Home Psychology Masculinities and the Adult Male Prison Experience
Controlling and Protecting the Self
Most prison researchers acknowledge a need for the specifically protective performance of the individual’s displayed self within the prison for other prisoners, and this discourse is situated within a culture of ‘fear’ of other men. Such frontings were encountered by Crewe, who recognised that defensive presentations of the self undermined the development of trust and created a presumption of artificiality (2009: 308). As such, the ‘front’ is framed in a negative manner, but Jewkes discusses the fact that the wearing of a ‘mask’ in prison is ‘arguably the most common strategy for coping with the rigors of imprisonment’ (Jewkes 2005: 53).
The implication is that individuals cannot be their ‘true’ selves within the prison, yet this implies that men can be themselves elsewhere, a notion that is somewhat difficult to resolve when one recognises that gender is performed throughout our lives for the benefit of whichever audience is at hand—we act the way we want others to see us at a particular point in time, or how we want to see ourselves if alone. With this in mind, it might be more appropriate to situate the notions of ‘fronting’ and ‘masks’ within the wider Butler-esque concepts of gendered performances, and see the prison setting as having a distinct type of audience with distinct gendered powers and influence. These could equally be experienced on the outside, but are often tempered with feminine audience members or men who have less to lose within the masculine hierarchy due to its reduced hypermasculine status when outside the restrictive and containing prison walls. As such, the impact of others upon personal identities (and places and spaces) was recognised to be substantial:
Samuel: .. .because I think when you’re on the wing you do have to put up a certain.. .although I, I put up a certain guard.. .I, I, I still allow myself to be who I am.. .and, you know, and don’t let it get in the way of how I conduct myself on the wing or how people see me. [...] but I still keep myself...distanced, because, at the end of the day, I’m in jail, and anything can happen at any time (click) off it kicks. Not with me but, um. somewhere on the wing, you know, and it’s, so, so I’m always prepared for that. so I think once I’m in my cell it’s like. right, that’s done for another day.
Other prisoners similarly spoke of the ways in which they limited or altered their identities for the benefit of certain audiences, be that in the limitation of emotionality in the process of demonstrating masculine toughness; in the demonstration of family values and identities when making contact with supporters outside the prison; or even in the demonstration of certain masculine traits to or through me as a female researcher. It became clear that gendered identities were highly flexible (my own included), highlighting the processes men undertook in drawing upon different masculine resources that they had (both internalised and through others and spaces) according to the varying audience at hand. Rather than seeing performance as being a variable that can be stripped off to expose an underlying gendered essentialism or ‘truth’ to masculine identity (Goffman’s ‘backstage’ area—1958: 69), it becomes more useful to see the notion of masculine (or gendered) performances as constant, with the demands of the audience for such demonstrations being the variable instead:
Zachary: Coz going back to what I was saying before, um.people like to put a little protective bubble around themselves coz.we are in an environment where kind of the alpha male will rule and um.people are just on guard in here because you don’t want to be like ridiculed or humiliated because you can’t get away, you’re trapped in this environment, so I guess your reputation means a lot [.]
Kevin: Always have to have a front on [.] Coz you, if you’re too emotional like
if I talk to the way I talk to you to like a prisoner coz I've, I've, I've, I've talked to you with no boundaries [.] If I talked to someone like that they’d think you were an idiot [.] Way I think yeah, yeah. Have to have a tough image
Covering up signs of weakness with a tough front was one of the foremost aspects of identity management for these individuals, as this could enable them to get through the prison experience without being victimised or bullied by the prisoner audience which was of particular influence at that time in their lives:
Researcher: So what is it, what is it that you change, I mean do you, do you just talk
to people less or do you change your posture or anything?
