Masculine Vulnerabilities

When talking to prisoners about their daily lives in prison, it became apparent that all the men I spoke to were vulnerable in some way or another, and that those vulnerabilities were rooted within masculine identity. Yes, there were those who had been bullied, those who had been in the care system as children, those who had internalised the pains of imprisonment through self-harm, those who suffered from health issues or had experienced substance abuse problems—but there were also many more who were vulnerable in terms of their lives more generally. Many lacked educational opportunities in their pasts. Many spoke of the vulnerabilities of their identities now they were prisoners, and the implications this may well have on their chances outside the prison. Others spoke of the vulnerabilities of their family lives—the precarious position of their identities as fathers when they may not have had much contact (and particularly not meaningful contact) with their children—or of the implications prison might have upon their bodies, their physical masculinities, and their chances of having children in the future (see Chapter 4).


Such issues spoke directly to the masculinities of the men—in terms of how they could position themselves as men when within the prison, where they lacked opportunities to act out their masculinities legitimately, but also in terms of their ‘potential masculinities’ in their future lives as they were planning them. Their very identities as men became vulnerable by virtue of their incarceration.

Such theorisations of men suffering such pervasive vulnerabilities do not sit well with common understandings of the prison as an inherently masculine—often hypermasculine—environment. It doesn’t make sense. Of course these men can be masculine: by being in prison (and getting through the process), men are able to demonstrate their toughness, their hardness, and their ability to dominate, be that the situation or others around them. And yet, when digging a little deeper, such an environment—by virtue of its overt and overbearing masculinity and processes of feminisation running alongside—actually can undermine the masculinities of those within. The aspects of the male prisoner’s identity that allowed him to be masculine on the outside (and may even have led up to his prison spell) become denied or highly limited for the individual. He is no longer able to be the ‘good’ dad easily—his access to his children is limited, both in quality and duration. He is no longer able to be the ‘good’ partner (or even he bad partner), who displays his masculin- ity—his access to willing partners is highly limited. He is no longer able to do a full working day—most (closed) prisons are not equipped for individuals to undertake meaningful work, and the routine and security required restrict the options available and turn the day into a different beast altogether (see Chapter 4). Ifhe achieved masculinity through the dominance of others, these options become more dangerous inside the prison, where routes of escape from dangerous opponents are limited, and violence is seen to be an “acceptable’’ (albeit not institutionally) form of expression and retaliation.

On top of these limitations to normative masculine signifiers, men in prison must attempt to sustain their masculinities in an environment where masculinities become competitive and, as a result, acknowledgement of the vulnerabilities they are experiencing as attacking their very being undermines what masculinity they do have. Prisoners speak of the importance of maintaining a persona of strength and the ability to cope, in addition to the importance of ‘doing your time’. The expressing of emotions and showing of weakness are not valorised, but instead demonstrate one’s lack of ability to cope, a lack of manliness, and a potential target for exploitation. Where individuals fall into these categories, they acquire labels of vulnerability that are imposed by the institution which qualify them for special attention, differentiating them in negative ways from other prisoners, and effectively positioning them outside the masculine hierarchy that prisoners value. Generally, these individuals are categorised according to a dichotomy of vulnerabilities, that being from others and from the self; yet this institutionalised dichotomy is situated far from notions of masculine identity, particularly when considering the importance of attaining individualism within the prison, and the problematic nature of applying categories of vulnerability to prisoners as institutional markers.

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