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Gender in Prison

Masculinity is, arguably, the central tenet underpinning and shaping the adult male prison experience. Masculinity can be seen woven into nearly every account in some manner, through the notions of control, ownership, dominance, or independence. During interviews, and when observing men in the general prison population, it was clear that masculinity played a key role. When staff shouted on the wings, or prisoners shouted between cells, they generally did so in a booming (almost animalistic) masculine tone, and numerous participants would describe examples of masculine presence in terms of deep vocal ranges and the flexing of muscles. They also did this to demonstrate masculine discourse for my benefit, in addition to using flirtatious comments, jokes, and innuendo.

In narratives too, participants described concepts that linked directly to masculine identity. The concept of performance was spoken of in terms of the demonstration of a physically and emotionally hard front in order to cover any sense of weakness for the masculine audience of the prison setting. The masculine audience plays a substantial role in the influencing of gendered behaviours within the prison. In addition to performing in stereotypically masculine arenas such as the gym and through symbolic markers such as sports, and objectifying women in discourse and displays

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 157

J.A. Sloan, Masculinities and the Adult Male Prison Experience,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-39915-1_8

on cell walls (not all of them, it should be added), day-to-day activities and interactions were often governed by similar influences. Men spoke of the fact that they had to exert the potential to be violent and stand up for themselves if challenged, again in order to prevent the appearance of weakness. As such, violence was recognised be a risk, with many experiencing or witnessing real violence at some point in their prison careers. The protection of reputation and tough masculine image was seen to be particularly significant in this way and related on some occasions to an individual’s reputation in the community:

Kevin: You have to make sure who’s around as well because people think,

even if that guy’s not there, people think they can take the piss as well and like carry on [...] D’you know what I mean. In prison it’s all about reputation and stuff like that and you know what I mean, how big you are, if, if you’re massive and Researcher: You mean like physically?

Kevin: Physically big or you got a good reputation from wherever you come


Reputation and proving oneself was seen to be a particularly prevalent occurrence within the young offender sphere of the prison estate, whereas the adult male estate was often described as being ‘man’s jail’, where overt incidences of discord were discouraged (although an ‘alpha male’ hierarchy was still recognised by a few participants). Respect was seen to be of value by some, although others felt that this was irrelevant, a view that was somewhat undermined by the fact that individuals would police their identity for the benefit of other prisoners to gain some positive standing, which some might equate to respect. There was a sense of masculine competition, closely tied in with reputation and image, particularly in the field of hardness and personal wealth:

Sebastian: Mainly people talk about.. .how many girls they’ve had and how much

money they’ve got and what they’re going to do when they get out and my boys are this that and the other and just. nonsense really, d’you know what I mean

The two themes of hardness and wealth are indicators of hegemonic masculinity in other settings too (Connell 2005; Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). In terms of wealth, participants often spoke of the importance of being financially independent and working, tying in to the role of men as providers. In addition, this theme was used to demonstrate an individual’s independence and self-sufficiency more broadly, which was generally lacking within the prison context:

Connor: So it was a case of right, I’ve got to do it myself, if they’re not going to help

me do it, I’ve got to do it myself, coz that’s what I’m like outside, if, I won’t ask anyone for nothing, if I need something I’ll work and earn the money to go and get it, you know, very self-sufficient, d’you know what I mean, so in here I’ve just had to apply that and it’s paid off

Men’s roles within the family sphere were also esteemed, in spite of their removal from such institutions through imprisonment. Prison was seen to have a direct impact upon their abilities to be fathers in particular, as many felt that they did not want their children to visit, or that they could not fulfil their paternal roles adequately whilst inside. Some spoke of wanting more children—these men’s fertility was clearly of importance to them, highlighting the importance of the healthy body to men’s perceptions of themselves in present and future spheres, and patriarchal roles and the heterosexual family as highly regarded constituents of gendered identity. Family was often central to the framing of participants’ current masculinities and their aspirations for future identities—they generally wanted to create or return to the ‘normal’ family setting, albeit some seeing the importance of taking some time to re-establish a settled life outside before doing so.

