Home Psychology Masculinities and the Adult Male Prison Experience
Another layer of complexity and masculinity is added to the prisoner’s experience when considering the interactions between prisoners and staff. The impacts of relationships between staff and prisoners have been widely discussed within both the academic literature and on a wider policy scale (Walmsley et al. 1992; Woolf and Tumin 1991: 1.149). On a more sociological basis, such relationships have been seen to be significant to the prison experience for many years, both for instrumental and normative reasons (Liebling and Price 1999: 22), although it is recognised that staff find getting the appropriate social distance between themselves and prisoners, and the balance between friendliness and friendship, somewhat tricky and individually dependent (Crawley 2004: 106-107), in part as a result of similarities between prisoners and officers in terms of the ‘narrowness of the socio-economic (and moral) divide between themselves and prisoners’ (2004: 122)—arguably, this can extend to masculinity too. As Goffman notes, the relationships between staff and prisoners in total institutions can be complicated for staff members:
In an effort to frustrate these visibly self-destructive acts, staff members may find themselves forced to manhandle these patients, creating an image of themselves as harsh and coercive just at the moment when they are attempting to prevent someone from doing to himself what they feel no human being should do to anyone. (1961: 83)
The relationship between staff and prisoner has been noted to have changed within the late-modern prison estate, however, with the shift in power away from uniformed staffworking directly with prisoners, upwards towards more centralised and managerial staff members (Crewe 2007). This goes hand in hand with the process of individualisation that is occurring with regard to the social interactions between prisoners themselves (Crewe 2007: 259, 273), although Morris and Morris argue that this is less relevant, as the uniformed prison officers actually execute such decisions, and thus embody authority (1963: 264). This has potential implications for a shift in the dynamics of relationships between prisoners and staff and the degree to which they can be said to have direct power over the prisoner’s sentence and experience—officers are now ‘not seen as embodying the system of power so much as implementing it’ (Crewe 2007: 261 ).
Yet it must be remembered that staff are still an audience for prisoners’ masculine performances—and an audience with a high degree of institutional power behind them. In addition to recognising the importance of the custodian-prisoner relationship and its associated ‘trades’ (1958: 57) and discretion in the maintenance of order in the absence of complete power over prisoners, Sykes goes on to link some of his suggested pains of imprisonment to the roles of prison staff. The deprivations of liberty, goods, and services and heterosexual relationships (and the promotion of personal security) are all enforced by staff members, but of greatest concern is the fact that the deprivation of autonomy has direct implications for a prisoner’s masculine identity (see Crewe 2006a: 415) by infantilising and feminising him:
The frustration of the prisoner’s ability to make choices and the frequent refusals to provide an explanation for the regulations and commands descending from the bureaucratic staff involve a profound threat to the prisoner’s self image because they reduce the prisoner to the weak, helpless,
dependent status of childhood. (Sykes 1958: 75)
Such control (and its potential abuse) over the fate of inmates can have implications in terms of the lack of trust prisoners can experience with reference to staff members (Winfree et al. 2002: 229), and the negative perceptions of a lack of openness (Liebling and Price 1999: 20). Liebling and Arnold found the dimension of ‘staff-prisoner relationships’ that they investigated to be most highly correlated with dimensions of respect, humanity, fairness, trust, and support regarding staff actions and attitudes (2004: 239).
The negative aspects and implications of prisoner-staff relationships have been regularly acknowledged, particularly with respect to the negative impacts such interactions can have upon inter-prisoner relationships due to their undermining of the prisoner code (Sykes and Messinger I960; Morris and Morris 1963; Winfree et al. 2002). Platek observed of the group assigned the non-man’ status of ‘mug’: ‘the most odious of “mugs” are prison functionaries. A “man” may have no contact whatever with a jailer’ (1990; 462), with masculine identities thus being shaped by the manner of associations occurring between prisoners and staff (and vice versa). Some prisoners also avoid contact with prison officers (and other prisoners) in order to become ‘mentally and materially independent’ in a process referred to as ‘isolationism’ (Grapendaal 1990: 347). As Wheeler points out, ‘the inmate who values friendship among his peers and also desires to conform to the staff’s norms faces a vivid and real role conflict’ (1961: 704). Indeed, which audience should take priority and be of higher value?
