Male Bodies and the Prison Estate

There has been much acknowledgement of the negative implications of incarceration with regard to the female body—personal hygiene and privacy with regard to menstruation (Anderson 2009, Smith 2009), the privacy of women in front of male officers, and the maternal body of those women pre- and/or post-childbirth (Walker et al. 2014) have been used by many to differentiate women from men in prison. Yet male bodies are also affected by the prison experience. Men that I have spoken to in prison have noted the negative implications of incarceration on maintaining a positive body image, the pressures placed upon them by themselves and others to work out at the gym and supplement their diet for muscle growth, and the implications of prison time with regard to future virility and potential fatherhood (see also Phillips 2012). Former prisoners note the implications of prison with regard to men’s sexual bodies (for example, masturbation—see Carcedo et al. 2015), and the problem of prison rape in male institutions is becoming more and more well known across the globe. Male and female bodies may be different, but prison clearly impacts and is framed by the bodies of those it incarcerates.

Yet, the experiences of men and women are substantially different— both in and out of prisons, men and women’s bodies are viewed and used very differently according to the gendered nature of that body. In reality, women’s bodies are generally the spectacle (which also explains why their bodies are foregrounded in corporeal discussions of incarceration), with men the spectators. This creates problems when individuals are placed into single-sexed institutions where there is less differentiation amongst bodies, greater proximity and competition between bodies, and much more time to contemplate the body. Men become both spectators and spectacle, thus disrupting the gendered nature of how the body is ‘seen’ and repositioning some men into the realm of the feminine (see also Cohan 1993). The pressures placed upon the male body are rarely acknowledged within discourse, but can have severe implications for men’s interactions within the prison, and for their sense of self.

The notion of the male body being in a conflicting situation has been noted; White argues that:

the idealized male body needs to be understood as occupying an impossible space, essentially trapped between an emphasis on the exposed body as a spectacle of masculine virility and the need to repress any pleasure, desire, or eroticism associated with this subject position as the object of the admiring gaze. (2007: 22)

Although this is argued in the context of the male body on the beach, the point is clearly extendable to the prison context, where the display of masculine corporeality is of high importance as a mechanism through which to communicate male identity and meanings (Butler 1990; Sabo 2001: 65; Jewkes 2005: 58). The (physicalised) culture of masculinity has also been noted in numerous accounts; Sykes and Messinger note the importance of behaviours indicative of virility (I960: 17); Scraton et al. argue that there is a pervasive culture of masculinity within the prison, seen to reinforce hierarchies of physical dominance (1991: 66) and s ustain violent acts; and Bandyopadhyay similarly notes the valorisation of influence and physical strength (2006: 190). Such a cultural emphasis upon the physical embodiment of masculine culture may explain why Thurston argues that prisons are ‘centres of excellence.. .for the manufacture of such violent versions of masculinity’ (1996: 139; see also Ricciardelli et al. 2015).

In prison, building up muscles and displays of strength show virility, as do illegitimate displays of male corporeal power such as violence and sexual offences. These are always in balance with the tensions and dangers associated with displays of homoeroticism in such a hypermasculine sphere, where display is for a male-only audience rather than in a heterosexual non-prison context where the male gaze is generally reserved for the feminine spectacle (again, see Cohan 1993; Neale 1993; Healey 1994; Boscagli 1996; White 2007: 33). Within the prison, feminine presence is often lacking, and female uniformed staff wear desexing uniforms in tandem with their male colleagues, and other non-uniformed female staff tend to be segregated from prisoners in general, only being accessible to a few by appointment for specific reasons such as treatment, sentence planning, or the use of OMU facilities. In this context, male display takes on a different meaning. Jewkes notes that ‘the serious pursuit of an excessively muscular physique is significant in terms of the presentation of self as a powerful and self-controlled individual’ (2002: 19). When referring to their bodies, many men spoke of the relevance of i ndividuals’ physical sizes, generally relative to others and often in relation to the amount of time they had been in prison:

Harrison: I tend to work out with the bigger men that have been in for years as well coz they seem to push you more, d’you know what I mean [...]

And there’s some big people in here as well [...] (Laughs) Yeah. Some big men in here man. Coz most of them have been in from six to God knows how many years, know what I mean, so that’s all they’ve had to do basically, eat lots of carbohydrates, coz that’s all they feed you in here, potato, rice, chicken, fish, that’s all they really tend to give you in here

The impact of the prison upon men’s bodies was recognised by numerous participants who mentioned concerns about personal health (such as the impact of prior risky behaviours), future fertility (many spoke of wanting the opportunity to have more children in the future), and the ageing body over time through the course of their sentence. Participants also spoke of the implications of the prison diet in terms of their weight gains and losses:

Joshua: I put, I put no end of weight on since I came in, in two months I’ve put

on about eight kilos I think

Researcher: Wow, what, is that, does that matter a lot to you?

Joshua: It does, yeah, it does

Researcher: Why?

Joshua: Well, I don’t like, I don’t like putting on weight gain (laughs) I don’t like

to weigh eighty kilos, it’s just not me. But I think, you know I think even though you’re exercising, you’re not exercising as much [.] you know. [.] Yeah, but you can only, you can only do so much in one hour, you know, and then. [.] It’s not like you're walking round all day, coz you're not, you’re just sat down most of the time. And then you’re eating fatty foods on top

Such developments in weight from diet and exercise had implications for participants in terms of body confidence; whilst such issues tend to be associated with women, they are increasingly suffered by men (see, for example, Ricciardelli et al. 2007). Eating disorders themselves have been linked to problems concerning identity (Polivy and Herman 2002). Many spoke of the importance of being the right size (both in their own minds and through the observation of others’ actions):

Researcher: And what’s good about the gym?