Such adherence to institutional norms and behavioural expectations were clear in the lives of many men, particularly with respect to the fronts that they had to put up for others. Many spoke of the fact that prison had changed them, particularly in terms of making them more mature:

Connor: I don’t want to sound cheesy when I say it but it’s like coming in a caterpillar and leaving a butterfly, d’you know what I mean? It’s making that transformation from boy to man I suppose

Others spoke of the need for displays of strength, machismo, testosterone, and bravado that they experienced or observed within the prison sphere. In addition, participants spoke of the importance of maintaining a positive masculine identity in order to retain a sense of self-confidence, positive ego, and personal pride:

Researcher: D’you think it’s a bad thing to be seen as vulnerable here?

Benjamin: Possibly yeah, especially if you’re in a local jail... [...] ...and you’ve

got friends that you know realise oh he was on the numbers[1] it’s not a good thing [.] Plus it’s not good for your self, your self-respect [.] I mean because obviously when I get out I wanna get, I wanna have a relationship with a woman and all that and its.. .its gonna be bad enough saying I’ve been in prison, if somebody says ah yeah he was on the Vulnerable Prisoners’ Unit it’s not good for the old uh ego

Prison, therefore, was seen to require a particular form of masculine identity in order for prisoners to be accepted, or not victimised or seen as vulnerable. Thought-provokingly, when asked directly about feelings regarding their manhood, the vast majority of participants from all locations stated that they did not feel more like a man in prison. Such distinct opinions regarding a lack of feelings of manliness within the prison are compelling when contextualised with the narratives emerging from interviews—although many men did not feel manly, they seemed to make serious concerted efforts towards achieving the appearance of manliness in front of others. The two notions may have been linked—because individuals did not feel more like men in prison, they may have felt the need to compensate for this through masculine efforts and performances, in spite of the hypermasculine setting, and the distinct masculine requirements and lack of female juxtapositioning. Perhaps this was the point— without women to position one’s gender against (Connell 2005: 43), individuals’ feelings of manhood were less able to contrast against femininity, and there was always the risk of men themselves being juxtaposed against each other, thus undermining their own masculinities, especially when subjected to feminised dimensions of corporeality, time, space, and gaze. As Irwin notes:

In the absence of females, however, with no opportunity to measure one’s masculine appeal, and where all claims about past accomplishments are suspect and one has aged and fallen out of step, uncertainty about one’s appeal to the opposite sex is likely to grow. (1970: 92)

Maintaining control (over themselves, their personal space, their routines, or even others) was often described as being an influential factor in participants’ daily lives. This was also linked to responsibilities—many participants recognised the fact that they had to take responsibility in their lives in some way, be that for their personal health and well-being by going to the gym or buying extra food, by managing their inner selves through putting on a front or taking time to relax (or finding ways to ‘escape’ or forget the prison), or by taking responsibility for their sentence progression and personal development. In this context, taking responsibility is closely tied with taking control over one’s self, and is arguably of importance for participants in terms of their current identities (and personal well-being) and their potential future selves, not least because taking responsibility for one’s self will enable an individual to be seen to be addressing his risk levels. Despite this, such efforts do not appear to have made individuals feel this was masculine, as if reflection and introspection are not manly processes—they were certainly recognised as not being as easy in the rush of daily life on the outside.

Masculinities, or male-centred behaviours and norms, pervade every aspect of participants’ lives, from day-to-day activities, to future plans, to their perceptions, well-being, and personal security, and to their inner and outer selves. It is curious to observe that there are distinct forms of masculine norms within the prison that do not necessarily correspond to those norms in the outside world. Men are expected to survive within the prison though hiding emotions, displaying the potential for aggression, and taking control—within the prison, a front-line masculine identity must be externalised. Outside prison, such hypermasculine traits are increasingly being seen in a negative light—emotions are seen to be valuable for positive relationships and families; displays of aggression are criminalised or seen to be anti-social and dangerous; and overtly controlling others is seen in a negative light if done to too great a degree, though often defended by the violent individual as being the victim’s fault, such as in instances of domestic violence and rape (see Koss et al. 1994) . Extreme masculinity outside prison is much more acceptable when performed in institutionally acceptable ways such as the business or sports worlds—these are institutions of legitimate masculinity, unlike the institution of the prison. When considered in this way, we can see that prison masculine expectations are often incompatible with societal norms and requirements for successful legitimate masculinity, leading to some discord as men perform their masculinities through their own bodies and domestic roles, rather than through familial and institutional roles, albeit all such roles placing dimensions of control centre-stage.

  • [1] Referring to the Vulnerable Prisoners’ Unit.
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