Behind the Bars

by: Grace Homan

What do you picture when you think of a femxle prison? What do you picture when you think of male prison?

In class, we tried this experiment. Associations with men’s prisons included violence toward each other, tattoos, gangs, kidnappings, etc. For womxn’s prisons, associations were made with shopping-related crimes, less violence than men’s prisons, etc. 

Well, were our conjectures accurate? Two documentaries of prisons—one for men and one for womxn— help answer this question. 

Womxn’s Prison: Baadba 

In Baadba, the womxn appear very mentally well: they smile, welcome the camera crew, and talk about their pasts without hesitation or violence. In a powerful shot of the womxn posing, yet appearing oblivious, their voiceovers state “I am a criminal.”

“What crimes did they commit?” you may ask. “Perhaps shoplifting?”

No. Multiple of these womxn explain that they were forced into arranged marriages with relatives against their consent. Within these relationships, they were abused and humiliated—as such, some of them murdered (“stabbed” give a specific example) their abuser.

They explain that they were taught that a real womxn is submissive, allowing her partner to torment and beat her.

By that logic, one can conclude that these womxn are in prison for denying the norms of a “typical womxn.” Hmmmm. I don’t know about you, but that just doesn’t sit right with me.

Men’s Prison: Folsom State Prison

In the male prison, the documentary crew visited a massive group therapy session. Men sat and or stood in circles, listening to and recounting mistakes.

Some men cry, one stating “I’ve been trying, there’s nothing I can do, man.” Others become confrontational such as one man pointing his finger in another persons face sternly expressing “Who are you to judge me?”

These sessions appear extremely intense, to say the least. However, these men all share the same sentiment: they want to become “the man they are supposed to be”—whatever that means.

Compare & Contrast

In the male prison, we saw a lot more physically obvious emotion such as crying, screaming, falling down, etc. In the womxn’s prison, the womxn appeared—on the surface—quite happy. They smiled as they welcomed the camera crew to their “home” and did not shed any tears when recounting seemingly traumatic events.

Both prisons involved individuals who worked together to change; they both express their desire to become a “real man/womxn” (again, whatever that means) implying that doing so will fix the problems that sent them to prison in the first place.

Implications in Society: 

Society reflects prisons in a less obvious, more mundane manner: womxn and men are punished for defying gender norms. For instance, when a womxn stands up to her abuser, she is often told she is lying or ruining someone’s life. Conversely, if men don’t participate in harmful behavior such as “locker-room talk,” they are berated and humiliated.

Final Thoughts

These documentaries opened my eyes to see a much more realistic perspective of prisons. In a lot of ways, they brought to life this concrete conjecture of prisoners—that we all possess to some extent in our subconscious—and challenged its premises. These “prisoners” are human beings—with emotions, trauma, and different circumstances—who are we to judge them? After all, some of these womxn did what they did to survive. Not only is the prison system f*cked up, but the constraints on gender roles in society clearly are too, since those constraints are what the people in prisons attributed their “crimes” to.

We need to re-evaluate prisons, how we view the people in them, and how society fuels the existence of the cruel system to which they reside.

One thought on “Behind the Bars

  1. I love how you compare how we refer to men and women in prison societies and also love that you make women an individual by changing the spelling! I’m so glad the documentaries opened your eyes!


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