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Copyright (c) 2008 Buffalo Law Review
Buffalo Law Review

ARTICLE: The Concept of "Less Eligibility" and the Social Function of Prison Violence in Class Society

July, 2008


56 Buffalo L. Rev. 737


Ahmed A. White+



To what extent are rapes, beatings, and other assaults essential to the punitive function of the modern prison? Officially, violence of this sort is unlawful and clearly outside the bounds of legitimate punishment. The United States Supreme Court has declared more than once that being assaulted is not "part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society." 1 Likewise, Congress has recently enacted legislation condemning prison rape, the most salient form of prison violence, and purporting to eradicate it from contemporary prisons. 2 Indeed, the view that assaults are not legitimate aspects of punishment is ubiquitous among representatives of the legal, political, and academic establishment, all of whom, virtually without exception, regard such violence as a deviant, dysfunctional phenomenon with no legitimate place in the realm of modern punishment. 3

In reality, violence thoroughly defines the prison experience. Prisoners face a substantial risk of being beaten, raped, and even killed at the hands of their fellow inmates or keepers. 4 In a way that is sometimes difficult for those who are unfamiliar with prison to appreciate, prisoners inhabit a world comprehensively defined by this kind of violence. Such violence is the dominant arbiter of social status in prison. It is the means by which authority, hierarchy, and privilege are articulated among prisoners and between prisoners and their keepers. And it is, paradoxically, the most reliable protection against being the victim of violence.

The fact that violence so ...
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