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Individualism without Individuality, and the Vulnerability Dichotomy of Prisons

A key vulnerability emanates from the individual himself in terms of prisoners’ vulnerable masculine identities. One of the key vulnerabilities of self that has been recognised in much academic investigation into the prisoner is that of individual identity—many prisoners tend to feel that they are reduced to a number or a commodity. Goffman’s commentary on total institutions also discusses the notion of identity and its adaptation within institutional settings, recognising that, as a result of a ‘series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self [...] His self is systematically, if often unintentionally, mortified’ (1961: 14), in addition to an individual undergoing changes in their ‘moral career’ (1961: 14). Similarly, Morris and Morris (1963) in their study of Pentonville prison in the late 1950s did discuss the concept of identity, particularly the loss of identity that prisoners underwent when joining such a large prison population—‘many regard the submergence of their identity into the faceless mass as a major onslaught upon them as individuals’ (1963: 167). As such, many prisoners tend to strive toward reinstating their individual identities, but this is problematic by virtue of the application of labels such as ‘prisoner’, and the sense of warehousing that occurs within a prison—each prisoner is another example of a man in a cell, often with similar needs, similar backgrounds, similar vulnerabilities, similar responses to their predicament, similar clothing, similar build etc. Although men differ according to race and age, the differences are often overwhelmed by the similar features. Additionally, reports of prisons and prisoners note the importance of individual identity with respect to masculinity:

Researcher: You said that you don’t feel like a man in prison, why, why is that?

Elliot: Well it’s coz like they’re taking all your identity away and em.. .they

take all your identity away from you, you’re just a number in prison [.] Yeah. You’re just a number in prison really

The problem prisoners are faced with, therefore, is the tension between achieving individualism without having individuality. By this, I mean that many prisoners strive to differentiate themselves from the prison majority (see Chapter 6)—yet they can never escape the fact that they are prisoners and will have that label tarnishing their identity for the rest of their lives. Even if they move away from a life of crime, their experiences of prison will undoubtedly shape their future identities; they can never escape from this identity label, which—by virtue of its stigma and connotations in society—erodes individuality. The man may well be able to differentiate himself from other prisoners through seeking education, through comparing his criminal actions, through his familial identity (all of which are different ways that he can display and prove his masculine sense of self in various ways that both comply and deviate from the hegemonic norms)— but he will never be able to differentiate himself from the prisoner label: because he will always have been a prisoner. Even those imprisoned and later acquitted of their crimes—although no longer labelled ‘offenders’— will always have been prisoners. As Jefferson so adeptly notes, ‘Release (from prison) is not equivalent to freedom’ (2010: 403).

Where vulnerabilities are acknowledged within the prison, they tend to be seen in two ways—potential harms from others and potential harms from the self. Both of these themes are useful in terms of distinguishing those that the institution needs to invest particular resources in, in order to achieve security within the prison. Yet they are also highly problematic, not least in the ways in which they differentiate the labelled prisoners and give little thought to the implications such differentiation can have for individuals with regard to the masculine sense of self. The importance of differentiation as a tool used by prisoners runs throughout this book, but this form of imposed differentiation is different. Prisoners tend to want to achieve an individual masculine identity in the prison, which they must balance against the tensions resulting from a degradation of individual identity through institutionalisation; however, this must be achieved by the individual himself in order to be of any value to him as a person. Where he has differentiation imposed upon him, he actually undergoes even more of a “degradation” of individual self—he is placed into a category of ‘other’, which removes him from the prisoner collective who provide him with a masculine identity that he can impose his individualism against, the canvas upon which he can paint himself as a different kind of ‘man’. At the same time, it places him into another grouping which he must differentiate himself from—the vulnerable—but also erodes his masculine credentials through the implication of weakness by virtue of being in such a group. As O’Donnell and Edgar note, ‘Prisoners who are successfully isolated are confirmed in their vulnerability’ (1998: 275).

With this in mind, the individual must attempt to differentiate himself from two groups—the prisoner collective and the vulnerable category—whilst also attempting to regain some form of masculine identity and negotiate the very vulnerabilities that placed him in the category in the first place. It is difficult to see what resources are available to an individual who is bullied, for example, who must (a) place himself as different from other prisoners as a whole, (b) place himself as different from other vulnerable prisoners, (c) demonstrate and prove himself to be masculine, and (d) negotiate being bullied and a target of exploitation, at the same time. The lack of engagement with notions of masculine self in processes of applying categorisations of vulnerability, other than the need to segregate, have the result that individuals become seen as ‘other’, not fulfilling masculine credentials, either by virtue of being dominated by others, or as a result of the internalisation of prison pains through selfharm. In a Canadian study (Ricciardelli et al. 2015), such vulnerabilities were seen dichotomised into physical and emotional. When intertwined, we can see some consistency with the ideas set forth here: at the heart of all such vulnerabilities are notions of visibility, audience, and control over performances of masculinities.

 
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