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Home arrow Psychology arrow Masculinities and the Adult Male Prison Experience

Past, Present, and Future Men

When one considers time and masculinity more broadly, it is valuable to revisit the notion of masculinity as a fluid social construct that was discussed in Chapter 1, and to acknowledge the fact that views on what is ‘masculine’ have changed substantially over the years. As Kimmel notes:

Masculinity is a constantly changing collection of meanings that we construct through our relationships with ourselves, each other, and with our world. Manhood is neither static nor timeless; it is historical. Manhood does not bubble up to consciousness from our biological makeup; it is created in culture. Manhood means different things at different times to different people. (1994: 120)

With this in mind, masculinity takes on another problematic aspect when applied to men in prison, particularly those who have been incarcerated for long periods of time—the goalposts keep changing. The expectations placed upon men and their behaviours alter regularly— new men signify the hegemonic, new fashions emerge and change their meanings,[1] and acceptable behaviours one day become the obscene or reviled the next.[2] Moral panics change the world in a second, and what was ‘masculine’ at the point of incarceration may not be what is expected of an individual upon their release. What sorts of men should they be becoming or aspiring to be?

The pasts, presents, and proposed futures of men are inherently connected, which poses challenges. For example, the connections between the care system and people in prison have been documented—the Social Exclusion Unit report into reducing reoffending noted that, compared to 2 % of the general population, 27 % of prisoners had been taken into care as a child (Social Exclusion Unit 2002: 18). Although not mentioned by every participant, the importance of having experienced the care system in terms of a participant’s well-being and life course was expressed on numerous occasions, in terms of the influence that it had upon the individual’s family connections (both past and future generations) and personal identity. The impact that a lack of parental stability or role models had upon a number of men was clearly substantial, with implications for aspects of their masculine identity such as their abilities as fathers or sons—it clearly mattered when they had not been the audience of importance to the men who were significant in their own lives as they grew up (see also Phillips 2012: 163).

Other participants recognised the unique skills that their experiences of care provided them:

Jude: [...] sometimes you’ve got to have been there to know how to deal with

things.. .the best, best member of staff that I met in the children’s home was someone I met who had been in care, who had been in prison himself and, and knew, you know you’ve got to be there sometimes

Isaac: It’s just a way of life ent it, coz when I, coz from a young age I was brought up in care and things like that, in secure units, detention centres and everything like that, so I just learnt to live by myself, by my own rules, and I’ve learnt to live on the street as well, you know what I mean, you pick things up on the street, so I’m very streetwise, me, you know what I mean, so that’s just how it is

The accounts participants gave of their experiences of care were generally negative, although some tried to interpret them positively. Despite this, the influences of being within the care system away from their homes, parental role models, or guidance, and the lack of ‘normal’ legitimate masculinity development, clearly link to criminality and their current positions in prison:

Zachary: And like there’s a connection between that, like social services, such as like

going into care from your, from your like your own home, and then um peer pressure kind of brings drugs into the circle, and then you just find yourself in a little vicious circle

When it came to talking about the crimes they had committed and their pathways into prison, many spoke of how drink and drugs in particular had played a major part in their offending behaviour, causing them to commit crimes to support their habits or as a result of being intoxicated and lacking full awareness and responsibility. Appleton found similar problematic starts to her participants’ lives, what she termed ‘contaminated beginnings’ (2010: 143). It has been claimed that:

a close relationship exists between delinquency/criminality, specific lifestyle and heavy drinking. These three factors seem to interact and to enhance each other in the sense of an increasing spiral, which leads to a decrease in opportunities for developing and maintaining a normal, socially integrated biography. (Kerner et al. 1997: 416)

These two factors (drink and drugs) seemed to play the greatest role in individuals’ accounts of their offending pasts:

Isaac: [...] I was doing a lot of cocaine as well, ecstasy...crack cocaine now and

then, you know it was just getting out of hand, really out of hand.. .a lot of drink as well, I was doing a lot of drink, d’you know what I mean it was just, like the lifestyle [...]

It is clear that there was a cyclical aspect to some criminal lives and a degree of chaos featured in the past lives of many offenders—intriguing when considering the idea that cyclical time is actually ‘feminine time’ (Maines and Hardesty 1987). Some spoke directly about the part that family (through arguments, retaliation, role model behaviour, abuse, and the protection of relationships) played in the shaping of their current identities, and friendships and peers too played a key role, with some blaming their offending upon the influences of others. Regarding the influence of others upon identity development, many participants positioned their offending in terms of difference from other prisoners, using concepts such as being in the ‘wrong place and the wrong time’, offences being a ‘one off, a ‘mistake’, a result of ‘bad choices’ or circumstances, compared to persistent offenders. Although many did see their offending actions as having been serious enough to merit a prison sen?tence (albeit not always of the length given), many did see themselves as different from the ‘normal’ male prisoner:

Harvey: me I’m not, I’m, I’m in prison but I’m not a criminal criminal like [...]

