Masculinity In Prison: The 'Mask' Men Have To Wear Behind Bars

What Interviewing Male Prisoners Taught One Psychologist About Masculinity

Power, avoidance of femininity, avoiding expressions of emotion. These are some of the attributes of what psychologists call "hegemonic masculinity". There is perhaps nowhere it is more prominently on display than all-male prisons.

Counselling psychologist Dr Tony Evans saw it when he interviewed male prisoners for his research on what they thought being a man meant, at a time of changing attitudes, both inside and outside prison. He was already an experienced prison counsellor but he was struck by what he learned about prisoners' outlook on masculinity.

"It used to be said that it is a man’s world," his published research paper based on the interviews begins. "If this ever was true in the past, then mounting statistical evidence is now suggesting the opposite when looking at men’s emotional, physical, and psychological well-being in the 21st century."

Men account for more than 90% of prisoners in England and Wales. A remarkable 85% of people who set fires are men. They are the vast majority of people who kill themselves. Before he trained as a counselling psychologist, Evans worked as law clerk at The Old Bailey and saw many men pass stand trial for murder, rape and arson. When he trained and sought somewhere to practise, a prison seemed like a good fit.

His curiosity about masculinity started earlier. He was born in a mining community in South Wales, a place that he calls "perhaps a more traditionally masculine environment". "I grew up, moved to London, I'm actually gay myself, all of that led to this interest in looking how people construct and negotiate and perform their sense of manliness around other people," he says.

Evans worked at HMP Wandsworth, counselling prisoners one-on-one. For his research, he wrote to prisoners asking for them to be interviewed for research on masculinity, stressing that far less research had been done on how being a man affected well-being.

He interviewed nine prisoners, who had been jailed for crimes from robbery to conspiracy to defraud and aged between 22 and 47. Like the prisoners he had counselled as a therapist, they had "almost exclusively" suffered what Evans calls "catastrophic failure of parenting" as children. "Complex trauma in childhood, we're often talking various forms of abuse... Male role models were either absent or violent or very cold and withdrawn or very cold and domineering."

Six of the nine had an upbringing defined by "internalised hegemonic masculinity", the type that avoids public emotion or vulnerability. But in a private interview, they would open up and show a side of themselves that reflected the "vulnerability and struggle and loss and trauma" of their lives, Evans tells The Huffington Post UK. "Many of them were carrying with them from extremely traumatic childhoods.

"It's often very often split for the men in prison. The mask they have to put on when they're outside interacting with other men really conforms very heavily to the extreme, quite traditional versions of masculinity but often, underneath that, there's a struggle."

Men are more than 90% of prisoners in England and Wales

One man in his early 20s, imprisoned for rape aged 19, reflected the first of three categories of prisoner masculinity Evans identified. This is a man who grew up with traditional masculinity, usually learned from a bad relationship with a father who was abusive or absent, and continues to embrace it. He was taught to bare-knuckle box from the age of six. By his teens had anger management problems. By the time he began seeing Evans he was fighting daily in the prison. "He would get into fights at the drop of a hat... [he had] swallowed whole attitudes and behaviours of masculinity they've witnessed growing up and at this point in his life, he hadn't really done anything to change those."

A traumatic childhood is more likely to set men down a path of aggression and violence than women, Evans explains. All adolescent brains undergo huge change and girls are more likely to, in Evans' words "internalise difficult emotions" while boys express them outwards - more anger, more violence, particularly if, like the prisoners Evans dealt with, they subscribe to the more traditional ideas of masculinity. He says: "There's a firestorm going on within the adolescent brain and boys are very prone to peer pressure, very, very prone to having to prove their masculinity and act it out in very reckless ways and that's frequently going to bring them into contact with the criminal justice system."

But prison can be the place where this can change. The second type of man Evans identified in his research grows up with hegemonic masculinity but has an experience that leads him to reject it. This can be having children of his own, a romantic relationship or, in some prisoners' cases, undergoing drug or alcohol treatment or literacy classes.

One of Evans' interviewees, a 41-year-old imprisoned for wounding with intent known as 'Matt" had an unloving childhood. But the experience of having his own children appeared to change him. He spoke of “listening,” “bonding” and “helping” children and was moved when describing how his son said “Daddy will be home soon” during a phone call from prison. "It's nothing to be ashamed of, for a man to cry," he said during his interview for the study. "You are more of a man if you show your emotions, know what I mean? A lot of people in here... they are here for drugs, but there is so much more that has happened to people than... they are in a prison within a prison with themselves."

Men like Matt "make a decision and say 'I don't want to pass that on to the next generation... I recognise that way of being a man has caused nothing but grief to the people around me, there's a gradual ability to change," Evans says. But this happens later in life. Evans: "You'll tend to see most extreme ways of doing maleness when boys are adolescents and in their 20s. It's unusual to find a 60 and 70-year-old doing it in quite the same way."

Tony Evans found a traditional view of masculinity can become 'psychologically restrictive' to men as they age

The final type of man Evans identified is one who grew up with a loving relationships with fathers who defined their masculinity on their own terms. This applied to only two of the nine men in his study, including James a 42-year-old self-described "alpha-male" imprisoned for a fraud offence. He had a sense of self "unaffected by surroundings," the study said. He claimed to be able to "intellectualise" his imprisonment and said his values help him "me to develop and grow in here despite the environment".

In research since his prison interviews, Evans has expanded on the three types of men he identified to an 11-point spectrum that better reflects the range of male behaviours in different situations. For men who subscribe to traditional masculinity, it is harder to move on the spectrum, changing their behaviour presents the risk of being "vulnerable or too kind or not top dog" and can feel like losing their maleness, Evans says.

As an experienced counsellor, Evans knew a lot about the prisoner mindset before he embarked on his research. But he was struck by how severely a very traditional view of masculinity can restrict men who adopt it. He recalls 'Liam', who had been convicted of affray. Liam would use violence in the prison to maintain his masculine image and laughed as he described how his father told him, aged six, to hit a girl he was having a fight with. "He was an idiot," Liam said of his father during his interview. "I don’t know what’s wrong with him. But now it’s different, he can’t really say anything to me now cos I’m a big man, cos I’ll knock him down, you know what I mean? He was a big man to me when I was a kid. He can’t say anything now, he can’t hit me cos I’ll hit him back."

Liam was only 22 when Evans interviewed him. But, the psychologist predicted, his worldview would serve him poorly as he got older. "In some ways [this view of masculinity] can work relatively well when they're young, when you're out with your mates getting drunk, fighting... You can gain quite a lot of sense of status from being that type of bloke. But as one grows older, its currency declines very, very rapidly. If you're still coming from that place when you're in your 40s... it's very difficult for men to recover a decent life from that position."

Such traditional masculinity may serve men well in environments where it is encouraged, such as gangs or prisons "but outside... it's likely to cause you real difficulties," he adds.

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