Why Is Masculinity Important in the Criminal Justice System?

When first undertaking this research, friends and colleagues often asked me questions like ‘why men?’ or ‘why aren’t you looking at women’s prisons?’, as if (a) masculinities was not my realm, or (b) I would be more comfortable researching women as a woman. For too long men have researched men and missed the subtleties of masculine identity, and feminist criminologists need to place men more into the foreground of prisons research due to their huge numbers, dominance of normative discourses regarding incarceration, and the fact that men are often at the heart of female prisoners’ pains. Men dominate crime and imprisonment, but are rarely clearly seen due to their being normalised and unproblema- tised as a gender.

For example, if one gives consideration to the purposes of sentencing, as defined in section 142 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, a new depth of understanding can be appreciated when placing the section under a gendered lens. The section is as follows:

Purposes of Sentencing

(1) Any court dealing with an offender in respect ofhis offence must have

regard to the following purposes of sentencing—

  • (a) the punishment of offenders,
  • (b) the reduction of crime (including its reduction by deterrence),
  • (c) the reform and rehabilitation of offenders,
  • (d) the protection of the public, and
  • (e) the making of reparation by offenders to persons affected by their offences. (Criminal Justice Act 2003 sl42)

When one applies the idea that we are not so much punishing offenders, as punishing their incorrect implementation and performance of masculinity (i.e. through crime rather than legitimate means), none of the purposes of sentencing actually go any way towards addressing such masculinities. Retribution merely states that these are ‘bad men’. Crime reduction and deterrence become highly problematic when one views prison as a potential bastion of masculinity (although we shall see later that this hypermasculine image is often in response to processes of femi- nisation). Reform and rehabilitation imply there will be a positive masculinity to ‘return’ to or impose—highly problematic when considering the entrenched nature of patriarchy and misogyny within society. Public protection can hardly be achieved through sustaining an institution that prioritises negative masculine performances; and reparation will do little to address negative masculinities apart from potentially humiliating (see Pamment and Ellis 2010 regarding wearing high-visibility clothing when undertaking reparative community work) or impacting upon potential consumer masculinity by taking away potential buying power (see Crewe 2009: 277), leading men to have their masculine performativities placed under even greater threat.

With reference to rehabilitation on a gendered level, very little attention is granted to matters of gender with respect to operational prison policy, although there is one publication specifically concerning a prison group work programme focusing upon masculinity, reported by the West Yorkshire Probation Service some years ago (Potts 1996).[1] The aims of these sessions were to enhance male awareness and challenging of belief systems that enable the abuse of women and children; to make men aware of the learned nature of gender roles; to aid in the understanding of the interactions between behaviours and negative beliefs; and to encourage debate on the matter (1996: 10). The sessions were to provide a safe space for male prisoners to open up and discuss emotions that may not be acceptable outside this arena, and to allow men to see the progress they are making relative to others, whilst also conforming the existence—and perhaps previously unacknowledged flexibility—of gendered behavioural and value stereotypes and the learned nature of manhood (1996: 27).

The programme itself sounds highly positive and innovative—despite acknowledgement that it has a restrictive view in terms of avoiding engagement with matters of race and sexuality, and requiring support systems for staff (and the associated gender difficulties in the management of such a programme) (1996: 30). Unfortunately, it is not currently an accredited offending behaviour programme. In fact, although the 2010— 2011 annual report of the Correctional Services Accreditation Panel[2] lists a total of 49 currently accredited or recognised programmes, none of these are described as directly engaging with issues of maleness or masculinity (Ministry of Justice 2010—2011: 47—72). Many are directly focused upon male offenders, some look specifically at the promotion of prosocial behavioural models, and some target particularly gendered offending (such as sexual offending, violence, and the promotion of healthy relationships through tackling domestically violent behaviours).

Although these programmes will often be dealing with the negative manifestations of masculine identities, the major underlying factor of gender is overlooked, as was forewarned by Potts regarding the potential to address the problematisation of masculinity through the issue of domestic violence (1996: 31). Crucially though, Potts’ professional work relays the fact that masculinity is an important element in the criminal justice system as recognised by professionals and academics:

After all, if we believe that alcohol or drugs related crime can be reduced by work intended to reduce such abuse, then surely gender related crime — and that’s most of it — can be reduced by developing interventions which deconstruct traditional masculinity. (1996: 31)

One organisation that does engage directly with masculinity and men in prison is Safe Ground. Established in 1993, this London-based organisation states that it:

challenges people and communities to do relationships differently. Through drama, dialogue and debate, we enhance empathy and encourage expression, developing self-awareness and promoting social justice.

