Paging the Gender Police


Seeing the ways that gender norms and gendered activities play out in prison is interesting to say the least. Oddly, the thing that got me thinking about this is cursing.

In the men’s facilities cursing is a normal occurrence. In fact during my 15 months in Spokane County Jail five days a week my day started as follows:

Officer Daily: Morning Kim. Breakfast. How the hell are you?
Me: Fuck Off. Gimmie. Thanks.

Similar variations of this happened all the time in Walla Walla and Monroe in my interactions with (usually male) staff. In the woman’s prison, the c/o (usually a woman) would get a staff misconduct grievance put on her and the inmate would get a minor infraction if this happened.

There is a particular type of demure femininity being enforced by the prison. A femininity which assumes a pretty girl must have a pretty mouth and thus should not have ugly words coming out if it. Conversely, men have to perform a masculinity in which toughness appears in every interaction, even if it’s just picking up breakfast. The same set of rules exist in both the men’s and woman’s facilities, but they are enforced (or not) very differently. You don’t get much more of a clear cut sexist double standard than that.

But wait, there’s more!

There are many other rules which are enforced differently in the men’s and women’s facilities for obviously gendered reasons.

Men are required to tuck in their shirts. Women are not. This is because the image of a professional man includes a tucked in shirt, where as a professional woman does not. This actually goes against safety and security since it is easier to smuggle contraband with a tucked in shirt. Another wardrobe-centered item is the wearing of slacks. In the men’s facilities men are required to wear slacks anytime they go to school, work, or even the chow hall. In the women’s facility we are allowed to wear sweats or slacks anytime and anywhere. The rule technically says we have to wear pants. Thus the difference shows up in what is defined as “pants for men” vs what is defined as “pants for women” making it so the rule is enforced differently. The definition of words change based on what gendered context a person is in.

Taking this a step further, the very gender of incarcerated people is not determined by DNA, sex assigned at birth, or gender identity. It is defined by geography. When I was in a men’s facility I was treated as, searched as, and considered a male inmate, regardless of my transgender status. However, now that I am in a woman’s facility, I am treated as a female inmate. This imposition of gender takes place because the prison itself is treated as a gendered entity. There are hundreds of tiny ways this shows up, the clearest example I can think of is gardening. Gardens planted in men’s facilities are overwhelmingly vegetable gardens, playing into a “man as farmer” archetype. Whereas, gardens in the woman’s facility are overwhelmingly flower gardens, “woman as florist” archetype.
In the men’s facilities only dog programs are available to the general population, and the dog programs which are available have to do with the rehab of rescue animals in closed custody facilities and training dogs to be service animals in medium and minimum custody facilities. Only in the prison psych wards can an incarcerated person in a men’s facility get a cat.

In the woman’s facility there is a dog grooming program, and there is both dog and cat rescue/rehab programs available to people in general population.

Again, we see gender norms being recreated. For a man to have a cat there must be something wrong with him, but it is normal for a woman. Men train dogs for utility. Women make dogs look pretty. Men do something useful while women do something ornamental.

My last example is the TV cable packages. The men’s facilities average 60 to 80 channels, depending on which facility we’re talking about. Most men’s facilities have access to TVW in addition to multiple sports channels, educational channels, and movie channels. Furthermore, there are almost no Spanish channels (like one or two). The woman’s facility has 29 channels, no movie channels, no sports channels, no access to TVW, and six Spanish channels. We could be given access to the NASA channel, as well as a handful of other STEM centered educational channels, since they are a part of the 70 channel cable package which has been negotiated for this facility, but we don’t get those.
Instead, 1/6th of our channels are in Spanish and thus are (presumably) devoted to serving less than 1/10th of the prison’s population. To contrast this, 1/35th of the channels are in Spanish in the men’s facilities and they presumably serve over 1/3rd of the population in the men’s facilities.

The assumption being that a Spanish speaking women doesn’t need to learn English to get a job, but a man does. Men need access to STEM programming, State level political news through TVW, and quality entertainment but women don’t. Men need to be provided entertainment while women are expected to provide our own.

Prisons, being total institutions, indoctrination the people in them to these gender norms whether the people in them realize it or not. With such a large percentage of the US population passing through these institutions, it makes me wonder how much regendering of social norms and reinforcement of the gender binary is taking place due to the prison industrial complex.


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