Australia’s angels


Authorities in Queensland, Australia, are cracking down on criminal motorcycle gangs with a vengeance that would give even the Charming Police Department pause. Following a couple of large, public brawls between two rival gangs, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman has introduced a raft of new legislation targeting members of illegal “bikies,” as they’re called in Australia — and he’s modeling some of his controversial policies on those of “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”

Under the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Bill, which was passed by parliament last week, members of about two dozen motorcycle clubs are outlawed from gathering in groups of three or more (including riding together), going to their clubhouses, and promoting and recruiting for their groups. The penalty for engaging in these activities would be a mandatory six-month jail term. Other approved laws bar members of outlawed motorcycle clubs from owning, operating, or working in tattoo parlors, as well as ensure that they serve a minimum of 15 more years in prison than nonmembers who commit the same crimes. In response, the Australian Motorcycle Council is raising funds to mount a court challenge to the laws, and already has a lawyer prepared to try the case.

Officials are also planning to convert a 52-bed wing of the Woodford Correctional Center into a high-security, biker-only jail partially modeled after Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s famously draconian vision of incarceration. The bikies would be confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, and denied television, gym facilities, and rehabilitation for the duration of their sentence. Civil liberties groups have likened the proposed biker jail to terrorist detention facilities. By contrast, Arpaio’s approach seems more humane: He houses inmates in desert tents, and has banned cigarettes, coffee, pornographic magazines and unrestricted television in his jails — but inmates are, at least, allowed to watch pre-approved classics like “Old Yeller.”

Adding insult to injury, Newman hopes to expand on another of Arpaio’s more controversial policies: requiring inmates to wear pink underwear. Though Arpaio claims that his pink underwear policy is a deterrent against underwear theft, a district court ruled in March that the practice constituted punishment without justification because it symbolized the stripping of prisoners’ masculinity. Newman, by contrast, would force incarcerated bikers into pink uniforms, and is unabashed about his desire to punish through feminization. “They like to wear scary looking gear, leather jackets, they have tattoos, they have their colours,” Newman told reporters. “Telling them to wear pink is going to be embarrassing for them.”

Such prisoner-shaming isn’t new. Convicted Rwandan genocidaires are made to wear pink uniforms while wayward Thai police officers are supposed to don bright pink arm bands emblazoned with images of Hello Kitty. Politicians in other Australian territories have called for pink prison jumpsuits, too.

The notion that pink is inherently emasculating, and that emasculation is an appropriate way of policing misbehaving males, is a pervasive one. Whether it’s effective is another matter. Plenty of research suggests that American prison culture is largely defined by performances of hypermasculinity that contribute to sexual and other violence behind bars. So it’s worth considering how institutionalized attempts at emasculation might play out in the prison yard: Would Newman’s pink jumpsuits motivate inmates to more determinedly exert their masculinity, or would it make them easy targets of violence?

And, if motorcycle clubs’ “scary looking gear,” leather jackets, and tattoos are being deemed “bikie chic” by Australian designers, who’s to say pink tunics wouldn’t catch on, too?

© 2013, Foreign Policy

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