Power of the P*nis: Gender Performance within Women’s Prisons


At of the end of 2019, the United States had a total of 1,430,800 individuals incarcerated under state and federal jurisdiction with approximately 107,955 of them being identified as female[1] (Carson, 2020). The leading literature on the carceral system is disproportionately focused on the experience of men within the prison system as they make up 92.5% of the prison population, however, this focus has led to silencing the experiences of those 107,955 women who are also navigating the system. This male-oriented literature regarding prison subculture has theorized the concept of “prisonization” which equates to “the habits, behavior systems, traditions, history, customs, folkways, codes, the laws and rules which guide inmates” and results in their deeper commitment to criminality which has negative repercussions to their reentry (Clemmer, 1958, pg. 294). From here, research then began to incorporate the way prison subculture mirrored society and was oriented towards the actors within prisons, social roles and relationships and their effects on the prison itself (Irwin, 1980; Sykes, 1995; Parson, 1951). With this male oriented focus, we also saw the prevalence of hypermasculinity within the prison subculture emerge along with the study of gang formation within prisons. 

However, as we have shifted to incorporate more experiences by women in the prison system, we have merely touched the tip of the iceberg on how the findings of the previous literature focusing on men has (or has not) translated over to their female counterparts, with a focus on some aspects of aggression, depression, self-harm, and suicide (Kruttschnitt and Gartner, 2003, pg. 22). A key aspect of evaluating women’s prison is the focus on the formation of “pseudo-families”, and the way different types of inmates’ designation effect the experience and the dynamics of the institution (Forsyth & Evans, 2003; Kruttschnitt and Gartner, 2003). The striking aspect of the pseudo-families is the way they are structured in a patriarchal manner with traditional family roles being implemented and taken up by women within their confined environment. This phenomenon has prompted me to question the differences and behavior motivators within men’s and women’s prisons. Specifically, what drives gang and/or family formation and joining, why do we see these differences within similar punitive institutions, and what is the larger impact of these groups within these environments.  

This paper serves as the starting point of a larger project that is aimed on exploring the similarities and differences between women and men in the prison system, specifically, the creation and participation of gangs. To begin this conversation, I evaluate the ways in which concepts of settler colonialism can be traced through the prison system and have lasting impacts on the way women navigate incarceration. This is accomplished through discussing settler colonialism as a structure, the way this manifest within the prison context, and lastly through the exploration of pseudo-families. 

[1] The use of “male” or “female” rather than “men” or “women” is standard in the corrections profession and the terms used in their report writing.

Settler Colonialism

Settler colonialism is a social and political formation implemented within society that organizes around elimination, specifically, the elimination of indigenous peoples by newcomers, and cannot be contained in a certain period (Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill, 2013; Wolfe, 2006). Thus, settler colonialism is the form of domination that occurs continuously, adapts to new waves of immigration, expansion, and hinges on power and control. Prisons as a form of settler colonialism is argued through the disproportionate number of Black and brown individuals who are incarcerated within the US prison system. This is a show of elimination through a means of limiting the individual’s citizenship as there are now confined, ineligible to vote, and exiled from the larger society. Settler colonialism is also linked to key pervasive structuring models of our society: heteropatriarchy and by extension heteropaternalism (Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill, 2013). These two elements are key aspects for the evaluation of settler colonialism’s influence on women’s incarceration experience. 


Settler colonialism as a social structure erases the legacy of the previous peoples and replaces it with the new dominate group’s ideology. In the US, there was a restructuring of society that takes the form of heteropatriarchy, which is “the social systems in which heterosexuality and patriarchy are perceived as normal and natural, and in which other configurations are perceived as abnormal, aberrant, and abhorrent” (Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill, 2013, pg. 13). This social structuring further creates a perceived hierarchy of identity within society with straight, white, men at the top of the power food chain. People who deviate from those dominate categories then begin to descend in their relative relation to power with Black and/or indigenous, queer, transgender women often being relegated to the lowest position with the power hierarchy. This prevailing structure has been engrained in our society and shows little chance of change, with a self-reinforcing nature that can be traced in social and political spheres. For example, within the US’s Fortune 500 companies, white men account for approximately 85% of CEOs in 2020, this is only a 10% decrease from 2000 (Zweigenhaft, 2020). Further, heteropatriarchy is so pervasive that various subcultures throughout the US have been saturated in a clear gendered structure of operating, including the US prison system.


