Out There/In Here
Masculinity, Violence and Prisoning
In this book, Elizabeth Comack examines the lives of nineteen male offenders residing at a correctional facility in Canada. The author worked closely with the Corrections Division of Manitoba Justice in order to obtain her subjects. Comack gathered the data during the fall of 2001. This is significant because it was in the wake of 9/11 and the “War on Terror.” While it is possible that this may have affected the study’s internal validity, the author nevertheless did an excellent job in conducting her research. It is important to note that all of the author’s subjects were in a provincial jail. This means that they all had sentences of less than two years. Nevertheless, many of the respondents in this project were hardened criminals. Some were incarcerated for theft, while others were there for drug dealing. Still, other inmates were serving time for assault or sexual violence. In fact, one interviewee had been in and out of prison eleven times over the previous twenty-one years. One of the major premises of this book is that the subjects were concerned with constructing masculine identities. Comack contends that custodial institutions encourage male inmates to engage in masculine behaviour whenever possible. This can include partaking in violent acts against other offenders. Given this contention, it is no wonder that there is an enormous amount of violence in correctional facilities in both the United States and in Canada. This book also provides insights into the perspectives of offenders. In the book, Comack cites numerous studies that identify the overrepresentation of this special population in penal institutions. For example, she points to one study which claims that Aboriginal peoples comprise only 3 percent of the Canadian populations, yet they make p between 17 to 22 percent of the total adult inmate population. Clearly, this is disturbing to say the least. I consider myself to be a prison researcher; however, I was completely taken aback by Comack’s discussion of the Aboriginal inmates. Before reading Comack’s book, I thought that the overrepresentation of minority inmates was mainly an American phenomenon. Clearly, I was very mistaken. I am very grateful to have read this book because it certainly opened my mind and forced me to examine issues in another country besides the United States. Another interesting feature of this book is that Comack explored the childhood experiences of her subjects. This makes for very interesting reading and is alone worth the price of the book. Though all of the respondents had very interesting stories to tell, I was particularly interested in the narratives that related to juvenile gangs. For example, one respondent (who Comack refers to as “George”) joined a gang during his teenage years. He speaks candidly about fighting with rival gang members and harassing civilians. When asked why he robbed innocent victims as a juvenile, “George” replied that he wanted to degrade people in order to demonstrate his toughness as a person. After a bit of probing, however, “George” admits to Comack that he did not feel good about attacking civilians. He even admits that he may have been jealous. There is no doubt that scholars who are interested in juvenile gangs will enjoy reading this book. It provides the reader with amazing insights into gangs and delinquency in urban areas. In addition to discussing the problems related to gangs, Comack also explores the role of Child and Family Services (CFS) in Canada. In one case, a thirty-four year-old Aboriginal respondent claimed to have been shuffled from place to place by the above agency when he was a juvenile. His early child years consisted of numerous foster homes. It seems apparent from reading this book the Aboriginal inmates were institutionalized at an early age, and this may have eventually led to their incarceration. Comack raises the question as to whether or not this state intervention is in the “best interests of the child.” After reading this section of the book, I was convinced that the CFS did a disservice to at least one of the respondents. I can only imagine how many other cases like this might exist. Though this was a very disturbing section of the book, it was extremely interesting and thought provoking. In fact, it would be very likely to lead to a lively discussion in virtually any upper-level undergraduate or graduate class related to prisons or juvenile delinquency. While Comack writes extensively about the respondent’ recollections of their childhoods and teenage years, the author also discusses what she refers to as the “prisoning” of her subjects. According to Comack, this refers to the manner in which offenders attempt to construct masculine identities in spite of living in controlled and monotonous environments. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, the author found that sex offenders had the most difficult in trying to establish masculine identities. For example, one respondent, referred to as “Rudy”, was cast at the bottom of the prison hierarchy for raping a woman he had met at a bar. In his narrative, the respondent attempts to justify this act by claiming that society encourages men to be sexually assertive towards women. He shows little remorse for his victim, he even describes her as a “waste of skin.” Another example involves a pedophile who is referred to as “Stan.” This respondent sexually molested his daughter. He attempts to construct his masculine identify by stating that there were medical issues which caused him to offend. Still, he acknowledges later that “any man should know better.” I highly recommend this book. It was very enjoyable to read and very informative. It also tells us much about the manner by which inmates attempt to achieve masculine identities. For this reason, the book would be very appropriate for a gender studies class. As mentioned earlier, it would also make excellent supplemental reading material for a class related to prisons or social control. Finally, it would behove American scholars to examine this book. There is no doubt that they will learn quite a bit about Canadian prisons. I learned a lot, and will definitely adopt this book the next time I teach a comparative criminal justice class.
Robert M. Worley Penn State Altoona