Doing time: the reality of prison for young men…

Across the UK, reports and inspections have continuously illuminated the ongoing concerns relating to the high levels of violence, self-harm and reoffending experienced by young men in prison, particularly in comparison to their older male counterparts. These issues are exacerbated by the high levels of lock-up and overcrowding all prisoners are subjected to.

Within NI, Hydebank Wood Secure College (hereafter Hydebank) is responsible for imprisoning young men between the ages of 18 and 24. This event sets out the findings of in-depth research conducted in 2016 into the experiences and needs of young men aged 18-24 imprisoned in Hydebank and examines the implications for policy. It included nine months of participant observation within the institution; the researcher also participated in educational classes, recreational activities and association. Twenty-six semi-structured interviews were conducted with young men and six interviews with prison officers and support staff.

The event will discuss the key findings from this study with a particular focus on the normalisation of violence within the young men; the Young Elder’s; and the sources of vulnerability discussed by the young men.

 

The normalisation of violence

It was evident that violence had become normalised for many of the young men in Hydebank.  Many of the young men in Hydebank had had regular interactions with paramilitary organisations prior to entering the prison. Sixteen of the twenty-six  interviewees had been victims of violent attacks from paramilitary organisations, including being shot, beaten by sewer rods, had breezeblocks dropped on them to break bones, and being violently attacked by groups of men.

These issues were exacerbated within the prison context. The young men spoke of fighting as routine, with some saying they fought on a daily basis or more. Others spoke of being bitten, stabbed in the face and doused with boiling water and sugar in the institution.

 

The Young Elder’s

A number of young men progressed to the most enhanced landing in the prison C5. They had significantly different ‘identities’ to the wider group of young men. For example, they viewed  themselves primarily as ‘fathers’, ‘employees’ or ‘fiancés’ – identities that may be considered traditional in the wider social context, but were rare in Hydebank.

However, while some ‘alternative’ identities in prison can become subordinated, “largely suppressed” or “excluded”; this group of young men were largely respected within Hydebank’s prisoner society. This was partly due to the discourses in the prison that associated time spent in prison with status and respect. Drawing upon the concept of prison elders, this group was labelled by the author as the ‘Young-Elders’.

It was not the case that the identities portrayed by the Young-Elders, such as father, earned respect from the prisoner society, as many of the least compliant prisoners in the institution were fathers. Nor was the kind of compliant behaviour that Young-Elders exhibited an automatic source of respect, as others who did try to comply were stigmatised. Discussions in the prison surrounding crimes committed, sentence length and time spent in prison, meant that the Young-Elders were excused from the daily tests that the other young men were subjected to. In the eyes of the other young men, the Young-Elders had progressed beyond the point of examination and their respect was unquestioned.

 

Sources of vulnerability

“Fear, anxiety, loneliness, trauma, depression, injustice, powerlessness, violence and uncertainty are all part of the experience of prison life” and are sources of vulnerability for prisoners (Liebling and Maruna, 2005: 3). Sources of vulnerability become more challenging when the demonstration of emotions is seen as a sign of weakness – as was found to be the case in Hydebank – something that may be preyed upon and perceived to be associated with ‘femininity’.

Such wide ranging was the range of sources of vulnerability in Hydebank that it would not be possible to cover them all at this event, therefore the sources of vulnerability discussed frequently by the young men will be explored: health, both physical and mental; self-harm, including suicide; and drugs.

Dr Conor Murray is a Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at Ulster University. You can follow him on twitter. 

There will be a free live event on this topic on Monday the 4th of November 2019. It is part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science in Northern Ireland 2019. Get your free tickets here…

Photo by Free-Photos is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA