Proving oneself a man and remaining such: Provisional masculinity in prison


Prisons are masculine places. As such, they are foremost about power: not only about the power of the state that keeps men – worlwide, in average 93% of prisoners are men – inside the prison walls, but also about the power of informal prisoner societies that exist in various forms in all men’s prisons across the globe. My ethnographic research in a Ukrainian prison found a very powerful, tight, masculine informal prisoner structure that shaped and regulated the very minute details of daily life of incarcerated men, whilst bolstering the masculine ideal to which men had to aspire or otherwise face severe consequences.

This informal prisoner ‘society’ was the epitome of patriarchy. As we know, patriarchy operates through solidarity and exclusion: solidarity of men and exclusion of women. The prisoner society reproduces this by, one the one hand, propagating the ideal of prisoner solidarity (vis-à-vis the prison administration) and, on the other hand, excluding men who do not meet the expected standard of ‘manliness’. To be – or rather to prove and then remain a man in prison – men must endure the travails of imprisonment with emotional and physical stoicism, retain personal dignity, follow the informal rules (ponyáttya), and use discretion when dealing with the formal authorities. The masculine solidarity in the prison, fraternal care and support are epitomized in the informal institution of the mutual-aid fund (obshchák). Prisoners contribute to it by donating cigarettes, food, and clothing items that are redistributed to those in need: usually new arrivals, destitute prisoners without outside support, or those in segregation. Conversely, as in other prisoner socialities, the Ukrainian prison underworld excludes and oppresses gay men, men lacking physical or emotional fortitude, and men who have committed ‘unmanly’ crimes – primarily offences against children. Symbolically the prisoner underworld downgrades these ‘failed men’ to a status of women and outcasts. Other prisoners refer to these ‘outcasts’ in feminine and derogatory terms, whilst these emasculated men have no say in informal prisoner affairs and perform ‘feminine’ tasks of cleaning, including toilets; some also provide paid sexual favours. The outcasts’ physical separation means their beds in dormitories and tables in the cafeteria stand away from those of the rest. The informal prisoner society prohibits shaking hands with outcasts – a handshake being an important symbol of fratriarchy and of masculine recognition and respect in a Ukrainian traditional culture. These ‘failed men’ are also barred from drinking tea (chifir) with others, whereas tea-drinking in a circle symbolises masculine recognition and fraternity in a Ukrainian prison.

Such exclusion and stratification means that men must exercise masculine agility round the clock. The informal prisoner law requires immediate reporting of any transgression of the ‘inmate code’ and severe punishment for a failure to report thereof, primarily through beating or downgrading in the informal hierarchy. Because of group housing and lack of privacy, prisoners scrutinise each other’s masculine performance incessantly. In other words, manliness is always provisional: men must prove and maintain it, as a perceived lack of manliness threatens downgrading in the informal hierarchy and thus by extension a deterioration of their quality of life in prison.

However, the power of the prisoner underworld has been changing. As prison conditions have improved, the importance of the informal mutual-aid fund has diminished. Furthermore, the prisoners in charge of redistribution, the so-called criminal elite (blatni), seem to be losing their legitimacy. Whereas previously only respected and experienced prisoners could become the criminal elite, much shorter sentences and a surge in illegal drug use have created a new class of the criminal elite, whose fairness, prestige, and authority are now questioned and even defied. Since the older, charismatic criminal elite with untainted, established reputation have left, the prisoners who assumed this position often lacked life experience and moral qualities, and many reportedly were drug users. Many prisoners claimed that rather than being interested in welfare of other prisoners, the new criminal elite assumed their position for self-aggrandisement, treating it as a romantic game, since the much shorter sentences allowed them not to commit for long, gruelling years of repression from the authorities their predecessors had to commit to when becoming criminal elite. Some prisoners in my study appeared very dismissive of, even indignant about, this neophyte criminal elite. Whilst still propagating the discourse of prisoner fraternity, the prisoners claimed they would never donate food or essentials to the fund but would personally give this to those they deem destitute. In other words, not only the power of the traditional prisoner leaders, but also of the ‘inmate code’, a traditional normative system of the underworld, has been challenged. What previously was an unquestionable tax on all prisoners has been evolving into a sort of a voluntary donation. This reminds us that the law, formal and informal alike, does not operate independently of human agents, neither of those who enforce it nor those more at the receiving end.

What being a man means is not set in stone. My research found that the masculine ideal and the understanding of prisoner honour have been undergoing metamorphoses along with changes in Ukrainian society at large and liberalisation of prison policies and practices. For example, whereas previously any cooperation with the prison authorities threatened prisoner status in the informal hierarchy, shorter sentences, availability of parole, the recognition, albeit not universal in practice, of prisoner rights and less crowded prisons gradually have replaced the virtue of unwavering antagonism with the virtue of guarded pragmatism.

Headfast opposition and challenging of the formal power is no longer seen as a masculine ideal: rather, for many it now represents a quixotic struggle and juvenile romanticism at best and immature short-sightedness and lack of intelligence at worst. Getting out of prison has become more important, more ‘manly’ than adhering uncritically to what many saw as outdated, unpractical ideals of masculine honour. The post-Communist prisoner society values calculation and rationality over suffering for principles and ideas.

Whilst the tight, even Orwellian, prisoner society compels uniformity and ascendancy, the dynamic multiplicity of men’s gender-performing is nuanced and often contested. Men in prison are victims and perpetrators of patriarchy. Not only they do gender to maximise their own status whilst scrutinising and contesting each other’s manliness, but the prisoner society in general reassesses and reinvents what a ‘real man’ means. In other words, whilst men’s manliness is under constant threat, the masculine ideal is continuously evolving. 

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