I’ve been thinking recently about what the word ‘prisoner’ (or ‘ex-prisoner’) really means to different people. Obviously, first and foremost, a prisoner is someone who is forcibly confined, usually in a prison, but the term carries many more connotations, almost all negative.
|A popular image of a con|
In the popular imagination at least, a prisoner always seems to be regarded as someone who has committed a serious crime and has been sentenced to a period of incarceration. In fact, at any time around 10 percent of the prison population in England and Wales are held on remand awaiting trial and are therefore as yet unconvicted of any offence.
A fair number of these people will eventually be acquitted, or – as in the recent case of Moazzam Begg – they can suddenly be released without charge when new evidence of their innocence comes to light. Many others may be convicted, but are then sentenced to a non-custodial penalty and get released from court immediately after their case has been heard. Others are the victims of miscarriages of justice and shouldn’t be in prison at all.
For these reasons, I think that there should be a distinction made between being a prisoner and being a convict (or ‘con’). Beyond this, however, there are some common stereotypical views held about male prisoners in particular. These tend to be influenced heavily by the media, particularly the middle market tabloids that seem to thrive on a very simplistic interpretation of human nature: “Out of prison: good. In prison: bad”.
|What does being a man mean?|
For many outsiders who have no personal experience of prison life, one of the most common misconceptions is that all male cons are brutal, violent thugs who couldn’t give a damn about other people. Of course, in reality people end up in prison for a huge range of different reasons and some of them are very far from being stereotypical boneheaded thugs or evil monsters.
I’ve been reflecting on this issue and asking myself what it really means to be a man in prison. And, perhaps even more importantly, what does ‘being a man’ really mean in the context of a jail?
Some cons would answer this by saying that a man is someone who stands up for himself and doesn’t let others – whether fellow inmates or screws – ‘mug him off’ (make him look like a fool). If someone tries to ‘take liberties’ then the expected response could be threats or even actual violence.
I remember talking to one serving con who had a nasty scar across his shaven scalp. He explained that he’d been watching television in a prison recreation room back in the days before rented TV sets were allowed in cells. Another inmate ‘disrespected’ him by turning the channel over while he was watching a programme and answered back when he protested. In response, he felt obliged to confront the ‘offender’ verbally, which ended with the other man whacking him over the head with a metal-framed chair, causing the injury that left the vivid scar.
|Trigger for violence|
His response was an overwhelming, all-consuming desire for revenge – and, perhaps more importantly, to take action in order to regain face among the other cons on their wing who had heard about what had happened. So he got his wound stitched up down at healthcare, using the old excuse of bashing his head against the open door of a wall-locker, and waited for his opportunity.
When his chance came, he threw a jug of scalding water, laced with sugar and bleach, into the face of his assailant in what is known in jail parlance as a ‘jugging’. The victim’s face basically blisters and the skin melts as the sugar in the boiling water sticks like napalm to flesh. The bleach is added to increase the potential disfigurement. The target of this violent and agonising attack was hospitalised and needed extensive skin grafts. He was badly scarred for life and was lucky not to lose his sight. And all because of a row over which television channel to watch.
So that, I suppose is what some cons would regard as ‘being a man’ or ‘having heart’ and this example would seem to confirm popular views of how male prisoners behave. On the other hand, the vast majority of fellow inmates I’ve known wouldn’t consider that response either proportionate or moral. You may be surprised to learn that a lot of cons strongly disapprove of violence, unless it is judged to be motivated by a desire to protect your own family or yourself.
I was interested to read a while ago that when Norfolk farmer Tony Martin was convicted of shooting a burglar dead in his isolated farmhouse in 1999 and then spent three years in prison, most fellow prisoners were understanding of what he had done, considering it to be legitimate self-defence. In other circumstances, a con who was inside for killing a 16-year old boy might be given a very hard time. I suppose that this reflects a wider societal view of what constitutes a right to protect yourself inside your own home.
|Don't give up your humanity|
I’ve always thought that the key to surviving imprisonment relatively unscathed is to maintain your essential humanity, even if the nick can be an inhumane experience at times. Someone who goes into prison with a well-developed sense of morality – even if they have committed a criminal offence – doesn’t simply abandon those principles or check them in with his stored property when he passes through Reception and gets issued with his prison number.