Kai: No it’s more of.. .your mannerisms and your aura, your aura about yourself, d’you know what I mean it’s like.. .you, you, you won’t let people see you as...as being someone who can’t handle situations of you can’t do this, you can’t do that, I’m not saying that you have to be aggressive you don’t have to be aggressive 23 hours a day or.. .like confrontational or owt like that but you’ve got to be able to show that you’re willing to be a part of that
This attitude was more evident when prisoners were younger, and many said it occurred a lot in young offenders’ institutions (some spoke of the fact that they had to do it much less in adult jail by comparison). In actuality, ‘laddishness’ in young men has been recognised to be a process through which boys are protecting their self-worth (Jackson 2002) ; and within the prison context, ‘where physical vulnerability is salient, prisoners may be more likely to use overstated aggressive masculine presentations to minimize harm, which in turn perpetuates or exacerbates existing physical risks’ (Ricciardelli et al. 2015 : 509). This would explain the high levels of violence in such arenas where boys are already feeling challenged about their self-worth, and feel physically at risk more. It was explained, in part, as ‘proving’ themselves as men to the accompanying young male audience, which has key expectations of gendered performance that it imposed:
Jude: When I was a YP, young offender, um.it’s that sort of.. .environment that you’ve got a lot of youngsters and everyone’s kind of vying for position and I think you have to be someone else, you have to put up a sort of barrier, have to put up a.. .what's the word I'm looking for?.. .you have to put a front on, you know
So the ‘front’ that participants spoke of was what they wished others to see in them, and they managed behaviours and identities that were symbolic of what participants felt they ‘should’ be seen to be within this context. This was also done with words—participants spoke of observing many prisoners telling stories, particularly with reference to their criminal actions, their reputations outside, and their wealth, in order to try to impress and impose a sense of masculine bravado. The notion of storytelling (particularly in prison) has been recognised to be key in the process of ‘the production and reproduction of particular versions or discourses of doing or accomplishing masculinity in this cultural arena’ (Thurston 1996: 139—see also Jewkes 2002, 2005). Crewe recognises the notion of prison landings being ‘catwalks of masculine display’ (2009 : 410), as implied by this individual:
Researcher: Right, ok. So how did you, what, when you say you put on a front, what
did you have to do? How do you...
Benjamin: Swear a lot. Walk around, walk around like you’ve got two buckets of
water (laughs) [.] In the right places, yeah, not, not constantly but in the right places [.] Swear a lot, be loud
Specific gendered performances according to different audiences occur in day-to-day life generally, but within the prison it seemed functional and much more gendered in terms of preserving the masculine self and maintaining control over who (and the kind of man) one is seen to be. This requires care, as to be seen to be too guarded can suggest an individual has something to cover up, such as an unattractive criminal conviction or fear, both leaving the participant vulnerable to harm or labels of weakness (see Chapter 7)—in this way, how visible an individual is or is not can have implications for how they are seen with regard to the gendered lens. Performances occurred for the benefit of others’ views of the individual, for the benefit of the appearance of the collective prisoner group, and for the benefit of the individual prisoner himself. One manner of coping with the emasculating prison experience was clearly to perform alternative or extreme masculine behaviours—often explained as being for the benefit of the collective masculine gaze of the prison. However, when considering the limited instances of outward social policing of such gendered norms compared with the self-policing of gendered identity, such demonstrations may have had more force in reassuring the individual of his own masculine well-being, potential, and self.
Identity management was a complicated matter, where performed public identities in the prison differed from those expressed in private settings behind bars. This in turn may well have differed from individuals’ identities as seen outside prison, where mechanisms to perform identity and ‘do masculinity’ (Messerschmidt 1993) are less restricted in terms of the ability to accrue possessions, juxtapose identities against the female gender and the family institution, and be involved in other masculine cultures such as sports, drinking, work, and autonomous behavioural choices.
Within the prison estate, participants recognised having to perform their selves differently in a higher-security prison compared to a YOI, an open prison, or a therapeutic community. Throughout the prison estate (and more so the higher the degree of security imposed), ‘ legitimate’ resources through which to display such gendered identities were often lacking, leaving less attractive but prominent tools such as violence and threats. Participants who had already been denied legitimate means to perform their masculine identities outside of prison had even fewer such resources within, and were left with violent behaviours, expressions of dominance over others, lies about personal situations, and even theft of goods from others as ‘easy’ ways through which to build up personal ‘wealth’ and achieve what Crewe refers to as ‘consumer masculinity’ (2009: 277). The use of different gender resources in this way could have substantial implications for how a man was ‘seen’—both by others and himself (with the two not necessarily overlapping)—in the present and in the future.
There is clearly a struggle over men’s sense of self and how others might see them relative to who they ‘should be’ as men. Identities and bodies within prison intersect with many other themes and subthemes considered in other chapters of this book; however, although the majority of individuals focus upon the individualistic nature of their identities and the control that they personally have over who they are, they also acknowledge that this is flexible in its development over time and space (see Chapters 4 and 5), and developed relative to, and for the benefit of, a varying collection of others within the prison setting. This is done behaviourally, vocally, and physically, and amounts to a form of personal performance of self that is dependent upon the audience at hand as to which aspects of identity are highlighted or hidden. What is most fascinating perhaps is the split between how these men want to see themselves (and why and for whose benefit) and how they actually practice being men: what they choose to do with their bodies and how that relates to who they say they ‘are’ and to whom.
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