Vulnerable prisoner masculinities

David Maguire's research sheds light on how prisoners in a VPU seek to preserve their status.

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An interesting new piece of research caught my eye last week. “Vulnerable Prisoner Masculinities in an English Prison” by David Maguire (@Dee0871on Twitter). David is an academic based at University College London but will be leading on Prison Reform Trust’s Building Futures programme from January.

The research paper is a sophisticated and nuanced piece of work and I have tried not to oversimplify too much. Needless to say, readers with a particular interest will be served much better by reading the original.

Toxic Masculinity

We hear a lot about “toxic masculinity” these days but Mr Maguire’s research is particularly interesting because it focuses on a small case study sample of 10 prisoners, eight of whom were officially categorised as vulnerable prisoners (VPs) and were housed in the prison’s Vulnerable Prisoner Unit.

As most readers will know, The category of VPs can include anyone from men who have been convicted of rape or murdering children to those who have been accused of being informers, or who have simply run up prison debts.

Here Mr Maguire describes the men whose stories form the basis of his research:

These men were selected because of their experiences doing time both in the main location and in the VPU. The two other respondents were selected because of their experiences in struggling to navigate normative prison masculinities, and who were just on the margins of the main population as well as, arguably, being on the verge of having to be segregated for their own protection.
All of them came from similar highly deprived environments or council housing estates, and had spent a great deal of time on the streets running with elders, in mainly all-male peer groups. Describing themselves as “being off the rails” or “out of control,” half of these men were taken into local authority residential children’s homes during their early teens. The majority reported being excluded and/or removed from mainstream schooling and placed in specialist residential units or exclusion centres. Schooling was interrupted when—as children (aged between 14 and 17 years)—most of the men (eight of the 10) received their first prison term.
Across these sites of extreme exclusion, from childhood through to adulthood, the pressures of navigating and sustaining normative masculinities—with all of their intrinsic contradictions, fragilities, and challenges—proved to be too much for this cohort. At various stages in their criminal and prison journeys, their alleged shortcomings in meeting masculine ideals were exposed and—following the emasculating process of being formally categorized as “vulnerable” by prison officials—their positions near the bottom of prisoner hierarchies was confirmed.

The inmate code

The reasons why these men went from being mainstream prisoners to sharing the VPU with the sex-offender population varied. All were deemed, however, to have gone against, or to have been in breach of, the “inmate code”. None identified as, or were labelled, “sex offenders” by other VPs. Mostly, they were believed to have informed or “grassed,” with two members of this group being suspected of committing crimes against “their own”—which is to say, bigger and better-connected criminals—and, therefore, faced serious risks in the form of retribution.

Maguire is fascinating when he discusses the ways in which this group of men try to salvage some sense of their previously respectable masculine prisoner status. His interviewees spent a lot of time and effort in differentiating themselves from the sex offenders who shared their VPU.

Strategies involved challenging other high status prisoners to fight, boasting about previous contraventions of prison rules and involvement in prisoner protests or keeping themselves deliberately unaware of the crimes of the sex offenders on the unit. Other prisoners avoided going to the VPU by deliberately getting sent to the punishment block which, although it involved much more deprivation including solitary confinement, represented much higher social status than being a VP.

Maguire concludes by sharing his disappointment that prisoners who, through their placement in the VPU, had an opportunity to escape from some of the most toxic forms of masculinity actually felt redoubled pressure to assert their male credentials at the expense of their fellow prisoners.

This research paper comes from a larger project that explores the interplay of masculinity, education, employment and imprisonment and will  soon be available under the title: Failing marginalised masculinities: classed and gendered trajectories to ‘revolving door’ imprisonment in the U.K. (working title). As part of Palsgrave’s Prisons and Penology series.

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