People out robbing, thieving and, I’ve never ever gone out robbing.. .to get money or nothing like that, the only crime I’ve committed is violence, which is pub fights

So violence and fighting are seen as acceptable male behaviours, not wholly ‘criminal’, whilst other crimes (often committed by ‘others’) were unacceptable. Some participants did refer to their offences and imprisonment in terms of not being proud of them, and feeling like they had changed (or had to change) with age. Such notions of pride, differentiation, and distancing are processes occurring for others: they are performances, or the outcomes of performances, directed at certain audiences whose values and opinions about them they value.

Many participants had already served time in prison on numerous occasions and many found a form of justification for their offending pasts, such as drink, drugs, the influences of others, criminal justice procedures, or their age and immaturity. A few spoke of the fact that they had learned that they struggled to manage negative emotions effectively (with some speaking of how therapy and courses had allowed them to address their offending behaviour patterns and their pathways into crime, and had helped them to learn to address such feelings). In fact, this explanation of criminality fits well with the fact that many participants had clearly gone through problematic life experiences in the past, and had little stability or opportunities for legitimately gaining masculine identities:

Samuel: It was an escalation, escalation of my past offending when I was a child,

a teenager, and then I had a period for about 12 years where I kind of managed to settle down, get myself a job, married.. .just basically living a normal life, but.just under the surface there was issues that I didn’t deal with as a kid, and.-.the feeling of frustration, and guilt within my marriage, and the inability to deal with negative emotions, um. just came out one night when I’d had too much to drink [.]

Thus, masculinity played a key role in their past life course, positive efforts at domesticity and negative responses to emotions, and their incarcerated sense of self, influencing which aspects of their offending pasts they were willing to confront, how, and why.

In addition to this, many men showed obvious anxiety related to their future masculine lives, which were directly linked to past masculinities— their own, in terms of how criminal convictions would impact upon their future lives, but also others’ masculinities. Some spoke of the past masculinities of gang members or rival criminals—people who used to be audiences that mattered to them—and the impact these individuals could have on their ability to establish a legitimate, settled, non-criminal masculinity upon their release (at least in the same place that they lived before). Others spoke of their fathers in terms of negative masculinities—and their lack of positive role models for how they should ‘be’ men—or positive masculinities—in terms of being ‘good’ men who they felt they had ‘let down’.

As such, somewhat contrary to the remarks noted by Earle (2014) at the start of this chapter, the men did look to the future. This may be a result of the type of prison that I was in—a category C training prison is, by its nature, attempting to ‘train’ individuals for their future lives out of prison, and there were numerous courses and opportunities to work and learn that looked ahead to when these men would be released. That said, it is not always a given that training prisons provide sufficient or suitable opportunities for improved lives. Participants’ futures played an influential role in the framing of their narratives about their experiences of prison, being something that they could use their time in prison to add value to through work, reflection and personal development. In particular, many participants spoke of their aspirations and plans for the future and their future success, often tied in to their career hopes and, essentially, who they wanted to become with reference to the management of working identities and the creation of the potential for legitimate masculinity markers (such as the ability to have a working identity, earn money, provide for the family, and accrue wealth):

Zachary: [...] that’s the career, my end objective if you like is probably to like

open a gym [.] If I could do that then.. .that would be me, that would be all my dreams come true

Participants’ aspirational identities were often linked to the prison experiences and the opportunities available to them for the use of their time. Some voiced concerns about the validity of the training that they received in prison and its usefulness on the outside, highlighting the potential limits to the value of their used time. Numerous participants discussed their anxieties with regard to attaining work upon release, and the importance of having options and something to fall back on, and so the avoidance of a future criminal (and prisoner) identity and the creation of a legitimate means of being masculine. Other anxieties for the future included finding housing directly after release (with extended implications for their identities as independent and self-sufficient men), and the concept of release in general provoked anxiety in a number of participants, particularly those who had spent a long time in prison, and those who saw themselves as institutionalised (lacking the ability to express individuality, control over the self, or the skills to be a legitimate male) in one way or another:

George: I’m a clean man, I have a clean heart, I show emotions.. .I don’t know

man, I see, I don’t know, I don’t know how I would feel if I go out there I’m scared, I’m, I’m.I’m shitting my load man when every day I think about it, one day they’re going to let me out, what am I going to be like man? And like she’s telling me look you’re going to be alright, everyone’s [.] and I’m like nah man, I’m going to be scared for the rest of my.I don’t know man, thinking about it now my heart’s staring to shake and that, that’s how badly I’m scared man, coz I know that it’s coming close now. ..I’ve been away for a long time. [...] I hated it out there man. I didn’t feel safe but I did do what I liked, I did do good out there

