There’s this idea that men have to show toughness, or the most extreme version of masculinity just to survive in prison. Men have to become violent to avoid being perceived as weak.

But where does this “culture” of extreme masculinity come from? Why has it been normalized and accepted as the only way to survive prison? And how does it affect incarcerated people and the management of prisons?

Jesse Vasquez entered the US carceral system when he was a 17-year-old boy, spending almost 20 years in California prisons before being released in 2019.

As a young teenager he had to adapt to the culture of prison by assuming what he called a “false bravado,” which he described as a facade that allowed him to pass from one day to the next.

“In prison, it’s magnified and multiplied because you have to just use it as a defense mechanism for survival. You have to like, you know, act like you’re tougher than you really are, that you care less than you really do, and that you feel a lot less than you really can”, Vasquez said.

Jesse Vasquez entered the US carceral system when he was a 17-year-old boy, spending almost 20 years in California prisons before being released in 2019.

Vasquez was one of tens of thousands of boys that entered the carceral system in the U.S. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, more than 90% of all incarcerated people in the U.S. are male. And nearly a third a Latinx. 

Once inside, men also must learn to confront the ways that extreme masculinity or machismo extends to the prison institution itself — including those who police the space.

“In prison culture there are underground rules that are adhered to because of the measure of violence that comes if you don’t adhere to them. Your masculinity is a protection mechanism,” said Lt. Sam Robinson, who worked for more than 15 years as public information officer for the San Quentin News.

Researchers are now starting to see masculinity as something that is socially constructed, meaning it can change.

Janani Umamaheswar, a professor of criminology at George Mason University, argues that we should care more about the alternative forms of masculinity that are in prison. “I would just love for us collectively as a culture to stop beating that drum of hyper masculinity, because men in prison are so much more than that.”, she says.

To know more about extreme masculinity in prison, listen to the entire episode of “Manos Arriba: The untold stories of Latinx in the US carceral system.”

Ana Lourdes Cardenas

Ana Lourdes Cárdenas is a journalism associate professor at San Francisco State University. She is a seasoned binational, bilingual journalist, and writer with three decades of experience working for...

Joshua Davis

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Carina Gallo

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