From sports talk radio hosts to feminist bloggers, just about everyone seems to agree: Former Ravens player Ray Rice should be locked up. We should throw away the key.
Sure, we want to punish people who commit crimes. But in the case of domestic abusers, jail may do more harm than good. And when studies show that one in five American women has been raped, 44 percent have suffered some other form of sexual abuse and nearly a third have endured domestic assaults, it’s absurd to think we’ll end violence against women by locking up a high profile perpetrator.
We like to think that in prison, men like Rice will think about what they’ve done, repent, reform and emerge into the world as kinder and more law-abiding citizens. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.
Rice is a product of a culture that nurtures gendered violence. As an athlete, he’s spent most of his life in gender segregated settings that encourage misogynistic attitudes and behaviors. Football cultures, beginning in high school and reaching a pinnacle in the NFL, promote an exaggerated masculinity. Players are called on to show they’re so tough they don’t feel pain (concussions are dismissed as the player “getting his bell rung,” players with broken limbs are praised for staying on the field). They get hazed (often through forcing new members to wear women’s clothing), sling gendered insults (“pussy”), and face pressure to quash any budding “femininities” (such as sensitivity). Serial sexual conquests are celebrated, and the idea that the world is divided into winners and losers – us and them – is constantly enforced.
Prison magnifies these kinds of sexist attitudes and can intensify acts of gendered violence. Incarcerated boys and men learn that in order to survive, they have to become tough, numb to the pain of others. They learn to be the aggressor in order not to be the victim. Rape is rampant. Criminologist Donald Sabo and his co-authors write, “Rape-based relationships between [same-sex male] prisoners are often described as relationships between ‘men’ and ‘girls’ who are, in effect, thought of as ‘master’ and ‘slave,’ victor and vanquished.”
Decades of mass incarceration have not reduced violence against women. Indeed, Beth Richie, author of “Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation,” connects the rising rates of extraordinarily brutal sexual violence carried out against black women to the disproportionately high rates of incarceration of black men.
In a large-scale Oregon study, Margaret Braun found that at least 25 percent of male ex-prisoners engaged in acts of violence against wives and girlfriends within the first several years post-release. And in one experiment, male batterers were sent either to court-mandated domestic violence group treatment or to prison. Two years later, batterers who completed the group treatment had fewer new battering offenses than the men sent to prison. But here’s what’s really interesting: The batterers who were sent to prison had a greater number of new offenses even compared with men who did not complete the domestic violence treatment program.
So what can be done? It’s not clear that interventions or treatment programs have much of an impact.
Instead, we need to rethink the way we structure prisons. It’s no magic bullet, but if Rice goes to prison, how about sending him to an integrated unit in which his fellow prisoners can model more peaceful ways of negotiating gender relationships and identities? In the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail a unit known as the K6G unit is comprised mainly of gay man and transgendered women. Unlike other units, the K6G unit is virtually free of gang-related politics and violence, and boasts an extraordinarily low rate of sexual assaults.
Here’s another idea. It’s been shown that when male student athletes participate in a cheerleading squad that includes both men and women, “they positively reformulate their attitudes toward women.” It seems that spending time with women in a collegial setting in which everyone must “be there” for everyone else (imagine what would happen to the cheerleader tossed in the air if no one is there to catch him) helps men let go of the “us versus them” mentality that underpins gender violence.
Only a bit tongue-in-cheek, then, let me propose an alternative sentence for Rice: It just happens that the Baltimore Ravens have the only co-ed cheerleading squad in the NFL. Now that Rice’s career as a running back is over, he may want to see how the game looks through the eyes of the women on the sidelines.