The future of prisoners in terms of their being reunited with their families was a major emergent theme in interviews—the importance of the family as a legitimate masculine identity signifier and in terms of coping in prison and having something to work towards was evident, particularly with reference to children (who, in part, played a role as signifiers of their fathers’ masculine virility, or a potential key audience for their identities). Friendships on the outside were not seen in the same light—a number of prisoners spoke of putting their current friendships on hold as a form of test, or ending them completely, often sacrificing seeing them so that they could see their families instead, due to the limited nature of visiting orders.[3] [4] They controlled their social spheres and managed the available identity signifiers as a form of gendered currency6—families have the potential to say more about male identities than friends:

Harrison: Rang all my mates and was just like, look, I can’t deal with any of you coming up, just.. .anyway, that’s a better way coz I’ll see who my true friends are when I get out and see if they’re still around, d’you know what I mean?

Prisoners have to overcome the difficulties that occur with respect to maintaining their aspirational identity performances, formed in the prison through reflection and personal development that occur through the use of prison time, when outside and subjected to other identity-6haping events and activities. Many prisoners made plans for the future, both tangible and intangible, and although such plans for eventual resettlement and the future were significant to many, some prisoners did view their outside futures with a degree of scepticism, emphasising the difficulties in masculine identity transmission across the prison divide:

Kevin: [...] prison’s at the back of your mind, it’s not something that you’re not

going, it ain’t to say that you’re not going to get going now and again, but it’s at the back of your mind, you don’t think that there’s fences going round and you’re going behind bars and you’re going to be locked up and have to go about this and have to queue for your food, you could be degraded and, and wearing what you’re supposed to and doing what you’re supposed to do, and uh it’s just that’s one of the main things in prison, you actually forget when you’re released when, in the outside world and you’re like.all this going on and you’ve got responsibilities and you’ve got that and you, you, you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing.

Jayden: In a way I don’t, I don’t ever want to come back but now I’ve got a criminal record it’s harder to get jobs and that out there, so [...] ...dunno really. If you can’t get a job and.. .it’s hard, d’you know what I mean. [...] .everyone needs money to survive, so.dunno what’s round the corner do ya

The majority of concerns with the future that were discussed in interviews regarded prisoners’ wishes to return to a sense of normality, highlighting the severe abnormality of the prison as experienced by many. Some prisoners spoke of looking forward to activities that would be classed as normal by the majority of us: shopping, seeing new films in the cinema, going to watch football teams and undertaking sports, buying cars, going to church, expanding the family, and enjoying non-prison food and cutlery (all of which are markers of masculine hegemony with respect to the acquisition of wealth signifiers, virility, physicality, independent living, etc.). Yet it is important to recognise that the pace of life changes over the course of a man’s incarceration—those electronic gadgets that men aspire to own that signify wealth and masculine prowess through engagement with digital capitalism can actually increase the pace of life (Wajcman 2014). The longer a man is in prison, the harder it may be to adapt to the change in pace upon release that engagement with digital elements requires, thereby alienating men further from processes of integration, normalisation, and the assertion of capitalist priorities:

Gabriel: [...] all new to us ent it, when I came in you know what I mean.. .12

years ago and where I come from [.] we didn’t have coffee shops and all these Subways and everything, we had McDonalds and everything but that would have only just been coming in all these coffee shops and everything [.] They just weren’t around Researcher: So Starbucks and things like that

Gabriel: Yeah they were just starting up you know what I mean, you had them

in London but they ain’t got out to the certain world where I live and everything so you didn’t, you didn’t have it.. .know what I mean so it’s all new to me. Oh phones, bloody hell when I came in phones were that size and you know what I mean, there weren’t cameras and internet on them and all this sort of thing, baffles me, I’m lost, have trouble just dialling the number on the damn thing, that’s about the only thing I can do with them, so technology’s all changed you know what I mean [.] Flat-screen TVs and all this sort of thing, stuck on the wall nah, weren’t about when.. .I came to prison. So all that’s is like changed you know what I mean

  • [1] David Beckham wearing a sarong masculinised the item to a degree; Johnny Depp wearing eyeliner has turned make-up more manly; and skinny jeans are now worn by the most masculine ofrock stars.
  • [2] Operation Yewtree’s investigation and condemnation of former TV stars’ abuse of young people,which was normalised and even ‘accepted’ in the 1970s, is testament to this, as is the enormouschange in perceptions of what behaviours are unacceptable and racist, sexist, or homophobic.
  • [3] Prisoners are only allowed a certain number of visitors per month, which are organised throughthe use of visiting orders, sent out to prospective visitors.
  • [4] Many thanks to Ben Raikes for his insights on this issue.
 
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