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Home arrow Psychology arrow Masculinities and the Adult Male Prison Experience



As has been shown, the male prison (and its associated male-centeredness, monosexuality, and restrictive nature) forces men to seek a variety of ways to assert their gendered identities, which are put under the microscope by others and the masculine self; yet the socially acceptable and legitimate fora for such gendered demonstrations are limited and often dislocated from the outside world that the male prisoner hopes to return to. In this way, prison has a highly manipulative nature when it comes to the encouragement of masculine identity, forcing men to exert control and ownership in performances for the benefit of the self and others, whilst maintaining a balance between how he sees and associates himself, and how distinct groups of others also see him relative to those that he is situated with.

The impact of others in the prison upon the individual and his masculine identity is substantial. Individuals shape and perform their masculine identities for the benefit of the men they live with in order to fit with the gendered expectations of the masculine prisoner collective. Although such expectations are generally internalised within the individual and thus expressions of his own masculine expectations and stereotypes, and thus not regularly policed by the collective, it is the occasional policing of extreme transgressions (often in quite violent or harmful ways) that encourages men to conform to masculine appearances. This was noted in the context of relationships in Chapter 6, whereby individuals will often alter their own behaviours in order to negotiate potentially harmful relationships with others and avoid that could undermine their own masculine credentials, such as fights or situations of bullying.

All this confirms Kimmel’s (1994) contention that men are granted their masculinities by other men, making masculinity a form of homophobia through the fact that other men can expose one’s lack of masculinity. The fact that such behaviours seem to be exacerbated within the prison, where emotionality is suppressed and the environment and interactions appear to take on hypermasculine appearances, highlights the fact that the single-sexed setting and the associated relationships between men do play a part in shaping male identities and behaviours as seen by others. Many participants spoke of the need to put on a front, and the way that they had to suppress some elements of their identities that could be seen as forms of weakness in front of other male prisoners, yet could act and speak differently when alone in their cells, to their families, or even to me as a female researcher. It is essential not to forget or sideline these other audiences, who also significantly affect the individual’s performances, and can have the potential to aid in the desistance process.

Relationships between male prisoners are based upon notions of spectacle—men watch other men in a seemingly unspoken policing of the masculine identity that occurs through the internalisation of the male gaze. Although this gaze does occur on the outside, the fact that the audience within the prison is such a concentration of masculine expectation, and the fact that the tools for legitimate masculine performance are so limited, has the result that men tend to conform to prison stereotypes of emotional toughness and physical hardness, rather than being able to be themselves. As Schmid and Jones (1991) argue, the longer individuals hide their true selves, the less able they may be to readjust to their non?prisoner identities. This may also be due to the fact that long periods in prison can have erosive impacts on relationships with those outside prison (see Hairston 2015).

As has been noted, the impact of imprisonment and the associated immersion within a single-sexed setting has a substantial impact upon the individual and his displayed masculinity—in turn, this has implications for the ways in which individuals interact with others in terms of how they perform their masculine selves in exchanges. The perceived need to retain a tough masculine identity in the eyes of other men has the result of limiting the openness and trust applied to relationships (see Crewe 2009), which in turn alters the characteristics and value applied to such interactions (i.e. being classed as ‘associations’ instead of ‘friendships’). The need to perform in this manner and thus limit the extent of one’s non-emphasised or less masculine gendered identity seen by others occurs because of the masculine spotlight (albeit often internalised) men in prison are put under by virtue of their immersion in a single-sexed environment filled with similarly gender-disenfranchised men (i.e. other men who have resorted to criminal behaviour as a means to assert masculine identity—Messerschmidt 1993: 84). In addition, the lack of feminine presence against which individuals can juxtapose their masculinity (Connell 2005: 43—44) results in the need to emphasise individual masculinities that become hierarchised: with a lack of regular femininity against which to situate masculinity, individual masculinities must compete against each other, with some becoming feminised through the application of labels of vulnerability and weakness, whereas others achieve masculine status in relation.

