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The Individual, the Social, and the Researcher

The research was primarily aimed at gathering information regarding the prisoner experience, both on an individual male level, and in a collective sense, allowing a broad view of incarcerated masculinity to be observed. In addition to this, however, through the keeping of the research diary over the course of the fieldwork, it soon became apparent that a female researcher could add an extra dimension by providing the juxtapositional and relational aspect that is inherent to gendered identity (Connell 2005). These three elements of identity provide insights into the interpretation of each other.[1]

The Female Researcher

My history prior to the research provided me with a number of experiences that gave me a wide interpretative perspective when approaching the fieldwork. An only child, born in the UK, I spent a number of years of my childhood in the Middle East, usually based in (White, Western) ex-pat communities, but interacting with and learning from a wide variety of cultures. When undertaking a law degree at the University of Manchester, I lived in an all-girls hall of residence for three years, which gave me a degree of insight into single-sexed settings—albeit female and open. In addition to my MA training in International Criminology, I had a reasonably wide variety of informal experiences of the criminal justice system, shadowing police officers, solicitors, and barristers, and visiting female and male prisons to widen my knowledge prior to undertaking doctoral research. I also volunteered at a centre giving refreshments, lunch, and company to vulnerable and homeless people, in part to enhance my confidence and interpersonal skills before I entered the research site. I tried to prepare myself for what was to come. When entering the prison, I was 24.

I struggled. The prison as an institution of punishment has had a severe and long-lasting impact upon my identity as a criminologist, as a researcher, and as a woman, shaping who I was, how I behaved, and who I have since become. Not only did it alter my theoretical views regarding criminal justice and penal systems, as well as the nature of punishment and prisoners as a group, but it changed who I felt that I was on both a short- and long-term basis. I became highly security conscious both in the prison and in my home life, and found the responsibility of having a set of keys in the prison very troubling, particularly when their presence emphasised the power imbalance present between me and the research participants. I often felt highly emotional when returning prisoners to the general prison area after an interview. In addition, I suffered mood swings, had many periods of tearfulness, felt utterly exhausted, and even ended up dreaming about the prison.[2]

When actually undertaking the research, I felt the need to change who I was, particularly with reference to my gendered self—somewhat akin to the ‘fronting’ and mask-wearing process undertaken by prisoners themselves:

Interesting that one of my questions is about being yourself in the prison—can

I be me? I have to dress differently, smell different, wear different jewellery, have

Liebling 1999; and Drake and Harvey 2014.

toned down hair, not for any written or spoken reason, but because I feel I should, so as to reduce my femininity in a place where it could potentially cause problems, and so that I don’t stand out as an outsider (to prisoners I will by the fact that I am female, but to staff, I could just blend in—is that a good idea?). Attempting to be neutralneither/both staff and outsider. All a matter of interpretation on the part of the observer, which I can do nothing about! (Research Diary 1, June 2009)

This had implications for my very identity, which I felt I had ‘lost’ when in the prison:

I don’t belong here—no group affiliations, just me with everyone trying to help, but with their own groups and jobs. Can never truly fit in, as there is no single position for me to fit in to, and certainly no position of respect. Plus everyone not in psychology thinks Im part of that group, except for the people in psychology who know and see me as something different. (Research Diary 2, June 2009)

Even trying to maintain a professional researcher identity had its problems—the stress of the setting combined with the need for a strong and proficient appearance created tensions:

Don’t want to say about stress when inside—would be complaining and make me seem incompetent/incapable/not a good person to be doing the work. (Research Diary 1, June 2009)

The fact that I ‘lost’ my identity to a degree (even though I attempted to reclaim it part way through the fieldwork through changing my hair colour7) made coping with the prison environment and the emotional aspects of being in such an institution even more troublesome. I found the whole process very difficult to cope with, a fact that I had managed to forget to a degree until I reread my research diaries and revisited the depressed and stressed state that I had found myself in during the process:

Im amazed at how emotional I get thinking about all this—but I'm encouraged too—it means I do care about people here, I do care about humanity and how men feel and are treated. I have not become desensitised, and I am starting [3] [4]

to look, with both eyes open, at how prisons function—so many people just see them as buildings with bad people inside, and don’t think any more about it, when it is so important that they do! If we, society, the general public, sanction the state to punish people who breach societal norms and codes of convention, then we must also take on some responsibilities ourselves. (Research Diary 1, June 2009)

Both my identity as a researcher and as an individual changed over the course of the fieldwork:

Feel very much like a different me [...] Aged. Feel mentally older and more thoughtful—life is much more serious. But, at the same time, I recognise the need not to take life too seriously—unsustainable for work in a prison setting. (Research Diary 3, August 2009)

