Experiences of Vulnerabilities

Whilst the label of vulnerability tends to have negative implications for individuals in terms of being associated with weakness and inferring problematic implications for masculine identity, many prisoners’ testimonies demonstrated emotions and experiences that arguably fall within the realms of vulnerabilities—even if not labelled in that way by the individual himself. In this study, such experiences tended to fall into three distinct categories: vulnerabilities emanating from the outside world, vulnerabilities developed inside the prison, and vulnerabilities of the self.

Vulnerabilities: The Outside World

In interviews with prisoners, many accounts showed unspoken vulnerabilities that could be indirectly observed. Although participants spoke of particular groups of people as being vulnerable—those who accrued debt, certain offence types, those who had been bullied, older prisoners, first-time prisoners, the physically and mentally ill or disabled, those who could not speak English/read/write, and those who could not cope with prison—vulnerabilities experienced by all prisoners were evident. That said, many spoke of their inability to be vulnerable with others and the fact that showing one’s self to be vulnerable was a sign of weakness, requiring negotiation to ensure security and reduce anxiety (see also Chapter 6):

Researcher: Can you talk to people in jail?

Bailey: Yeah, course you can. I mean I wouldn’t talk to everybody like

because.. .I don’t know, some people still see that vulnerability and want to take advantage of that you know so.. .for me I talk to certain people, you’ll have your little support group won’t you so

As noted, vulnerabilities tended to be discussed relative to three categories—those related to the outside world; those related to their worlds within the prison; and vulnerabilities regarding the self and identities as individuals. With reference to the outside world, participants spoke about their families—their concerns about their relationships with partners and children (and, less often, friends) whilst they were in prison, and the importance of these relationships in getting prisoners through their sentences, as already discussed in Chapter 6. Numerous participants spoke of the problems they had in their relationships with their children, with some not being able to see them, others not wanting their children to come into prison, not being able to talk freely or frankly with them, or missing out on their lives whilst incarcerated. Participants spoke of the differences in behaviour that they displayed to their family in comparison to their prison associates (two very different audiences who both matter, but for very different reasons at very different times), and the manner in which this was restricted by other prisoners being present in the visiting area (see Crewe 2014).

Many spoke of the importance of visits and phone calls when they were having bad days (and the problems that they experienced with getting visits from people who lived far away), and how these could help when no one in prison could, due to the lack of trust felt between prisoners and the fact that prisoners had to appear emotionally hardened to each other. Participants were able to be more vulnerable and show more emotions in interactions with people outside the prison system, and spoke about this emotional incongruence. They also spoke of visitors exposing their emotional and vulnerable sides as a negative aspect, which sometimes resulted in them asking family members not to visit them in order to avoid such experiences and emotional reactions. Some felt that they had let their family down by being in prison, and spoke of feelings of failure on a wider scale:

Sebastian: No, I mean...the big majority of my family don’t even know I’m in

prison [.] Coz like, you know there’s no one in my family that’s ever been to prison so you know my Mum and all that, she doesn’t really, I’ve told her you know if you want to tell the family tell them but.. .she, I know she don’t so, but she won’t, she won’t lie she won’t say, if they say where’s [prisoner], she’ll say he’s in [Town name] But she just won’t say it’s in prison [.]

Such feelings demonstrate emotional vulnerability and the impacts that imprisonment can have upon men’s self-confidence and views of themselves, particularly as male figures through the eyes of those who matter to them (or at least, how they think they might be perceived). These perceptions are also influenced by the past lives of the participants—the involvement of the care system in the lives of many prisoners has been discussed in Chapter 4—and, in addition to this, the vulnerability of individuals was evident in their discussions of experiences of abuse, a lack of educational achievement, and their criminal and problematic pasts, particularly with reference to drink and drug addictions on the outside, highlighting periods of their lives where they lacked control. Participants also spoke of their feelings of insecurity regarding their future post-prison lives, whether they would be able to stay crime free and thus achieve masculinity legitimately by attaining employment and housing, staying away from substance temptations, or achieving their hopes and aspirations for the future (see also Chapter 4), showing a level of vulnerability of the self with reference to their hopes and fears, their ‘potential masculinities’, and the wish to stay away from prison.

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