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Home arrow Psychology arrow Masculinities and the Adult Male Prison Experience



Differentiation is quite a prominent theme within the prison setting— prisoners tend to position themselves relative to others and their ‘negative’ or ‘failing’ masculinities, be those other prisoners whom they see to be failing the prisoner collective with regard to perceived imposed obligations, or other prisoners whom they see to be vulnerable, weak, or harmful. Such differentiation allows a level of individuality to be claimed by the prisoner (who is essentially taking control over his identity and how he wished to be viewed relative to other men), and allows for the negotiation of negative identity labels. Prisoners often differentiate themselves from others whom they see as being distanced from the criminal world—non-criminals—thereby positing themselves somewhat negatively. On occasion, the men I spoke to distanced themselves from negative associations they had on the outside, such as criminal friends/ peers who they felt would subsequently impede personal development towards a non-criminal/drugs-free masculine identity: in this instance, it is clear to see a shift in the ‘audience that matters’ to the individual, and its potential to impact upon desistance and reintegration.

In the prison, the men I spoke to differentiated themselves from other prisoners, generally in the negative—crimes they had committed weren’t as bad as others; the way an individual performed his masculine identity was nowhere near as staged or negative as others'; individuals made use of their time, rather than wasting it as others did; and so on. Such differentiation can be manipulated to suit the audience. As such, differentiation processes highlight the flexibility of individual prisoners’ associations and performances, with the potential to signal different elements of self to different people at different times, depending on who matters then.

Clearly, the relationships that prisoners have with each other are complicated. Relationships could be characterised as positive, negative, and neutral; however, the most unusual point was the fact that prisoners apply distinctive labels to such interactions, seemingly avoiding indicators of emotional connection or closeness in the majority of cases. This may well be for the reason that prisoners would find it difficult to put the practice of differentiation from the prisoner identity that they see in others into action if they could be identified as friends—friends tend to be individuals with shared attributes to ourselves. The ability to differentiate from the prisoner collective with all its associated negative attributes and characteristics was critical, and ties in well with Douglas’ notion of ‘danger-beliefs’ whereby:

certain moral values are upheld and certain social rules defined by beliefs in dangerous contagion, as when the glance or touch of an adulterer is held to bring illness to his neighbour or his children. (1966: 3)

If we apply this concept to prisoner identity, it is arguable that the prisoner identity could be seen to be contagious through proximity—this idea could be seen to manifest itself in the differentiation and avoidance behaviours seen regarding cleanliness. The avoidance of expressions of relationships of closeness can be seen to be another mechanism through which prisoners implement individualisation and differentiation processes and attempt to manage the contagiousness of the prisoner identity, instead opting for labels of association to apply to positive interactions with other prisoners.

Where positive relationships did exist, these tended to be based upon similarities between individuals that went beyond the prisoner label and again differentiated them from others. Such characteristics included family or friendship ties that originated outside prison, interests in music or religion, or shared distinctive experiences within the prison setting, such as therapeutic environments. These tended to represent elements of openness and trust, which were lacking in the majority of interactions within the prison, although even in positive interactions individuals tended to be guarded and apply protective fronts. Other relationships that were seen in a positive light tended to be those that could either affirm or improve an individual’s masculine ‘credentials’ within the prison, such as providing protection or help to those weaker individuals, learning skills that would afford them independence within the prison, or, in some cases, providing relationships of emotional support:

Bailey: I think people are lying when they say they don’t make friends in jail

so.. .I do, I like people so

Researcher: Mmhmm, so what is it about the guys you get on with that makes

them friends?

Bailey: Um.well you just help people out ent it, somebody’s probably on

a downer one day and you’ll go and sit with him and then you next week you’ll be a bit down and he’ll come and sit with you and we’ll have a coffee, PlayStation, and, um, you just help people out don’t you [.] It’s good support isn’t it

This was rare, as it could be perceived as a sign of weakness and would undermine the differentiation process, and where such relationships of trust did occur they would still be managed to some extent in order to retain a degree of toughness.

Negative interactions tended to centre on elements of harm—a number of prisoners spoke of their experiences of threatening or harmful behaviours from others. Often, prisoners would attempt to normalise such experiences or observations within the prison context and thus situate such harms within the prison and its spatial context (see Chapter 5), rather than being linked to them as an individual ‘victim’ who could be seen to be weak. Many spoke of the means through which they altered their behaviours in order to negotiate the risk of such harms from others, and the lack of trust experienced between prisoners was inherent in the negative relationships experienced and the resultant negotiative behaviours. Negative relationships existed where individuals exerted too much or too little control—too much control over others in the form of harmful and manipulative behaviours, or too little control where individuals failed either to differentiate themselves from the prisoner collective (and thus be seen as trustworthy or have non-prison affinities with others), or where individuals failed to take control over their performed identities as men and thus move away from a ‘weak’ identity (i.e. not conform to the expectations of the prisoner collective). As such, relationships between prisoners in prison required a delicate balance between being situated within the prisoner collective with its associated risks and contagiousness, or being situated out of that group and thus out of the protective solidarity that still remains to some degree. Yet in many instances, it is the internalised expectations that an individual places on himself in response to the audience community around him that frames an individual’s actions.

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