Home Psychology Masculinities and the Adult Male Prison Experience
Men in prison are viewed to be an inherently vulnerable group, yet rarely are the notions of masculinities and vulnerabilities considered together, and even rarer still is a consideration of these interplaying issues on a general level. Whereas consideration of the vulnerability of certain typologies of male prisoner is a regular occurrence within the prison—the bullied prisoner, the self-harming prisoner, the young prisoner, the old and infirm prisoner (labels which go hand in hand with processes of feminisa- tion)—such categorisation ultimately misses both the ways in which men who do not fit into such categorisations also experience vulnerabilities on a daily basis, and the innately masculine natures and implications of such vulnerabilities. Although certain forms of vulnerability are engaged with through formal means (such as group work, offending behaviour programmes, and therapeutic communities), these are limited due to the need for individuals to engage actively with the processes of exposing personal vulnerabilities in formal (and often group) situations where trust could still be seen to be at a premium.
Less attention is given in practice to the day-to-day vulnerabilities of men, manifesting by virtue of their disconnection with ‘normal’ masculine identity signifiers on the outside, such as families, employment,
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J.A. Sloan, Masculinities and the Adult Male Prison Experience,
independence, and maintaining control—both over themselves through their life course, and over others. Although some forms of control over others on the outside are negative (such as domestic violence), they are still ways through which men are able to situate themselves within patriarchal and masculine systems, and thus provide a means through which to define themselves as men. This is not to say that the facilitation of such controlling and abusive behaviours should be encouraged to promote masculine identity—far from it. Rather, it is crucial to recognise that the means through which men perform and situate themselves within masculine definitions are not always positive, but their total abandonment, rather than the encouragement of (and their replacement with) alternative positive forms of masculine control, results in further problems with respect to the limited legitimate means through which to identify oneself as a man, particularly within the prison.
What is meant by ‘vulnerabilities’ in the context of masculinities? By vulnerabilities in this context, I refer to the way in which men’s masculinities become threatened or put under pressure or tension by virtue of their incarceration. This may be as a result of the pressures to perform certain masculine traits for the benefit of the apparently hypermasculine (yet also feminising) prison sphere, or as a result of self-imposed pressures on the self to act in a certain manner. Although everyone in life is expected to perform in certain ways, rarely are the means through which to achieve a legitimate gendered identity limited in the ways that they can be in prisons, and rarely do such expectations pervade every element of the individual’s living space. Even men’s cells, whilst on the one hand providing a potential ‘safe’ or ‘neutral’ space for the individual when the door is shut, are restrictive in the sense that individuals are limited in what they can do and who they can be whilst inside, and the cells themselves can make some vital statements about men’s masculine identities (see Sloan 2012a, b).
It could be argued that the term ‘ontological security’ would be more appropriate in this case. Jefferson notes that common to all definitions of ontological insecurity (such as the work of Laing [I960] or Giddens ) lies ‘a sense of deep-seated uncertainty and instability in the face of perceived or postulated danger’ (2010: 389). Although this is a useful way to view the notion of vulnerabilities, what I am concerned with is less ‘uncertainty and instability’ and less of a ‘danger’. Men in prison do not necessarily perceive their masculinities to be in danger—they have plenty of opportunities to act in a masculine fashion if they are willing to do so illegitimately through violence, controlling behaviours, or escaping the situation altogether through substance abuse. They also do not tend to feel uncertain or unstable about their masculinities—few of the men I spoke to actually reflected on their gendered identities, but rather their manifestations in performance such as through families or employment that were denied to or limited for them. Ontological insecurity in the prison setting would arguably extend much broader than the masculine self, to the very i dentity of the individual, which would apply both to female and male prisoners. Of concern in this chapter, however, are the distinctly masculine aspects of identity that become vulnerable through incarceration.
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