Review in the British Journal of Criminology

Out There/In Here
Masculinity, Violence and Prisoning

By Elizabeth Comack  

In the liner notes to the CD release of Johnny Cash’s legendary concert recording at Folsom Prison, Cash evokes the mortifi cations prison visits on the men he has played to: All of you have the same things snuffed out of your lives, every thing it seems that makes a man a man – women, money, a family, a job, the open road, the city, the country, ambition, power, success, failure – a million things. After reading Comack’s book, it is clear that of the million things that ’ make a man a man’ outside the prison, all too many find a corresponding life inside. This book is a timely reminder of what Joe Sim pointed to, some years ago now, when he observed that what was needed was prison research that considered ’ prisoners as men’ , rather than more of the conventional ’ men as prisoners ’ research ( Sim 1994 : 101). The prison, says Sim, rather than emasculating men in the fashion referred to in Sykes classic study, is a perverse ’ celebration of masculinity ’ . The obstinate myth of the destruction of manhood by prison’s ’ figurative castration ’ ( Sykes 1958 ) is a persistent feature of what Pat Carlen (2008) has recently referred to as ’ imaginary penality’ , a set of convenient delusions. Though the pains of imprisonment Cash knows well enough are genuine, the ’ emasculation ’ myth makes facile but expedient sense of the otherwise unspoken gender dynamic that Comack explores here in some detail. The toxic connections she traces between masculinities and violence lead her to coin an apt new verb, ’ prisoning ’ , to refer to its morbid social consequences. Comack begins with a reflection on how contemporary events, such as George W. Bush’s declaration of a ’ War on Terror ’ , intensifi ed her motivating concerns. In the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Centre, the ubiquity of men’s violence looms large for Comack. She quickly sketches a line between the stories of criminal violence in her local Winnipeg newspaper, the onset of bombing raids in Afghanistan and her imminent arrival at the local prison to talk to the men held there about violence. She is equally quick, however, to insist she will not be resorting to any simplistic ’ men-as-a-group are to blame ’ analysis. The first chapter sets out the specific context of the Canadian prison complex, indicating its high ranking in the incarcerative index headed by the United States, its similarly neo-liberal tendencies and its particular relationship to Aboriginal peoples. In her home province of Manitoba, for instance, she cites the fact that while ’ Aboriginal peoples made up only 11% of the population ’ , they constitute ’ a whopping 70% in sentenced custody admissions ’ (p. 12). She also laments, echoing Loic Wacquant’s (2002) obituary to prison ethnography, the ’ astounding dearth of empirically grounded, descriptive material on how prisoners in Canadian penitentiaries actually live, experience, understand and organize their lives ’ (p. 13). The chapter continues with a brief evaluative summary of the ’ men, masculinity and crime ’ literature. It is perhaps the duty of professors to cut a long story short, for their students at least, and Comack achieves this admirably well. I would happily offer this tidy summary of a complex theoretical debate to new undergraduate students struggling to appreciate criminology’s persistent diffi culty with gender. It is helpful in briefl y outlining the psycho-social perspectives exemplified in Jefferson and Collier’s work, and the contrasting socio-structural themes of Messerschmidt. The pioneering work of Connell remains, inevitably, pivotal to both. The opening chapter ends by introducing the theme that gives the book its title and has, for this reviewer, been the most haunting, evocative and elusive of its ideas. Perhaps because of the immediacy of my recent research experience, criss-crossing the prison threshold over a protracted period, talking with men about being in prison, even having been a prisoner myself, and being a man myself, I felt something original and profound was being raised about the ontology of men and prison, and was eager to follow its development. The accounts of some of the 19 men whom Comack interviewed are presented in alternating Out There/In Here thematic biographical narratives, that begin with ’ Boys ’ Lives ’ . The men are referred to by first names and are allowed extensive quotes to convey their experiences. Each has painful stories to tell, all marked by violence done to them and by them. In this respect, the book delivers some thick descriptive data. Comack, as a middle-class, white, ’ un-prisoned ’ woman, is careful to qualify her capacity for rendering an authentic account of prisoners ’ lives and notes the differences that might emerge had she shared more of her respondents characteristics. This question of connection, depth and identifi cation remained slightly problematic and unresolved for although the account is rich in empathy, detail and insight, I never felt close to or involved in the lives and times of the men being presented. I no doubt share some of the distances felt by Comack, in my case exacerbated by virtue of my experiential ignorance of all things Canadian. The sequence of narratives that moved chronologically and spatially from ’ boys ’ lives ’ ’ out there ’ , through the ’ care/custody mangle ’ towards ’ men’s lives ’ ’ in here ’ , seldom developed a cohesion or momentum that might have made their stories more compelling. The men remained disembodied fragments of quotation and polaroid portraiture without ever securing a life of their own in the text. The challenge of representation in prison research is intense and perhaps my difficulties derive more from Comack’s method than her telling of it. Nineteen men among a population of 459 prisoners elected to be interviewed after responding to poster requests for participation in the study. In a useful ’ Afterword ’ describing the research process, Comack describes the interviews as averaging ’ one hour ’ , the shortest being 30 minutes, the longest over two hours. Comack does not describe any other sources of personal insight into the men’s lives in prison, or outside, save to say she assured her respondents she declined to examine their offi cial files. Despite the qualifications discussed in the ’ Afterword ’ , I have reservations as to whether an account based on such a research strategy can remedy ’ the astounding dearth of empirically grounded, descriptive material on how prisoners in Canadian penitentiaries actually live, experience and organize their lives ’ . An ethnographic approach to researching prisoners ’ lives is fraught with diffi culty but having recently completed two eight-month efforts of partial immersion, with a colleague, in two English prisons, I am probably biased towards an approach that seeks some semblance of ethnographic depth. I do not mean to diminish her account with a competitive claim to having conducted a bigger and better study, and I share absolutely Comack’s concerns about the empirical gaps, but I reluctantly fail to be convinced by this attempt to plug them. Comack’s ’ Out There/In Here ’ motif captures the ironic symmetry of the men’s lives. She sees the ’ resources for acquiring the widely circulated symbols of hegemonic masculinity, such as clothes, cars and the attention of women ’ (p. 141) being channelled through violence and crime and the ’ prisoning ’ doing nothing to diminish either. Their masculine identities are bruised but fortifi ed. The potential power of the motif extends, in my experience, to the way men in prison are also plunged into their own inner world in the midst of the permanent and ever present throng of fellow prisoners. In such circumstances, they frequently erect a brittle shell around an otherwise fragile ontological security. The process throws into sharp relief the way similar pressures outside prison shape men, society and our ideas about penal security ( Matravers and Maruna 2004 ). All too often, the result is a kind of crustacean ontology increasingly mirrored in the formal institutions of the state (cf. Torpey 2000 : 93) of which the prison is simply an exemplar. The eight pages of the final chapter, ’ Resisting and Creating Masculinities’ , hardly seemed sufficient for the topics that the preceding accounts had opened up. Her book is a helpful contribution to a thankfully growing critical literature that recognises the gendering dynamic of prisons and their wider social implications in an insecure world. In the end, though, it was asking a lot of the 19 men she met to give more than a fleeting glimpse of ’ the million things ’ that make a man a man, what is snuffed out in prison and what survives. Rod Earle The Open University doi:10.1093/bjc/azp052

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