It was the 20th century Italian writer (and one-time anti-Fascist prisoner of Mussolini), Cesare Pavese, who observed: “What really belongs to a man, in life, except what he has already lived?”
He was right. Going into prison can strip you of your clothing, possessions and freedom, but it doesn’t necessarily need to take your identity, your personality or impact negatively on your character.
|Always try to maintain your dignity|
In reality, there are men who struggle hard to maintain their dignity and self-respect in prison, even against tremendous odds. They have the ability to rise above the petty restrictions and humiliations that are an everyday part of the prison experience. They resist the often strong temptations to lower their personal standards in order to improve their own situations or to have an easier ride in the nick or to be ‘one of the lads’.
As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, I have both experienced and witnessed some amazing acts of kindness and altruism while I was a con. Anyone who imagines that prison is all about brutality and violence would be genuinely surprised by how many good-hearted people have been banged-up and just how generous and kind such individuals can be.
|Making a stand|
Some prisoners do take a stand against bullying in the nick and will sometimes intervene to protect weaker or more vulnerable cons. I’ve also written in other blog posts about inmates who act as mentors to younger prisoners, providing them with positive adult role models – something that has often been lacking in their earlier lives. This is another side to what I think being a man in prison can involve.
In a recent discussion on the comments section of this blog, I also pointed out that many prisoners can be emotionally immature. I’ll include some of these observations here in this post because I think that they are very relevant this issue and not all readers may have scrolled down through the all comments under each blog entry.
As a social anthropologist I've studied the way in which different societies mark the transition from childhood to adulthood and there are various ‘markers’, particularly in traditional tribal cultures, that guide that process. In the post-industrial West we seem to have blurred boundaries between the two and maybe that's led to the rise of the so-called ‘man-boy’ – a man who is still emotionally a child and deals with issues in an essentially childish or selfish way.
That is certainly the case with a fair number of cons. Although they have the bodies of grown men, they still react like small kids and demonstrate some very immature attitudes. A lot have major problems accepting responsibility for their own actions.
|Give a helping hand|
That’s why I believe that mentoring – if done properly – can help them start the process of maturing into functioning adults. The lack of positive adult role models for young males in particular is having a devastating impact on our society. Even when young men are already in prison, I still think it’s not always too late to start mentoring them. It just needs to be done by the right peer mentors and many of the men I’ve met in prison have the capacity to offer that quality of guidance and support.
I’m convinced that immaturity and an inability to make sensible choices lies at the root of much offending. Peer pressure can be a powerful force and too many cons are susceptible to it, both outside prison and inside.
Having worked as a peer mentor in various prison education departments, I've seen that some of the ‘lads’ (even some who are 50 years old) still thrive on playing the ‘class clown’, which many will admit privately is the main reason their levels of general education – including literacy and numeracy – are often so poor. I’ve spoken to many prisoners who were excluded from school as young as 12 or 13 for disruptive behaviour and a significant proportion still haven’t moved on or grown up.
|Sometimes you can't just walk by|
Of course, the prison environment also reinforces infantilism. Grown men are called ‘lads’ or ‘boys’ by members of staff and, since most meaningful choices have been removed by the fact of imprisonment, a fair number of cons revert to childlike behaviours. In the worst case scenarios, this can involve smearing excrement on themselves and their cells, having temper tantrums you might expect from a three-year-old and lashing out at anyone who tries to help them.
One of the expressions you regularly hear in the slammer is: “He’s thrown his toys out of the pram again!” To be honest, at times it really can be a bit like working in a nursery for massively outsized babies.
Again, that’s where peer mentoring can be vital in helping some prisoners along the path to adulthood, regardless of their actual age. In order to play a positive role in mentoring other prisoners I believe that it’s essential that you have maintained your own self-respect and sense of humanity. Above all, to be able to lead other males towards manhood and all the responsibilities that go with it, I think that you have to have a clear vision of what being a man really means.