The heteropatriarchal structure is furthered through the concept of heteropaternalism which is “the presumption that heteropatriarchal nuclear-domestic arrangements, in which the father is both center and leader/boss, should serve as the model for social arrangements of the state and its institutions” (Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill, 2013, pg.13). Within patriarchal and paternalistic structures, there becomes a clear ordering of familial hierarchies that places emphasis on the father’s role of importance and power within a nuclear family. This creates the presumption that families are only valid when there is a father figure to act as the head or leader, and everyone else is situated around that person. Adopting a heteropaternal structure further highlights gender roles and hierarchies within the domestic sphere to compliment the ones created in the social and professional spheres. This creates a reinforcement of gendered ordering, and heteronormative ordering, as anything that deviates from the prescribed societal norm is challenged or silenced. This aspect of settler colonial structure becomes a key and interesting avenue of formation when investigating women’s organization within the prison system.

Prisons as a form of Settler Colonialism

Women in Prisons

Pop culture TV shows such as “Orange is the New Black” and “Wentworth” portray facets of prison subculture and the ways in which women cope behind bars.  While these shows engage and entertain, many people do not realize the true complexities of surviving behind bars. The key narrative viewers see is the way in which incarcerated women seek out community and companionship among their peers in a way that sharply contrasts with the often violent and criminal narrative we see in the men’s prisons. As previously mentioned, prisons act as a form of elimination through the process of exile, cutting individuals off from their community and support system, which often leaves them isolated and vulnerable within the system. To combat this, women who are incarcerated seek to build connections and community through modeling family life and engaging in romantic and even sexual relationships. 

To that end, most studies on women in correctional institutions is focused on the idea of “pseudo-families” as a quasi-gang structure. Pseudo families are formed due to needs of emotional and economic support in conjunction with being used as vehicles of violence or a means of protection (Forsyth & Evans, 2003). These families are modeled after patriarchal and paternal structures with a “father” as the head of the group, a “mother” as the nurturer, and the “children” are those who need the “families” protection from others (Forsyth & Evans, 2003, pg16,17). Despite the sex of people being incarcerated within women’s facilities being anatomically the same, there is a critical gender performance that occurs when some individuals adopt these “father” roles. These individuals then take on stereotypical masculine and “fatherly” attributes and position themselves as heads of the families within the housing units. Their position as “father” is focused on their capacity to protect and provide for other members of the family against outside threats. Interestingly, while the families are constructed in the socially accepted heteropaternal modeling, there is rarely a sexual or romantic relationship between the “father” and “mother” of the family; they exist and operate in the spirit and performance of the gendered roles assigned. 

In addition to the examination into the nonsexual nature and emotional support of pseudo-families, there has also been an increase in studies on how incarcerated women handle their sexuality which shows that over the last thirty years, there has been an increase in same-sex relationships within women’s facilities (Kruttschnitt and Gartner, 2003). This is important as the creation and passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 clearly states that relationships between inmates is prohibited and to be reported and investigated in response to the high number of sexual assaults and sexual coercion within the US prison system (Prison Rape Elimination, 2003). Thus, women who are engaging in romantic and sexual relationships within the system are doing so at high risk. These relationships are also important because typically there is a more dominate partner, which despite both being housed in a women’s facility, we again see the performance of gender through taking on behaviors associated with men in heteronormative relationships. The dominate partners in these dynamics may also carry more masculine looks or behaviors. This gender performance to fit into societal constructs of “proper” relationships shows the saturation of heteropaternal ideas being adapted to fit same sex confined environments.

