The Pseudo-family phenomenon in female prisons

By Margot Marston

In The Social Order of the Underworld, David Skarbek explains the rationality with which prison gangs emerged in male US prisons to provide governance and protection where established institutions failed. In the face of an exploding prison population, as more young, ethnically diverse, and violent men began to enter prisons the unwritten rules of the “convict code,” the prisoners had previously lived by, began to fail and extra-legal governance through gangs began to take its place. Female prison populations are generally far smaller and less violent than their male counterparts, yet does that necessarily mean in the absence of female prison gangs that there aren’t similar informal institution that maintain social order in female prisons?

Interestingly, a similar governance structure has emerged in female prisons, namely: pseudo-families. Pseudo-families are structures of social relationships formed among women in prison, which mirror family structures in broader society. Many of these familial groups co-exist and  provide comfort and protection amongst female inmates. Distribution of contraband among the  “family members” is common, as is protecting one another from intimidation and forced sharing of one’s resources. Leaders can be found within these pseudo-family structures and often take on the  more aggressive role of “husbands” and “fathers”, whereas more nurturing roles are taken on by “mother” figures.
These pseudo-families provide material and emotional support, a coping mechanism for women to navigate an unnatural and often temporary environment. The rationality hinges on the basic fact that all humans are social animals, to endure the feelings of humiliation, helplessness, and deprivation in prison these pseudo-families can provide some sense of normalcy and stability. Pseudo-families, like gangs, fulfil needs that the formal institution of the prison can’t provide them.