Vulnerabilities: The World within the Prison
Participants highlighted numerous vulnerabilities in their lives within the prison. Physically, participants spoke of their feelings of threat and insecurity, and the fact that they had observed (and sometimes experienced or undertaken) violence, bullying, and confrontations within the prison, which had often influenced their following behaviours. The theme of the body has been discussed already in Chapter 3, and highlights certain personal vulnerabilities when participants felt the need to show strength through their bodies and physical abilities in the gym. In addition, the theme of health highlights the vulnerabilities participants experienced in respect to their futures and the temporary nature of their life courses. A number of participants also spoke of the drastic measures that they had taken (against property and people) in order to attain a level of security within the prison following threats of harm from others, with some reaching a level of physical vulnerability that required their segregation. Participants spoke of places and spaces where they felt particularly vulnerable to harm from others, with locations where staff were less visible recognised as being of risk. At the same time, some spoke of the ways in which they felt vulnerable at the hands of staff, having allegedly observed or experienced abuse or breaches of trust in past prisons, and due to the fact that staff had a high degree of control over them:
William: Well they’ve got so much control, haven’t they over, over your life when you
go to the toilet, when you eat, who you speak to, when you speak to them, it’s your whole, they invade your whole being
Such a sense of invasion is particularly punitive as it strikes at the heart of male autonomy, independence, and control over the self—highly masculine attributes that are central to adult hegemonic masculinity. Many highlighted the vulnerabilities that they had felt within young offenders’ institutions in the past, due to perceiving that they had something to prove. It appears that young offenders’ institutions in particular engendered both physical vulnerabilities and vulnerabilities of identity and the self. Such feelings of vulnerability to harm from others appear to be directly connected to an individual’s lack of control over the actions and interpretations of others—similar to Jackson’s notion of ‘laddishness’ as a self-protection strategy (2002)—showing disempowerment and revealing the extent to which being in control is a key aspect of masculine identity. Attempts to escape or confront such vulnerabilities, therefore, actually exemplify this.
In the context of the adult prison, participants discussed the fact that there was violence and the presence of gang cultures, particularly on the ‘main jail’, in addition to there being a problem with drugs that promoted temptations to those trying to change their behaviours. Many spoke of the need to retain a sense of focus and self-control (with reference to such temptations and their reactions to others), and this was particularly visible with prisoners on indeterminate sentences who had to prove themselves to the authority audience for sentence progression, with many recognising the vulnerability of their status in relation to release. Such vulnerabilities of status were exacerbated by the fact that prisoners often had to wait for their paperwork to be completed, and delays had implications for their hearings, thus subjecting them to periods of high stress and uncertainty:
Freddie: Do you know what I mean, it’s a very big part I mean I’m anxious about it now, and the thing is what people don’t realise, other people, is that year for a lifer, that period of a year, your reports start, they, they start six months before, they’re bound to be late because of what’s going on so you’ve got a year of just pure stress, it’s just pure stress, I’m under pure stress now and I really, that’s why I’d rather melt down and flake and not have to try to deal with people that I don’t have to deal with coz I’ve got a lot of other things to deal with
Uncertainties made participants feel vulnerable due to their lack of direct control over certain aspects of their lives, such as their sentences, the actions of others, their lives on the outside, and so on, with the eventual consequence of individuals becoming institutionalised and dependent upon others (and thereby achieving certainty at the expense of control and autonomy—see also Ricciardelli et al. 2015). This was particularly poignant as many acknowledged the importance of maintaining some form of independence and self-sufficiency in order to feel positive about themselves. Again, this suggests these values to be deeply culturally associated with ‘successful’ masculinity and hegemonic ideals (Connell 2005).
To try to achieve this, prisoners performed aspects of identity and took on different personalities in order to avoid exposing personal vulnerabilities, such as emotions and feelings, which could be perceived as weaknesses in the hypermasculine culture of the prison, and thus be taken advantage of:
Kai: The reason that I have to put a front on every day is so, is letting other prisoners
know that I’m not a certain way myself [...] You know so they in actual fact are forcing me to do that, coz if I were to be myself then people would think oh you’re weak or you’re vulnerable to this or.. .can we, can we get round him that way d’you know what I mean
Many noted to me how things that they observed were scary and how they did feel afraid in some instances, and many spoke of the fact that they could not be themselves in prison. The need to maintain a level of emotional toughness and the subsequent lack of trust has already been recognised in Chapter 6, yet numerous participants spoke of the benefits that they had experienced in being able to drop this, to a degree, and their ability to accept vulnerability and to speak on a more open and emotional level. This was particularly the case when undertaking group work or when in therapeutic environments, where prisoners formed communities of support and openness in order to engage with and address offending behaviours:
Ethan: [.] a lot of that I’ve learned from, from therapy because like, every morning
you’re there to talk about, someone gets to use the group and they get to talk about their issues so you kind of get to know people and, and like there’s people coming up first and you’ll see what they’re like at first and then, and then you kind of just. oh, like it’s really interesting to just watch them develop and, and try and see what their faults are, d’you know what I mean, you kind of see when they’re kind of just having a bravado and all this and that, but then you can also see people when they break down and just start crying and that and, and that can be, um, yeah it’s emotional but at the same time it’s really good because.. .um, that’s what people are always hiding in jail, they’re always hiding their emotions and stuff like that, I’ve done it, and you know that’s probably why I’ve been in and out of jail all my life
Such ‘hiding’ points to the importance of the maintenance of a masculine front of emotional toughness for the benefit of the hypermasculine gaze both of other prisoners and of staff members (see Chapter 3). It is also for the benefit of the individual himself in terms of the type of man he sees himself, and wishes to be seen as (generally as someone who can sustain his independence and self-control), which he too will judge relative to the masculine culture that he is immersed in and which is perpetually at risk of being policed in various harmful and emasculating manners.