At Work in the Iron Cage: The Prison as Gendered Organization

At Work in the Iron Cage: The Prison as Gendered Organization

At Work in the Iron Cage: The Prison as Gendered Organization

At Work in the Iron Cage: The Prison as Gendered Organization


When most people think of prisons, they imagine chaos, violence, and fundamentally, an atmosphere of overwhelming brute masculinity. But real prisons rarely fit the "Big House" stereotype of popular film and literature. One fifth of all correctional officers are women, and the rate at which women are imprisoned is growing faster than that of men. Yet, despite increasing numbers of women prisoners and officers, ideas about prison life and prison work are sill dominated by an exaggerated image of men's prisons where inmates supposedly struggle for physical dominance.

In a rare comparative analysis of men's and women's prisons, Dana Britton identifies the factors that influence the gendering of the American workplace, a process that often leaves women in lower-paying jobs with less prestige and responsibility.

In interviews with dozens of male and female officers in five prisons, Britton explains how gender shapes their day-to-day work experiences. Combining criminology, penology, and feminist theory, she offers a radical new argument for the persistence of gender inequality in prisons and other organizations. At Work in the Iron Cage demonstrates the importance of the prison as a site of gender relations as well as social control.


Imagine a prison guard. Whom do you see? If you are like most people, the vision in your mind's eye is probably that of a hulking man in uniform carrying a nightstick or even a gun. Perhaps you imagine him as brutal and sadistic; at the very least, you see someone who would be able to deal easily with unruly inmates, to meet violence with violence, to “bang heads” if necessary. Now imagine the place in which he does his work. Again, if like most of the population you have little experience of prison and prison life, you in all likelihood envision a Hobbesian nightmare of perpetual conflict, a war of all against all in which only the strong survive. If these are the images you saw, then you are not unusual. These notions have considerable currency. They are reflected in both commonsense mythology and popular culture. Films like Penitentiary (1938), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Brubaker (1980), and ConAir (1997) have framed prison work and prison life in these terms for generations of moviegoers. As this book demonstrates, however, these images have two things in common: they are largely inaccurate, and they are deeply gendered.

The figures obviously missing from this conceptual landscape are women, yet they are a growing proportion of those working and being held in prisons. As of 1995, 19 percent of all correctional officers (the term now preferred over the more colloquial “prison guard”) in federal and state prisons were women: 16 percent of officers in men's prisons and 56 percent of those working in women's facilities. Wo men account for 6.6 percent of all inmates in state and federal prisons, and their population has recently been increasing much faster than men's. Regardless of the population they hold, most American prisons bear little resemblance to their anarchic fictional representations. Most inmates are nonviolent offenders, and all have at least some stake in the maintenance of prison order, if for no other reason than the preservation of their own lives. It is because of this that mass outbreaks of prison violence are . . .

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