Women in Criminal Justice Article Review: Owen

Owen, B. (1998). The mix: The culture of imprisoned women. In In the Mix: Struggle and survival in a women’s prison (pp. 167-192). Albany: State University of New York Press.

1.      Main Thesis: Owen works to describe and understand a cultural community in a women’s prison by focusing on three areas: negotiating the prison world by acquiring “juice,” styles of doing time such as adherence to prison code, and involvement in trouble or “the mix.”  Owen suggests that criminologists have a social justice obligation to study these communities and women’s ways of surviving in prison because incarceration “affects a disproportionate number of women of color and those marginalized” in other ways (192). This is a beginning point for conversations about how public policy constructs these women’s lives.

2.      Body of Evidence: Owen observed prisoners at Central California Women’s Facility in order to gain access to a complex prison culture. This article is framed around three main areas that shape the lives of prisoners at CCWF: “negotiating the prison world, which involves dimensions of ‘juice,’ respect, and reputation; styles of doing time, which include a commitment to the prison code; and one’s involvement in trouble, hustles, conflicts and drugs, known as ‘the mix’” (167). Negotiating the prison world involves prison smarts (described as knowing how to get things done), recognizing relationships with the staff, and mentor-style relationships. Styles of doing time refers to adherence to the convict code, which is a concept imported from male prisons that occurs roughly along generational lines; Owen found significant disapproval toward the younger generation because they “are rude, disrespectful, and inconsiderate” (177). Finally, women prisoners’ lives are shaped by participation in, or refusal to participate in, “the mix,” which is “any behavior that can bring trouble and conflict with staff and other prisoners” (179). Owen discusses the drug mix, the homosexual mix, and the fighting mix. The drug mix is characterized as unstable, the homosexual mix is a “place of trouble,” and the fighting mix overlaps both (184). All these layers make up a complex prison culture that shapes women’s lives at CCWF.

3.      Conclusions: Although most of the women at CCWF express a desire to stay out of trouble and ultimately “survive the mix,” Owens shows that the cultural forces she describes necessarily impact their lives (188). She emphasizes the “damage of imprisonment” and its immediate negative effects (189). Owens includes several comments from prisoners who found prison time to be beneficial in some ways, but she concludes by suggesting that descriptions of prison life may help those outside to consider the obstacles women like those at CCWF have to face in their lives both inside and outside of prison.

4.      My Conclusions: This chapter was a very detailed ethnography-style study, but I was confused by Owens’s conclusion and methods. Although she seems to support a course of action that requires readers to conceive CCWF as a destructive place, most of the women’s comments in the conclusion seem to frame it as a rehabilitative space, at least compared to their lives outside. In addition, I was unsure of how the prisoners’ comments were obtained, since it sometimes seemed that they were having a conversation and sometimes seemed they were being interviewed. It would have been helpful to have this context. I suspect that these issues make more sense in the larger context of the book that this chapter appears in. In sum, then, I really appreciated Owen’s project to help those who have never seen the inside of a prison understand what it might be like to try to survive in a prison culture.

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