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Vulnerability from the Self

The second popular lens through which vulnerabilities are identified is centred on individual internalised vulnerabilities such as mental illness, emotional harm, and depression. Self-harm is a serious issue in prison, with the Ministry of Justice reporting that:

the number of reported male self-harm incidents increased by 23 % in the 12 months to June 2015 to 21,702 incidents compared with 17,672 incidents in the 12 months to June 2014. This continues the long term trend of the number of self-harm incidents amongst male prisoners increasing.

(2015: 16)

The gendered nature of self-focused vulnerability has been recognised, to a degree, in work with female prisoners. Borrill et al. note the high pro?portion of women self-harmers within the prison population, recognising associations between such behaviours and prior sexual abuse, bereavement, loss or rejection, mental health problems, familial concerns, bullying, and the prison experience itself (2005: 60—63). In practice, many such signifiers emerged in my interviews and ‘most prisoners who kill themselves in custody are male, reflecting the larger male prison population’ (Borrill et al. 2005: 57). Such a gendered difference in experiences and resultant behaviours merits more consideration in relation to the constituent of self and perceptions of (gendered) identity. Consideration of such issues has been given to recently released prisoners. One study found that 21 % of individuals who committed suicide within a year of release did so within 28 days, and ‘men were eight times and women 36 times more likely to die by suicide within 1 year of release from prison than would be expected in their respective sex groups in the general population’ (Pratt et al. 2006: 121). Liebling (with various colleagues) has performed a substantial body of work regarding the self-harming and suicidal behaviours of prisoners and recognises the vulnerabilities to suicide that exist within the prison population to be linked to demographic factors and psychiatric and personality disorders. Arguably these vulnerabilities are vulnerabilities of identity.

Although gendered differences in suicide are recognised—Liebling notes that ‘it is unwise to make direct comparisons between the male and female prison populations as they are hardly equivalent’ (2007: 443)—nonetheless, that is not a reason not to consider such differences as aspects of gender rather than the prison. Certainly the Samaritans note when discussing the fact that men in the UK are three times more likely than women to commit suicide (not in the prison context):

Masculinity — the way men are brought up to behave and the roles, attributes and behaviours that society expects of them — contributes to suicide in men. Men compare themselves against a masculine ‘gold standard’ which prizes power, control and invincibility. When men believe they are not meeting this standard, they feel a sense of shame and defeat. Having a job and being able to provide for your family is central to ‘being a man’, particularly for working class men. Masculinity is associated with control, but when men are depressed or in crisis, they can feel out of control. This can propel some men towards suicidal behaviour as a way of regaining control. (2012: 1)

Liebling notes that many of the aspects that are found to reduce distress within high-vulnerability groups are employment, personal development through offending behaviour courses, and family contact (2007: 436), elements that are inherently linked to components and signifiers of positive masculine identity performance.

As such, men in prison tend to be institutionally labelled according to these harms from others or the self, yet, as has been noted, the very label of vulnerability, when imposed on a prisoner, can have serious implications for how he is seen by others, and how he sees himself.

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