Safe Ground is a small team with national reach and influence. We are absolutely committed to reducing the stigma faced by the families of people in prison, to improving access to and diversity of educational activities in prisons and to creating alternatives to traditional punishment and exclusion, proven to be so ineffective. (Safe Ground 2015)

The organisation provides a number of different programmes including those targeting issues of fatherhood and the family, which they were originally commissioned to run by the Home Office.[3] Of particular interest is the programme they run called ‘Man Up’, which Executive Director Charlotte Weinberg describes as a course that looks at the social norms and values impacting participants’ developments as men, and the consequent lack of freedom available to them in becoming ‘men’. It attempts to overcome the fact that prison is lacking in ‘safe spaces’ within which men can be vulnerable, and works to teach men ‘how to construct a safe space in yourself that you can carry round with you and is resilient and robust enough to overcome all the slings and arrows’. The programme runs for 15 hours within 6 sessions of 8—16 men/young men in a range of settings including prisons, Youth Offender Institutions (YOIs), and community settings. It has undergone a number of evaluations finding that the programme ‘impacts profoundly on participants’ understanding around gender norms, enhances wellbeing, and allows men to develop less “alpha-male” attitudes (which often relate to violent responses, antisocial activities and lack of emotional engagement)’ (Safe Ground 2014:1). The study also found improvements in scores pointing to well-being, positive attitudinal changes within the group, and high ratings in belief in its being an ‘effective challenge to offending behaviour’.

Safe Ground also created an accompanying programme for prison officers, initially called Professional Love, but now renamed Officers’ Mess, which allows prison officers space to consider how to undertake their roles as agents of the state in a manner that enables structural internal change within their charges. Throughout all their programmes, consideration has been given as to how to distinguish them from other ‘interventions’, in that Safe Ground aims to create a sustainable performance that can be carried around with the men after the intervention is over—it looks to create real attitudinal change in the men, and is not all about Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Interestingly, the Man Up programme considers the issues around gendered performativity that are discussed in this book, recognising the influence that other individuals have over a man’s choices and actions—Charlotte Weinberg made a thought-provoking point in stating: “Sometimes choices aren’t choices, they’re dilemmas’ (Weinberg 2005i personal communication). What Man Up seems to aim to do is to bring the element of control back into men’s lives—the safe space that the programme facilitates within the men undertaking the programme allows the men to have somewhere within which to make choices for themselves, emulating and mimicking the thinking space that prison can sometimes provide. It tries to form an identity within the men that is safe and secure in which the men can find their own value, and therefore have an element of control over their lives. In addition, it challenges the types of men that they see themselves as, as another evaluation elucidated:

All course completers expressed how their strong masculine identities and associated values and beliefs were challenged throughout the course, and how this prompted reflection and subsequent change. These reflections seemed to be about re-storying what a man's role should be; specifically one concerned with responsibility and accountability, rather than dominance, aggression, and assertiveness. (Blagden and Perrin 2015: 17)

Although the programmes run by Safe Ground are not currently accredited by the Correctional Services Accreditation Panel, they are recognised to have huge benefits to men in and out of prison. Indeed, perhaps their not being accredited is a positive as it allows a degree of flexibility and responsiveness, which is arguably necessary when addressing varying notions of masculinities. Man Up is delivered in seven prisons, and— at the time of writing—has been commissioned in six Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) in South and West Yorkshire and five more in Leicester. The programme has also been adapted for delivery within secure forensic units. As such, the programme taps into the key underpinning message that this book attempts to relay, the connection between men in all spheres of the incarceration journey: the fact that they are men. Yet in spite of its successes and the measured benefits of the programme to the men who have graduated from it, it is still not available throughout all male prisons in England and Wales, and is provided on a fairly ad hoc basis by an organisation with charitable status; it has not received the recognition it deserves in the realm of policy, despite sitting on numerous strategic boards in the criminal justice arena. Once again, we can see a lack of strategic prioritisation of masculinity-based programmes.[4]

It is interesting that this approach has not been taken further, particularly when we consider the importance of recognising identity and its surrounding issues in other areas of the criminal justice system—the intertwined nature of mental health issues having a key impact on identity and incarceration is common knowledge. A 2008 survey found that 62 % of male sentenced prisoners had some form of personality disorder in prison (Stewart 2008). So, mental health is central to identity and prison.

Prison is central to identity. Gender is central to identity. Yet few people put these things together.

  • [1] I found this in a cupboard within the OMU of the prison I was researching.
  • [2] It is very difficult to find information regarding the work of the Correctional Services Accreditationpanel, or a definitive list of those programmes that are approved.
  • [3] It should be understood that the Home Office discussed is now a historical entity, with its rolebeing taken over by the Ministry of Justice.
  • [4] Please note that all opinions and critiques made are done so by the author and not in any wayendorsed or supported by Safe Ground.
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