Such effects, in turn, will have had implications for the research and my approach towards prisoners. In particular, I recall one incident with a prisoner which, looking back on it now, appears nowhere near as bad as I perceived it to be at the time when immersed in the situation. On one of the wings, a prisoner who I had previously spoken to expressed an interest in being interviewed. In a prior interaction, this prisoner had voiced his doubts regarding the research, appearing angry that such work would make little difference and stating—probably quite rightly—ft’s all for you (Research Diary 2, July 2009). The individual proceeded to give me a name and prisoner number so that I could contact him to arrange a session. After giving his details in front of other prisoners, his ‘audience’ then started to laugh. Upon talking to the wing’s prison officers, I discovered that this prisoner had given me someone else’s name and number—his reaction to my checking on his identity resulted in his exclamation of ‘you snitched on me! (Research Diary 2, July 2009). This incident, albeit very tame, shocked me somewhat. Thus far in the process, I had not encountered any prisoners who saw me in a negative light or did not treat me with some indifference, caution, or respect, yet this prisoner felt able to mock and manipulate me in front of others. This culminated in his making a further joke to/of me in front of other prisoners regarding my need to make sure that I had checked the gate was locked behind me (this was a particular concern of mine, and appears to be where the stress and responsibility of the prison setting manifested itself most in my behaviours):

‘Don’t forget to lock the door, Miss.’ Laughs lots when I check it.

(Research Diary 2, July 2009)

The whole thing stuck with me, raising a number of issues regarding the interactive nature of the research setting and the researcher. Not only did the incident have implications for me, but I clearly had an impact upon the prisoner and the research site by being a tool through which this individual was able to perform an identity of masculinity through his manipulation and control of my behaviours. I felt very much as if I had lost control over the situation, which frightened me—albeit only a minor joke, it highlighted the way that some prisoners could have the potential to be harmful to me. This caused me to reflect upon whether or not I should also take on the concept of a ‘front’ in order to protect myself (although, in reality, I already had—I just had not recognised the fact at the time):

Feel cross, angry, upset, violated, victimised, weak—-playing with me in front of others. But I can leave—-felt better walking out through gates and away. Embarrassed that they can mess with me, but glad I checked and followed my intuition. Very sad that they have to act in front of others—on his own he had been quite pleasant—I should not put on a front—being myself has so many advantages (especially friendly and trusting, although vigilant and checking). Just think of it as good research.8 (Research Diary 2, July 2009)

This notion of affecting prisoners’ performances of their male selves through my presence as a female non-staff member was visible on other occasions, which I interpreted in a much less threatening manner, particularly with reference to their heterosexual identities. I was used as a mechanism for verbal demonstrations of sexuality in front of others on a number of occasions. On one occasion, I was on a wing during a lunch period, talking to prisoners about the research in front of a long queue of other inmates, when a number of comments with clear sexual connotations were loudly proclaimed by various men in what was plainly a performance intended for the audience in the queue: [5]


‘You should do him, Miss, he’s really good’

‘Can I bring some research with me?’

‘Can I do some research with you?’

‘You can slip your number under my door’

(Research Diary 2, July 2009)

One prisoner in particular was an excellent example of the use of my femininity as a means through which to perform his masculinity for the benefit of others. This individual asserted his masculinity through asking me for numbers of girls who he could call, asking about the ring that I was wearing (the implication being an inquiry into my marital status), and generally exerting a strutting and flirtatious manner in front of others. When interacting with me without such an audience, however, this individual was serious, well spoken, deferential, and respectful—he was a true pleasure to talk to. As such, I was used as a performative mechanism for masculine identity that enhanced his masculine visibility to other men. This may well have been due to the fact that I spent more time down on this wing, and thus more prisoners got to know me and felt some connection to me (and knew that I would tolerate such innuendo). Prisoners sometimes referred to me in phrases attributing some element of ownership, such as ‘It's our Jenny (Research Diary 2, July 2009) or ‘talking to my girl (Research Diary 3, September 2009). That said, it should also be recognised that such performances may well have had greater implications and reach on this wing, (which held a number of ‘vulnerable’ prisoners), as a result of the demasculinising implications of the label of vulnerability that was applied to half the men residing there.

Such a reflexive account can only go some way to showing the reciprocal effects of the research upon my individual identity, and vice versa, and even then the implications are limited to particular manifestations within me—many others would react and interpret such events and interactions differently. What it does raise, however, is the fact that prison is a hard setting and has implications for individuals’ gendered selves in some form or another. If I, as a visiting researcher with keys with the ability to leave the site at any time and return to the ‘real’ world and the support network I had waiting for me on the outside (I lived at my parents’ home, closer to the prison than mine, for the duration of the research), suffered and was affected in this way and for a prolonged period after (it took me quite a few months to feel ‘normal’ and ‘myself’ again), then this certainly raises issues regarding the hardship, stress, and emotional and mental states of those immersed within the prison for longer periods, such as staff and, in particular, individual prisoners.

  • [1] Yet this should be differentiated from the current trend of psychosocial research into masculinities(Gadd and Jefferson 2007), which tends to focus overly on the psychology of the individual incomparison to the social, and, most crucially, tends to leave out the role of the researcher in imposing such interpretations of psychology.
  • [2] Such experiences are not that unusual—see
  • [3] 7 Those that have met me know that I tend to opt for quite ‘visible’ hair colours; when in the prison,
  • [4] tried to be as invisible as possible.
  • [5] implore new prison researchers to view any negative or stressful experiences in this way!
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