anyone they happen to be next to in conversation, and when they are told “it’s too early” or “please be quieter” will act as if they are being slighted or insulted. Eventually, over time, they will conform to the quiet which people are cultivating in the line. This is a subtle way that the culture of violence manifests. The point of the quiet is to pointedly create an atmosphere where no one’s temper will be set off, the assumption being that everyone is extra volatile and less in control of themselves while half awake and thus more likely to engage in violence.

An overt way in which the culture of violence manifests in pill line is through the people who are not in line for the purpose of getting their morning medication. These people usually stand in groups of 3-4 at the end of the line and have music playing loud enough to be heard 5-10 feet away through headphones resting on their neck. This music is usually gangster rap and the people listening to it have come to pill line for the express purpose of talking. They generally observe the quiet of the line by not being loud or boisterous or otherwise imposing on the people around them. As the line advances, they leave before rounding a corner in the hallway which would bring them into line of sight of a c/o. Both their music and their conversation serve to perpetuate toxic masculinity and is an example of acceptable male gender performance.(2)

Another way that the culture of violence manifests in pill line is how some individuals will “chase after” LGBTQ people, particularly trans women and those who are seen as promiscuous. These people will do their best to “just happen” to be next to the LGBTQ person they bear chasing, meaning they have a socially acceptable opportunity to speak with an LGBTQ person without risking the social stigma normally related to doing so. Often if the LGBTQ person moves to the back of the line, so will the person imposing on them. This is one of the few exceptions to the “don’t impose on people” social norm of pill line. This is specifically a manifestation of rape culture due to the indecent comments made by the person doing the chasing and the lack of consent allowed on the part of the LGBTQ person. This is one of the many bars that forms the cage of oppression LGBTQ people face in prison.(3) It is an unwinnable double bind where LGBTQ people have to choose between being ourselves or being safe. If an LGBTQ person is in a relationship or sleeps around then the assumption is that they cannot be raped because they are “obviously willing”. In these ways a perpetual threat of violence looms over the hears of LGBTQ people. These same tactics and assumptions are placed on people who are young and impressionable through the rationale that if they are not willing to (at minimum) posture willingness to fight over being imposed on, they are interested in sex.

If we take each of these examples individually, they do not seem to amount to a deep-seated corruption in the culture; however, when considered holistically and in context, we see that violence is more than just “approved of,” but is a key underlying assumption without which the cultural norms of prison become incomprehensible even when the activity in question does not at first seem to contain violence.

1) Katz. Tough Guise. documentary
2) Goffman. theory of gender display and performance. from lecture
3) Fry. (2000) Gender Basics, Part One: Oppression, pg 10-16


3-10-19 start time 7:00 end 7:25

most people stand quietly in one of two positions, back to the wall of the hallway or facing the front of the line

notable exceptions to the above: engage in hushed conversation. conversation is primarily about sports, complaints about conditions in the prison, women (in an objectifying way) upcoming things that individuals look forward to, such as receiving a food package or getting a job. three people constantly wander in small circles showing a high level of agitation Another group of people near the end of the line let others cut in front of them and use the pill line as an opportunity to talk to their friends. when they near the front of the line they leave before the turn in the hall brings them into the line of sight of the c/o

3-11-19 start: 7:05 end:7:25

people choose to move back in line in order to stand next to or with particular people in line. This has an effect of self-sorting a majority of people into racial groups. Those who are not self-sorted by race are either studiously ignoring those around them (self isolating) or have grouped together based upon some other affinity (religion, club membership, shared interest, etc) as is evidenced by their greetings to each other before their conversation lapses and they, like the majority of people in line, stand quietly.

3-12-19 start: 7:00 end: 7:15

People’s moods seem to have an inverse relationship to the amount of time the nurse takes to dispense meds. The longer the longer the nurse takes to dispense meds, the lower people’s moods become. I saw a violation of the social norm of not prying into other people’s business being quickly and sharply corrected through verbal jabs. This response may be tied to the amount of quiet seen in the pill line.

3-13-19 start 7:00 end 7:20

some people use the pill line as an opportunity to get out of the cell at 7 am. Others use it as a meet up location to talk or pass things/trade. There is one person who always takes a very long time at the window due to a combination of the large number of meds he takes and his constant arguments with the nurse. many people do not care if they are towards the front of the line or the back, as long as they are in front of him.

3-15-19 start 7:00 end 7:15

norm of people saying good morning upon first getting in line then going quiet. Few people listen to music while standing in line. they have their headphones resting on their neck or ear buds draped over their ears (as opposed to being placed in ears) with the volume turned up loud enough for everyone that is nearby to be able to hear. The music is usually rap or R&B with lyrics of a violent or sexual nature.

As people are lining up a small handful of people vie for positions next to someone who is known to be LGBTQ, or is young and impressionable. They then use the confines of the line as a means to have a “captive audience”. In some cases it is painfully apparent that the one being imposed on is using a plethora of tactics to end the conversation while the one doing the imposing is using a plethora of tactics to maintain the conversation. This includes following the person they are imposing on should they move back in line or leave the pill line.

3/16/19 start 7:00 end 7:25

The phrase “it’s too early” is a common refrain employed to communicate that the person on the receiving end of some action does not have the capacity to deal with the energy level of the person doing the action. such as sparking loudly, or greeting enthusiastically.


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