Two Models of the Prison: Accidental Humanity and Hypermasculinity in the L.A. County Jail
155 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2013 Last revised: 5 Sep 2013
Date Written: January 25, 2013
This Article considers what can be learned about humanizing the modern American prison from studying a small and unorthodox unit inside L.A. County’s Men’s Central Jail. This unit, known as K6G, has an inmate culture that contrasts dramatically with that of the Jail’s general population (GP) units. Most notably, whereas life in the Jail’s GP is governed by rules created and violently enforced by powerful inmate gangs, K6G is wholly free of gang politics and the threat of violence gang control brings. In addition, unlike residents of GP, who must take care in most instances to perform a hypermasculine identity or risk victimization, residents of K6G face no pressure to “be hard and tough, and [not] show weakness” and thus can just be themselves - a safer and less stressful posture. The K6G unit is also relatively free of sexual assault, no small thing given that K6G exclusively houses gay and transgender prisoners, who would otherwise be among the Jail’s most vulnerable residents. This Article draws on original research to provide an in-depth account of life in both K6G and the Jail’s GP, with the aim of explaining K6G’s distinctive character. The most obvious explanation may seem to lie in the sexual identity of K6G’s residents, and this feature does help to account for many positive aspects of the K6G experience. But this Article argues that the primary explanation is far more basic: thanks to a variety of unrelated and almost accidental developments, residents experience K6G as a relatively safe space. They thus feel no need to resort to the self-help of gang membership or hypermasculine posturing and are able to forego the hypervigilance that often defines life in GP. As a consequence, life in K6G is less dehumanizing than life in GP and is even in some key respects affirmatively humanizing, providing space for residents to retain, express, and develop their personal identity and sense of self in a way that is psychologically healthier than the typical carceral experience. Understanding the implications of these differences and how they arose has much to offer those committed to making carceral conditions safer and more humane not only in L.A. County, but in prisons and jails all over the country.
Keywords: L.A. County jails, prison reform, prisoner safety, humane conditions
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