It has become increasingly apparent that prisoners are highly disenfranchised men, lacking in many resources through which to act out their masculine selves legitimately. What seems to be lacking is any formal recognition of the pressures of masculinity upon and from interactions with other prisoners in the ways recognised in the preceding sections. Although there are positive tools for the legitimate performances of masculinity by men with others—such as the relationships of support, relationships of religion, relationships of physicality in the gym and through sports, and the positive informal interactions that occur during associa- tion—it would be useful for such encouragement to be expanded within the prison, and more outlets for positive masculine interactions to occur.

Some prisoners spoke of their wish for outlets such as other sports teams or youth-based community projects where they could express their individuality whilst working with others. Individuals also seemed to develop positive relationships with those that they had similar interests with, or with whom they shared developmental prison experiences, going through a joint journey. If this shared development—actually a form of interprisoner support, yet distanced from weakness through its shared and developmental nature—could be used more, such as through more group activities and discussions based around signifiers of masculinity (i.e. the work of Safe Ground, or the programme discussed by Potts (1996) for West Yorkshire Probation Service), perhaps greater bonds of trust and affinity could be encouraged, thereby reducing the need for performances of masculinity based upon fear of other men.

The book raises the issue of the manner in which men as individuals are affected by their relationships with other men in prison, and vice versa, highlighting the tortuous interplay between the prisoner collective and the prisoner as an individual in gendered terms. On a wider scale, the prison experience as a whole shapes individual prisoners and their behaviours in a number of ways that have been considered in detail: processes of individualism, differentiation, performance, and control in particular. Men experience prison as numerous tests to their masculinity—relationships with others force them to adapt their identities for the benefit of placating others; distancing from the family undermines identities as fathers and partners; time in prison destabilises masculine signifiers in employment, as jobs are lost when incarcerated; and more substantially, independent individuals must now rely on others for the mundane running of their lives.

In an attempt to manage such challenges to their masculine selves, men in prison use ‘positive’ methods such as differentiation from the prisoner ‘other’ in order to distance themselves from the negative and stigmatising connotations applied to the identity of “prisoner”. Such assertions of individuality both demonstrate men’s self-sufficiency and independence in the limited ways available, as well as allow men to emphasise the valuable legitimate signifiers of masculinity in their own lives, such as fatherhood, musical performance, educational advancement, religious status, and so on. Even so, men experience prison as a restrictive setting for the establishment of their masculine selves in such legitimate manners, resulting in the need to assert control over their selves, environments, and others in numerous legitimate and illegitimate ways, all of which go some way towards performing masculinity for the benefit of the particular audience that matters at that point in time.

The prison can be seen to be a microcosm of masculinity—albeit restricted masculinity—demonstrating the implications of disempower- ment and a lack of legitimate gender resources for communities of men. Although much of the literature and stereotypes considering prisons centre upon extremes, this research highlights the day-to-day ways that men lacking access to masculine resources and undergoing processes of femi- nisation attempt to retain their masculine identities in various dimensions of daily life.

Such controlling behaviours can often be seen outside the prison even where men have women against which to situate their gendered selves— in many cases of domestic violence, for example, men take control over women, often due to the disempowerment they feel in aspects of their own lives. This control is a resource through which to distinguish oneself in the masculine world, and is a direct response to gendered disempowerment when masculine opportunities are apparently restricted to an individual. A greater understanding of this and the pressures men experience on their identities can help in the understanding of such harmful manifestations of masculinity, as well as in suggesting the reasons behind illegitimate male behaviours. Examining men in the prison setting puts masculine disem- powerment under the microscope—in prison, masculinities are exacerbated and pushed to extremes due to the mental and emotional pressures a prisoner experiences in combination with a lack of masculine tools, an intense masculine gaze, and the need to show manhood without women.

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