Home Psychology Masculinities and the Adult Male Prison Experience
Throughout the book, I have repeated the importance of ownership to individuals in terms of their masculinities: the ownership of time, the ownership of possessions, the ownership of spaces (see also Sloan 2012a, b). Ownership is also salient in the sphere of vulnerabilities in prison and speaks to the heart of vulnerable masculinities. In prison, there is often no means through which men are able to take ownership of their own vulnerabilities in conformity with their masculine identity. When vulnerable to harm from others, individuals are made vulnerable by virtue of how others respond to them—vulnerability is forced upon them by the watching audience. When labelled as vulnerable by the institution, although they may accept this label, it has been applied to them: it is ultimately the institutional audience’s, not the individual’s. Where individuals are vulnerable to harm from themselves, it is arguable that they do take ownership of their vulnerabilities—they impose control over it by internalising the pain and inflicting it upon themselves. Yet this is seen in terms of femininity—it fails to conform to the masculine conceptions of violence being something to use upon others. One prisoner actually noted this when talking about others’ responses to his own self-harming:
Noah: [...] I said because to me it’s like coping at times. Ok it’s not normal to
you. I said but you, I said you’d consider me going along and hitting someone else normal behaviour, whereas cutting, hurting myself, that’s not normal [...]
In the ‘normal’ prison estate, there is no legitimate sphere were men are able to engage directly with their vulnerabilities, free from risks of erosion of their masculine identities (although the organisation Safe Ground does attempt to do this in the prisons that it works within). If prisoners talk to other prisoners, they are seen to be unable to cope or lacking in qualities of toughness or resilience, whereas if they engage with the institutional gateways for vulnerability their masculinities risk become damaged further and subject to stigmatising labels. In an environment where ownership of the self is seen to be of high value, and being able to maintain a masculine facade of toughness and emotional resilience is extremely significant, there are few means for prisoners to achieve any form of emotional support in order to deal with their ontological insecurities and masculine vulnerabilities. Few courses in prison are available to help men be better men, and those that do exist are certainly not the norm, nor are they available to everyone. In addition, the sources of support that men might otherwise turn to, such as their families and friends, are also subject to scrutiny (not least from their family and friends)—men are watched by other men in visiting areas (see also Crewe et al. 2014); men are listened to by other men when on the phone with a queue of other users behind them; and even if men get the opportunity to have time to themselves in their cells, they are ultimately, on their own:
Samuel: So when I came to jail, all these things I hid behind was just totally, psss,
taken away.. .and all I was left with was a steel door.. .um.. .I think that’s why I went into depression, because all of a sudden I was alone, I was vulnerable. I didn’t know what to do I was in no control of my life whatsoever, because I think that’s also part of why, um...I did certain things, to kind of gain that sense of control in my life, and.. .all that was taken away from me, like I said, when I came to jail, and it was just left with me...and I fell into depression, and.there was nothing to hide behind
In a situation where men have already proven their inability to do masculinity legitimately, where they often lack the emotional resources to deal with their problems in socially constructive manners, and where they are constantly under the masculine microscope from audiences that matter to them, such masculine vulnerabilities can ultimately result in the changing of the individual and how he ‘deals’ with his vulnerabilities. It is arguable that the high rates of violence and harm that are experienced within the prison are actually ways through which individuals can reframe their expressions of vulnerability—rather than engaging with and discussing the vulnerabilities being felt as impinging upon an individual’s masculinity, men shift the discursive means. As Liebling and Krarup note:
Those most vulnerable (the ‘feminine’ group in Jack’s theory of attempted suicide in women) are exposed to failure in a highly ‘masculine’ environment, where — to use his analogy, only the ‘macho’ survive. Imprisonment for men may actually demand the worst excesses of ‘masculinity’, in their least legitimate form, from those who find a way of coping successfully with it. It is less surprising, in this theoretical context, that ‘the weak’ and ‘the inadequate’ are so labelled, and require ‘protection’. (1993: 162)
Violence and harm are forms of communication, but the message is often lost in the physical and mental harms that are experienced by the victim. Crawley and Crawley note that violence within prisons can take on three functions—instrumentality, expression, and communication through performance—whereby violence ‘can transmit meaning to an audience far wider than its intended recipient’ (2008: 126). The role of violence in prisons as a manner through which to communicate or perform masculine identities has been recognised on numerous occasions (Sim 1994; Thurston 1996), though the links between masculinity and vulnerability are rarely equally considered, continuing the stereotypical association of violence with male power. If we bring masculine vulnerabilities into the equation, perhaps it is more useful to see this association with power as being more about a lack of discursive power in that, ultimately, men cannot and do not talk about their vulnerabilities and problems, but often create more masculinely acceptable problems in order to prove their masculine credentials. The harms imposed upon others are symptomatic of the lack of ability to express the vulnerabilities men experience to their masculine identities by virtue of being in prison and having their legitimate masculinities, and all opportunities to retain them, gradually whittled away.
What about those who do not resort to violence? Simply because an individual does not partake in the violence, dominance, or other harmful or socially illegitimate behaviours does not necessarily mean that they are not engaging with the process. Brownmiller made the same point with reference to rape: ‘It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’ (1975: 15). In the same way, although not all men in prison commit harmful behaviours, they rarely openly condemn such actions, and will themselves benefit from the hierarchical structure that does not automatically position them at the bottom. Although men who are vulnerable may not choose harmful means through which to express such gendered vulnerabilities, they are not challenging the system and openly engaging with or expressing their own masculine vulnerabilities in other ways (opting instead for no open engagement), and they are not openly criticising the discursive means chosen by others. In the same way that all men benefit from rape, in prison, all men benefit from the harmful communicative means chosen to demonstrate masculine vulnerabilities by virtue of the fact that those that do commit violence retain a system whereby direct emotional engagement (the “difficult” option) is policed and prevented or institutionalised. The problem is, in this instance, those that benefit are also those that suffer, in that the masculine vulnerabilities still go unheard and unresolved.
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