The gendered nature of staff-prisoner relationships has been acknowledged to a degree within academic literature—Sim has recognised that prison staff can provide another source of masculine expectation for inmates regarding the performance of their gendered identity, thus imposing a degree of identity pressure in addition to other prisoners (Sim 1994: 102—see also Jewkes 2002: 141). My research study also brought to light the fact that relationships between prisoners and members of staff had a key influence upon individuals’ experiences of imprisonment. In addition to being responsible for mundane domestic responsibilities, situating prison as a ‘quasi-domestic sphere’ (Crawley 2004: 130), staff members were also seen as having wider responsibilities such as welfare and security. Similar to prisoners, the hypermasculine expectations were in tension with the somewhat feminised reality. Participants spoke of there being greater potential for problems and confrontations when staff were not visible or present—staff members had control over prisoners, a fact that many prisoners (albeit appreciating its implications in terms of personal safety) often resented due to it enforcing a state of emasculating dependence:
Kai: Well you can’t do what you want [...] You just can’t do, you can’t get up in
the morning, put your clothes on and walk down the shop.get yourself a newspaper or, or, they, the worst thing about it is you cannot do what you wanna do [...] You know you’re confined to do what they want you to do [.] You know and I know outside.. .you live by, you live by the laws of the land and all that but you can do what you want to do, you’ve got them choices to do what you wanna do, I think in here the worst thing about jail is not having your choices.. .your freedom to do what you want, d’ you know what I mean, for me that is the worst thing
It was acknowledged that staff were often very busy and lacked time, which meant that some processes within the prison were highly timeconsuming or delayed with direct knock-on implications for prisoners, re-emphasising their lack of independence or control over their own lives and sentence progression:
Noah: [.] you know it’s like I’ve been waiting for three, four months now for me
parole reports.. .now to me that’s an important thing, but to them it’s oh right, yeah, don’t worry, it’ll be done.. .yeah but when? You know this has got to be back, back, so they don’t really take on board how, what the effect of these things have on people so obviously if, if you ask them to do something, I’ve seen, yeah, you know if I come and ask you to do something for me, oh, you know can you sort this out for me please, I’d sooner say, you say to me right, I’ll have a look at it, but I’m not sure if I’ll get it done. Whereas they will go, yep, no problems, and when you come back to them, oh I gave that, I give, give that to so and so, yeah alright, you know passing the buck. So obviously that starts to make me agitated. What you playing at? I’ve asked you to do something simple.. .if you couldn’t do it you should have just told me you couldn’t do it and I could have gone to someone else that could have done
Staff were appreciated if they helped prisoners to achieve their targets without such delays, or if they were seen to be helping prisoners to get through the system—there appeared to be a distinction between ‘prison staff as individuals’ and ‘prison staff as the system’ (recognised by Liebling and Arnold 2004: 234—239). What was of particular importance to prisoners was the fact that they saw some prison staff as failing to give them the respect—central to their feelings of masculine self—that they felt they deserved:
Oliver: See maybe it’s just me, like em.. .just the way they’ll answer you, yeah and just
shut the door, it’s just fucking rude for no reason. [.] Just coz I’m in prison you don’t have to talk to me like I’m, you know, like I’m nothing
Staff obviously had a very difficult role, having to combine discipline with domesticity and care (in a way, having to play out both feminised and masculinised identities in daily interactions), whilst at the same time preserving rapport and security-based suspicions. In addition, the observation of prison staff being there as a job (for career as opposed to care) was used both to criticise staff as well as sympathise with them. When speaking of positive relationships with staff, many participants would refer to individuals or distinct groups such as those in education, the gym, therapy or mental health, or staff working on particular wings. Decent treatment as a whole was valued. At the same time, there were distinct groups who were seen in a particularly negative light, such as psychology (see also Crewe 2007: 261; Sloan and Wright 2015) and management, who would sometimes be used to represent the system. These groups of staff had even more meaningful and effectual control, being able to impose punishments, or write damning psychological reports that could hold a prisoner back years in an indeterminate sentence.
Where men tried to take control and highlight issues, although this might gain kudos from other audiences, participants spoke of the fact that they felt they were seen to be ‘whinging’ when complaining:
Gabriel: I know, it is annoying, what would you do, you know what I mean. And
you keep complaining they see you as a pest. [...] You know what I mean, you try to stand up, try to point of views it’s like me, you try to stand up for yourself.. .they see you as a problem. So you can’t win in prison [...] You cannot win. You try standing up for yourself and you start putting in complaints and start, you moan about the food and that. ..they just see you as a control hazard and everything, you know what I mean
Although prisoners and staff had points of conflict, generally with reference to competition for control (most amusingly explained by some in the real-life competition prisoners and staff had to hide and find illegal items), many spoke of the fact that they got on with staff in general. Regardless of the power imbalance, staff members were another type of audience for prisoners to perform their gendered identities for, sometimes with apprehension:
Kai: As much as they’re supposed to give you correct, you know, advice and counselling and whatever, they just look at you and think oh you’re weak man, do what you, do what you got to do and stuff like that. I don’t think there’s any of that here, you know, there might be the odd one member of staff who you get on with who you can go to and say listen my head’s shot, have you got ten minutes? And who’ll just sit there and listen to you d’you know what I mean
Retaining masculine identities for the staff audience, however, was somewhat problematic, as staff were directly aware of prisoners’ lack of personal autonomy and control and their power over them. When staff members exerted this power in ways that were seen to be illegitimate, unjust, or too great, participants would speak of their frustration, anger, and dislike of individuals. The implications of such relationships upon individuals’ gendered identities and the male prison experience are extensive and potentially volatile in terms of prisoner responses to imprisonment, the prison system, and prison staff as a whole. Such relationships with staff clearly emphasise the importance of control within masculine configurations—control over oneself and control over others—both within the prison, resulting from the enforced processes of competition and masculine performances of dominance; and on the outside, in terms of retaining control over one’s family life and non-prisoner identity signifiers.
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