Zachary: Um, obviously the, the effects, seeing what it does to your physique afterwards is probably the biggest incentive [.] And um, for me, I think um, going back to masculine identity again it’s about being strong [.] You know? Even though I’m not the kind of person to.. .to be aggressive, outwardly aggressive to other people, but it’s nice to know that you’re strong Researcher: Yeah, is it reassuring?

Zachary: Um, not really reassuring, yeah I guess it is reassuring, yeah, it is.. .it’s just

nice, and there’s something weird about it knowing that you can lift a certain amount of weight and it looks a bit intimidating at first and then you manage to get over that hurdle

Vanity played a part in many participants’ daily lives, being the reason for their concerns about weight, their need to exercise, and the impact of their hair, clothing, keeping clean, and so on. A number of participants spoke of how they looked relative to other prisoners, and the bodies of other men played a part in shaping the behaviours of participants—body language was observable, and one participant in particular described how his body changed in response to being around others:

Zachary: [.] I think if you walked around the wings.. .but they couldn’t see you,

coz if they see you then it’s totally different, but if you walked, if you was observing unobserved then I guess you’d see people walking like muscles tense and I guess I do it sometimes as well subconsciously like walk around with my shoulders a bit higher or tensed and um, chest out, just being men I guess, but um.

Researcher: [.] little things like that just with the way you, you actually notice yourself doing it?

Zachary: Yeah, it’s embarrassing, I don’t want to do it but it’s one of those kind of

things it’s in prison it’s kind of automatic now, and you do do it Researcher: But you wouldn’t do it on the outside?

Zachary: No, no, because I wouldn’t feel threatened on the outside, that’s why

Researcher: So do you feel threatened all the time in here then?

Zachary: Yeah, you do I guess.. .coz no one wants to be, it’s just a harsh environment

isn’t it, it’s not um.. .it’s just uh one of those kind of.. .it’s a place where you definitely, your masculine side needs to come to the forefront because otherwise then you will be targeted and.I guess made to like ostracised or made to feel inferior and people just want a. peaceful time, so I guess.. .guess that’s the reason yeah. Not sure why it’s got, it’s got to this stage or why it is the way it is but.. .definitely that is how it is

Male bodies displayed many markers of the prisoner’s life, including tattoos, piercings, smells, and, most notably, scars from prior harm, both from others and self-inflicted. In addition, men’s muscles were immediate signifiers of masculinity, with a number of participants displaying for me as an audience through pointing them out and flexing (see also Phillips 2012). As Jewkes suggests:

the constructed, laboured-over body is the locus of an under valued

presence in the world, albeit one which is open to reconstruction and the

pleasures of narcissism. (2002: 19)

In essence, many men spent time and effort on their bodies because they had little else practical to do (which can be quite a demoralising state to live in, especially for a prolonged period of time). The gym was a major masculine focus in the jail, with many speaking about their enjoyment of the facility, and the advantages that it brought to their bodies. In fact, it is arguable that men took so much pride in their bodies not only because it was one of the only ways in which they could perform their masculine identities or, as some did, display their removal from this system of performance and competition. It also provided men with an extra element of control over their lives through the manipulation of their corporeal selves, and an ability to express ownership over a key aspect of their masculine identities, as well as enhancing their masculine physical visibility to others.

One further manner in which individuals could add an element of meaning to their bodies was through the use of tattoos. Tattoos have been theorised as being a subcultural practice of deviation which could be indicative of personality disorders (Post 1968), whereas others have seen tattoos as a means to express identity and demonstrate toughness (Watson 1998). In the prison under study, tattoos mainly served as literal forms of communication of identity to others, inscribed upon the body. Names of children, partners, and parents commonly indicated the masculine familial position of an individual, with symbols also indicating hardness and the ability to withstand physical pain. Some originated from the prison context; however, many originated from well before this time and linked to their lives outside the prison. Although few spoke of their tattooing practices, the narratives of a few related to manners of control over time in the alleviation of boredom, or over their own bodies:

Samuel: And because of my low self esteem and.. .basically had hardly any selfrespect for myself and I just abused my body really, most of my hands anyway. And then as I grew older I kind of got in a passion for tattooing and realised the, the respect behind it and the appreciation and ended up doing tattoos myself

Scars were also an intriguing identity signifier, as they sometimes demonstrated hardness in terms of an individual’s history of being involved in violence, whereas at other times they signified vulnerability, being the result of self-harming strategies of coping. At the same time, such perceived markers of vulnerability could be tempered by the fact that they showed an individual was willing to be violent, albeit directing the violence inwardly upon their selves.

The male body within prison is, therefore, a key element in creating identity, acting as a canvas for non-verbal communication, both directly through the body and via markers placed upon that body. In addition, the body was used to position oneself relative to others in terms of size, temporal features, control, and ownership over the self. The interaction between the prison and the body was generally seen in a negative light, in terms of changing appearances due to prison food, prison time, health implications, and an overall lack of full self-governance. Issues of body confidence and vanity played out in ways that might appear feminine if not situated within discourses of toughness and physicality, and the researcher’s gender was sometimes used as a means through which to masculinise such displays.

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