Interestingly, studies have shown that outside of an individual’s self-identity as a lesbian or homosexual prior to incarceration, there is “situational homosexuality” in which a person adopts homosexuality when incarcerated as a means of sexual (and emotional) connection but does not continue that identity upon release (Pardue, Arrigo, & Murphy, 2011, pg. 288). Particularly for female inmates this is often due to the “deprivations of prison life and, more specifically, to the absence of opportunities for heterosexual sex and what have been seen as women’s particular needs for emotional intimacy” (Kruttschnitt and Gartner, 2003, pg.27). Through my work experience within the prison system, this dynamic is very common. Women will have a girlfriend within the housing unit but also have a husband or boyfriend outside of prison. The prison subculture refers to this relationship status as “gay for the stay, straight at the gate” and is not exclusive to incarcerated women but also seen in men’s facilities as well. This mindset is an interesting play on heteropatriarchy and heteropaternalism as it seems to excuse the deviation from the heteronormative standard within single sex institutions yet try to capture heteronormativity through the gender performance of the different women within the institution.

Further studies focus on the relationship dynamics within prisons where we see an emergence of seven “roles” or “statuses” for women in prison in relation to engaging in same-sex relationships; the butchfemmetrickcommissary hustlersquare, and cherry. (Ward & Kassebaum, 1964; Pardue, Arrigo, & Murphy, 2011, pg.292). The first two statuses connect to “traditional” heteronormative relationships where the butch (or daddy) has a masculine appearance and is the dominant partner while the femme (or mommy) has a feminine appearance, is more passive, and behaves in a way that is “traditionally expected of women” (Giallombardo, 1966; Ward & Kassebaum, 1964, pg. 292). The second set of statuses are derived specifically from the prison subculture. The first is the trick which is a derogatory term for a woman that “allows herself to be exploited by others while failing to achieve the primary goal of developing meaningful relationships” while the commissary hustler achieves sincere relationships with other inmates despite “openly exploiting or manipulating others for personal gain” (Ward & Kassebaum, 1964, pg. 292). The final two statuses are ways for inmates to categorize fellow inmates on their willingness to have a relationship. The Cherries are inmates “who have never been “turned out””, while the square simply refuses to participate in “any form of homosexual behavior” (Giallombardo, 1966; Ward & Kassebaum, 1964, pg.292). This categorization of women within prisons has a twofold effect; first on how the women may categorize and view each other, and second, how staff may view the women and “roles” to watch for within the units. The fact that the women within these institutions are designated into categories that align with some traditional standards of heteronormative society contributes to the self-reinforcement of the heteropatriarchal and heteropaternal structures of settler colonialism. This also has further implications for the family structures within women’s facilities, with questions revolving around the hierarchical structuring of women, the roles they occupy, and the implications of relationship dynamics within the units and the impact that has. 


            The adaptation and replication of heteropatriarchal and heteropaternal structures within the prison system is a sign of its pervasiveness within our society. The emphasis on having male or masculine traits and status as a way of power retention is particularly interesting when evaluating women’s prisons. Even in an institution that is separated from the larger society and clear of required gendered hierarchies as men and women are kept separate, the male dominated ideas of larger society are brought into the system. Pseudo families have been of particular interest in this study as they adopt a heteropaternal structure as the father figure is the protector and leader of the family, the mother the care giver, and so on. In a space that could be created in a new image, the need to operate under this structure remains. In fact, actors within these institutions alter their behavior in order to fit this societal mold instead of the structure being changed to fit the new institution and people within. This further creates an interesting contrast between male and female incarceration as the families so prevalent within women’s institutions are absent in the men’s facilities. Ultimately, the gender performance found within women’s institutions speaks to the strong hold heteropatriarchal and heteropaternal structuring has within society as power is relative to gender.  





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