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The Individual Prisoner

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p>Individual prisoners, with their distinctive biographies and identities, were shaped by the prison in different ways. Some spoke of the ways that they found to cope with their predicament, such as relying upon family members outside, tailoring their personal space, or manipulating their own bodies through the gym, self-harm, or even the use of drugs. Connections to the outside world through families and (less often) friends, in addition to symbolic markers of the outside world such as decorations in the cell or upon the body, provided individuals with reminders and links to their non-prisoner identity. Through these links, and with the symbolic indicators of individuality such as taking ownership of time, space, and interactions within the jail, prisoners were able to distinguish themselves from other prisoners who they saw to be lesser men—men distinguished themselves from those who had committed particularly negatively perceived offences, and some distanced themselves from the ‘dirty other’ in the prison (prison thieves, drug addicts, literally dirty people, etc.). Such distinctions and assertions of individuality, often made for the benefit of the researcher during interviews (being the valued audience at that time), allowed men to position themselves within the symbolic hierarchy of the collective in a positive fashion. Men would place themselves as better than those who were ‘weak’ or unmanly, and this was accompanied with increased personal visibility, as well as showing how men tried to take control over who they were seen to be.

As a collective body, ‘prisoners’ appear to be somewhat frightening. When walking around the prison, particularly during busy times such as prison movements,[2] the atmosphere was very different from one-to-one sessions with prisoners, and the prisoner collective felt somewhat indistinguishable, as one research diary extract shows:

Arrived during moves—like jumping in to a river of people all talking to each

other. (Research Diary 1, June 2009)

Devoid of any shared context other than being criminal men, such men can hardly fail to be perceived negatively or of some degree of risk. When humanised through individualisation, however, the risk of the collective is mitigated through the contextualisation of prisoners, their pasts, and their criminality. Their dangerousness still remains, but in some cases this is mitigated by the empathy that accompanies their histories leading up to—and within—the prison, as well as the justifications individuals gave for their experiences (and, by extension, their relative masculine positionings). As such, not only do individuals shape the nature of the collective in terms of the imported values and expectations that are combined, but the individual can shape the collective on a symbolic level too—not least by being a member of the audience to other men’s gendered performances.

  • [1] Pseudonyms have been used to identify individuals within the text—these are completely randomly selected and are in no way related or connected to the actual participants. Using pseudonyms is merely a process whereby (a) methodological rigour can be assured throughthe differentiation of speakers, thereby confirming that a range of men contributed to the conclusions drawn; and (b) the men are provided with an identity (albeit unconnected to their real identities for the preservation of confidentiality) so as to show that they are individuals and not merely‘just a number’.
  • [2] The periods of time when men were moved between their wings, work, healthcare, education,and so on at prescribed times of the day.
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