It has already been recognised that men are often feminised through the prison experience—having feminine dimensions of time, space, and corporeal spectacle imposed upon them. This also occurs through the very people that a male prisoner comes into contact with on a daily basis, even if those people are men, and even if their behaviours are perceived to be ‘hypermasculine’.
Within the prison, ‘normal’ gendered relational dimensions are disrupted—there are very few women against whom to juxtapose one’s masculine identity. For those staff members who are female, many are positioned in the male guise through being ‘spectators’, having power over other men and even dressed to follow masculine patterns and uniformity similar to the military. These women are infused with power over men in prison, placing men into the feminised, dominated position (see also Crewe 2006a). It falls to other men and such ‘masculinised’ women to provide the spectrum of gender against which men can position themselves and be positioned by other men.
The prisoner as part of a social group or ‘prisoner community’ (Hayner and Ash 1939: 362) has dominated sociological studies of imprisonment for decades. Clemmer’s study on an American penitentiary in the 1930s,
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J.A. Sloan, Masculinities and the Adult Male Prison Experience,
The Prisoner Community, considered both the social aspects of the prisoner community and more intimate relationships between individuals such as cellmates. On the wider social scale, Clemmer looked at the prisoner community in terms of social relations and communication—particularly argot, which he recognised to have masculine attributes: ‘argot, such as exists in a prison will usually be found in other all-male groups, as among hoboes and in armies’ (1958: 89). The importance of the individual is also highlighted by Clemmer, who found that 95 % of prisoners were more interested in themselves than in other prisoners (1958: 123), a notion that emerged from my own interviews. With regard to personal identity (and thus the gendered nature of self), there is a tangled interplay between the individual and the community or group within which that individual is situated.
When considered in the light of theories of masculinity, this makes sense—particularly if we consider men to use other men, crime, and interactions with women as means through which to prove their own masculine identities (i.e. to prove their masculinities to themselves—see Messerschmidt 1993; Kimmel 1994; Connell 2005). Sykes and Messinger (I960) argue that a cohesive inmate society provides a group for the individual to align himself with for support, in addition to providing a shared belief system, a sense of independence, and an institutionalised value ascribed to the ability to withstand the harsh prison environment, shaping his masculine identity.
As it is, the notion of relationships of solidarity within the prison is a complex issue (Irwin 1970), particularly with respect to the modern prison estate, which has been argued on the one hand to be much more individualistic in nature (Crewe 2007), and on the other often suffers (particularly in the USA or South Africa, for instance) from the effects of exaggerated forms of masculine socialisation and common groupings when they take the form of potentially violent and harmful prison gangs (see Jacobs 1974; Fong 1990). Phillips makes note of the fact that such solidarity, when based upon racial or ethnic foundations, can create a resentment among those who are not included (Phillips 2008: 320), and it is important to recognise that this has implications for masculine groupings. In addition, Goffman has pointed out that the process of socialisation can in itself be seen to be painful and have implications
(such as feelings of ‘contamination’—see also Sibley and van Hoven 2009) regarding an individual’s control over his prison experience and gendered self and identity management (1961: 28). Such ‘contamination’ feelings generally stem from how an individual views others relative to notions of audiences of value, and how they define their interactions.