Labelling Prison Relationships
Participants’ detailed narratives tended to identify such interactions with other prisoners in a convoluted light, with even the very labels applied to interactions being distinct to the prison setting. Inter-prisoner relationships were situational, often with people that participants would not be friends with outside prison:
Oliver: Not that I’ve got anything against anyone, but I...it’s only because I’m
in prison that I talk to them [...] That’s why. Because we would never have met and I doubt, you know.. .they’re not my kind of people most of them, but, yeah, it’s funny because you act like you’re all friends, well.. .don’t act like you’re all friends but.. .with certain people, act like we’re friends but.. .then say if they left me their number or something I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t phone ’em, there’s people that gave me their number in here, for when I get out, and I’ve just, I’ve took it and I’ve just ripped it up and put it in the bin—I haven’t told ’em that, but. [.] No they’re not, I don’t know what it is, prison friends I suppose, buddies, whatever. It’s hard to explain
Gabriel: .I’ve met some real good guys in prison and all [.] Real sound salts
of the earth, you know what I mean. I ain’t ever going to see them again so you don’t bother do ya. [.] .and you ent, you ent going to see them again so it’s pointless, you know what I mean so people are just acquaintances
This was due in part, I learned, to others’ prisoner/criminal identities and the potential risks they brought to individuals’ non-prisoner identity performances. With this in mind, inter-prisoner relationships were generally characterised as being transient and temporary (a notion recognised in the context of the female prison estate by Greer [2000: 449]) with a limited number having the potential to be genuine friendships—their value was, as a result, highly situational. Those that were seen to be genuine were, in part, a result of personal affinities between individuals, but also due to an investment in the other individual, be that an investment of time or openness and trust (as was noted to occur in therapeutic communities with established positive audiences, for example).
The transient nature of this audience that matters is apparent. In addition, some relationships were seen to be potentially and actually negative for individuals to become engaged in within the prison setting. The potential for harm from others was seen to add a defining feature to inter-prisoner relationships as a whole, in that many spoke of the individualistic nature of associations within prison:
Zachary: No I don’t think you can ever have friends in prison [...] Just because um...
no matter what they say, everybody’s got their own agenda I think in prison, everyone’s got a little, they must have a little agenda and um maybe I’m just paranoid but. and we are kind of mistrustful people, people from our experiences anyway um.but people just tend to be like looking out for themselves more than anything, so you can get close to a person and they can watch your back to a certain extent but. when um, you know, you find yourself in trouble it’s you on your own most of the time
Thus, participants tended to characterise ‘true’ friends as having elements such as personal affinities, shared histories or backgrounds, a degree of loyalty and investment, an acceptance of friends being able to associate with their family, choice and trust; thereby distancing them to a degree from the ‘harmful’ prisoner identity. In truth, a number of participants emphasised the fact that many of their friends outside were non-criminal. Prisoners were an audience that mattered in a particular time and space, but generally not in the long term.
Trust was a key element that was often seen to be missing in interprisoner relationships, and certain interactions were recognised as not being genuine (see also Crewe 2009: 432) and lacking in openness:
Cameron: Mates not friends [.] Uh, I, because I’ve only met them in prison I don’t
know them, even though we’ve spent a year or two on the wings together. I don’t know.. .the person, I know the character but not the person [.]
But um.. .as far as trust goes with these mates, sort of like 90 % I’d trust em, there’s that little 10 % is the doubt, and that’s only because I met them in prison, I don’t know them out there [.] And I’m aware that in prison, prisoners do get through their sentence by putting on a brave front
The notion of a ‘brave front’ (as discussed in Chapter 3) is both masculine and is indicative of underlying fearfulness and processes of performance. Although there was debate as to whether true friendships could occur within the prison setting, and though some did use the term ‘friend’ to describe interactions, many spoke in less emotive and connected terms (whilst also implying a greater degree of masculinity—perhaps as a tool to add distance from the more emotive quality of friendships). Such terms included ‘brothers’ (see also Phillips [2008: 319]); ‘mates’, found by others to be based upon a ‘long acquaintanceship’, and to be forms of ‘defensive alliances as well as reciprocal supports against the deprivations of imprisonment’ (Morris and Morris 1963: 224); or, most commonly, ‘associates’, as recognised by a multitude of prison researchers over the decades (Clemmer [1958 : 139]; Flanagan [1980: 154]; Greer ; Liebling and Arnold [2002: 358]; and Crewe [2005a: 473]). Participants were clear in their recognition of a distinction between associates and friends:
Benjamin: It’s like well...I think the best way to describe it is, obviously you get
work colleagues, it’s just people that surround you at a time that you’ve got to have contact with, really, that’s the way I describe it [.] It’s people you wouldn’t necessarily to, you know, go out the way to obviously to you know have any form of relationship with, it’s like work, you know, associates, you know it’s the environment we’re in
Outside masculine signifiers such as the world of work are drawn upon inside the prison in order to attempt to normalise the prison experience (see also Sloan 2015). The nature of relationships in prison is difficult to define—they can be highly situational, transient, and temporary, and there is often seen to be limited potential for making true friends as opposed to ‘brothers’, ‘mates’, or ‘associates’. This is generally a result of the lack of trust or openness within the prison setting, but although this was emphasised, and although relationships were sometimes seen to be ‘work-like’, there were references to the potential for, and existence of, friendships, based upon shared affinities, investments, loyalty, and trust, and contingent upon individual prisoners and their circumstances. The key role, however, was that of a situational audience.
Such audience/performer dimensions occurred under a number of different settings. Prisoners would work out and train with other prisoners (sharing in corporeal masculinities), would eat with them—eating and food is recognised to have gendered dimensions to it (Julier and Lindenfeld 2005; Sobal 2005; McPhail et al. 2012)—(although this was by no means a routine occurrence across participants), spend association time with them, borrow and lend (sharing in consumer masculinities— see Crewe 2009: 277), and so on. Of additional importance was the role of other men in prison as a tool in further performances, against which to position one’s own masculinity and masculine identity markers. This generally occurred through highlighting positions of difference.