Masculinity and the Prison Cell

One place that prisoners spoke about as a place that they could potentially feel more ‘safe’, and where they could remove their assumed fronts (see Chapter 3) was in the cell—in this prison, generally being single occupancy and thus ‘private’ spaces. The prison cell is a key iconic image in the representation of punishment—it can be the ‘home’ of a prisoner for up to 23 hours a day; as Henderson notes, ‘under any system, the cell is the essential unit of the prison’ (1911: 62). During the research, I had the opportunity to see a number of cells and was surprised by the amount of personality that individuals put into them. Some men took pride in taking ownership of their space and keeping it clean and tidy. The imposition of elements of individuals’ personalities upon their ‘personal’ space helps to overcome the lack of true ownership that individuals in prison can actually have over their cells, these being spaces that are used and reused by many others on a regular basis (see Sloan 2012a, b). There was an element of sadness about them, particularly the smaller cells, and the first time I saw a cell on the main jail has remained with me throughout my experience:

One of my bleakest moments—I got to go on the wing today and actually saw into a cell. So small. Smell. Dark. Despair. (Research Diary 1, June 2009)

Participants tended to speak about their cells as an area that they socialised and ate in, seeing it as their personal space. This ownership was expressed through the direct influence of the individual over his cell, through cleaning and tidying, and through the content of personal possessions for comfort in addition to being signs of wealth (see Baer 2005 and Crewe 2009), such as soft furnishings, duvets, video game consoles, toiletries, and so on. The display of pictures, certificates showing successes, and photographs of family, friends, women, and so on, were prolific, signifying an individual’s role in the family or successes in heterosexual relationships, which were distinct to the individuals’ emotional needs and personal tastes (when it came to the display of girls and football teams, for example). All of these also served a purpose for any potential audience who visited the cell. In spite of this, however, the prison still maintained overarching control of the site, as they enforced restrictions on the positioning of pictures on notice boards, for example. As such, the cell as personal space was rarely seen as fully owned. Sharing meant privacy and hygiene might be sacrificed and even single occupancy meant a lavatory in the living space. Some saw this as a reason not to make their cells too comfortable. In addition, some felt that making one’s cell too like home meant that they were too settled in the prison environment, which they saw to be a negative indicator of institutionalisation. Many men spoke of the fact that they painted (or wanted to paint) their cells in order to expunge previous inhabitants’ detritus:

Joshua: That’s the worst thing because when you come in, the guy who had the cell

before me, he must, he lived like a pig. The place was a pigsty, it really was a pigsty, I’m not joking [...] So, you know, it would, just to clean it that bit better, if you could paint it and then it would be mine, you know?

That said, the cell as personal space was also seen to be a place of safety and relaxation. There was some debate about whether time locked in one’s cell was positive or negative. On the one hand, individuals tended to state that they felt safe in their cells (particularly when they had keys and could protect their possessions from ‘pad thieves’), they were able to relax and show emotion, and they were able to take down the front that they felt it was necessary to put up for other prisoners:

Kai: D’you know what I mean, but.. .nah you can’t, you can’t be yourself.. .unless

you’re behind your door [...] But what can you be yourself about behind your door, nowt really is it [.] Apart from looking at four walls and watching a bit of telly [.] You know that is the only time you can really relax and take that, and take that front down, to be honest with you

Some felt the cell was a form of retreat from the prison setting, with the policing of this space resulting in it taking on a separate character to the wider prison context:

Samuel: it’s it’s hard, obviously being in this environment, um, because.

there, there is a lot of negativity that flies around.flies round the wing, flies around the jail,, I as soon, soon as my door’s locked, on the night-time.. .it’s like I can just lay on my bed and go (sigh).you know, like that sigh when I first come in here. [.] .it’s just, like, I’m back in my own space now, and it’s time to relax.. .because I think when you’re on the wing you do have to put up a certain.. .although I, I put up a certain guard.. .I, I, I still allow myself to be who I am.. .and, you know, and don’t let it get in the way of how I conduct myself on the wing or how people see me

The (single) cell, then, can be seen to be a space in which prisoners are able to be more of themselves, surrounded by their own possessions, and able to think their own thoughts (though these are not always positive) away from the rest of the prison. Prisoners made cells their own through the manipulation of this space, which also allowed them to maintain a sense of certainty and security in a place that they had the maximum control over, albeit still a small space that is repeatedly used by others and thus never truly singularly ‘owned’ by the individual. Some took control over this space in a destructive manner when they were stressed, through flooding or smashing the cell up, again highlighting the fact that this is one of the only places in the prison where a prisoner can express his true feelings and sense of self:

George: We want proper, make us feel comfortable in our cell, this is our home...

for the next.. .God knows how many years, but we have to feel comfortable in our own cells, we’re allowed to buy rugs.. .electric shavers, electric toothbrushes, stereos, better rugs

It is also one of the only places in the prison where men can take control of their lives by giving up control in a very personal way—through sleep. Many participants spoke of the positive aspects of being asleep during their time in prison—one particularly tired-looking prisoner noted, 'That’s one good thing about prison—you can sleep til you like. The concept of sleeping in prison has been discussed in the academic literature, although generally from the perspective of insomnia and the potential negative effects (Cope 2003; Elger 2004; Warren et al. 2004; Ireland and Culpin 2006). In the context of this research, participants spoke of the activity of sleeping in positive terms—a way in which to pass time, to recharge after a stressful day in the prison environment, and a way in which they could escape from the awareness of being in prison and the need to perform their gendered identities:

Researcher: What’s your favourite time of day when you’re in prison then? Weird


Henry: When I’m asleep [...] coz then you’re not in prison are ya [...] So

obviously when you’re asleep you don’t, you’re not in prison, you’re asleep, ent ya, and the worst time for me is when I wake up, every morning I wake up it’s horrible, I get like a feeling in my stomach, I just look round and see bars and, oh it’s horrible

Sleeping was a key coping mechanism used by many participants to ‘escape’, and waking up (or being woken) in the morning was often referred to negatively with regard to the spaces that they awoke to find themselves within. In addition, sleeping was seen to be a way in which participants could take control of their time, describing it as their own, with many ascribing particular value to the weekends when (if they worked during the week) they could choose to sleep for as long as they liked. This was particularly evident in the narratives of long-term prisoners. Time when others were asleep was also valued in terms of the peace it brought, although some did make note of the security concerns that were present when they chose to sleep—participants referred to locking their doors, and one participant who was unable to lock his door spoke of experiencing being victimised while he slept.

Not being able to sleep as a result of their worries and concerns led to numerous participants undertaking activities in order to distract the mind (such as listening to music) or wear themselves out (such as work or the gym). Sleep was, therefore, of value to participants, in that it shaped their activities during the day, whist also providing a mechanism in which they were able to take control of their lives in some way. Unusually, this manner of taking control was achieved by the action of complete avoidance of control, as sleeping makes individuals vulnerable (and hence not masculine)—hence the security concerns expressed—and removes them from the realm of responsibility and performance—we generally do not care (or know) who is watching when we sleep.

Paradoxically, men in prison tended to speak of their preference for a lack of control through sleep, but also through complete control of their bodies (as seen in Chapter 3). The key space for many men, in terms of controlling their lives and bodies and making use of their time in prison, was the vital space of the gymnasium.

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