Friday, 12 September 2014

Homosociality: Why Prison Mates Matter

Most of my recent blog posts have been about the grimmer aspects of prison life: suicide, self-harm, unhealthy food, poor prison management, boot-licking screw-boys and sly pad thieves. With the sun shining and the weekend coming up I’ve decided to write about some of the more positive experiences to come out of my involuntary incarceration as a guest of Her Majesty.

Harvey and Rabbit: best friends
For me, one of the redeeming features of the time I spent in prison was the chance to meet some very decent loyal lads who are still my close friends. Most of us are now out of jail, although we also stay in touch with those who are still behind bars. We speak on the phone or exchange letters with the guys inside, while between those of us on the outside we telephone, text, e-mail and Skype each other. Needless to say we are all leading law-abiding lives.

Prison friendships are important. It reminds me of that background jingle on the now famous ‘Harvey and Rabbit’ TV ad which aims to demonstrate the power of television advertising: 

F-R-I-E-N-D-S do you really need them: Yes. 
If you haven’t got a friend, then you’re just you. 
There’s half as many things that you can do. 
Who’s going to tell you that you’re not a brat, if not your best friend?

Do you recall when we did that? Yes.
Sharing – the brilliant jokes we’ve had throughout the years (good times together) 
It’s not the same when you’re not there.

I couldn’t have put it better myself! When you are inside, deprived of almost all contact with your family and friends in the real world, prison can be an immensely lonely, dark and depressing place. Having a small circle of good mates who you know you can trust and rely on can be a vital mechanism for healthy emotional living. 

Best not to post it on Facebook, lads
Being a social anthropologist, I have more than a passing interest in how human societies and communities function, particularly those in highly artificial environments, such as the armed forces and prisons. Spending a few years banged up myself has given me an unrivalled opportunity to see how groups of confined men organise themselves, coexist and cooperate, as well as how they deal with conflict, sadness, grief and relationships. 

For many people who have never been in prison, there is the fear of the unknown, heightened by misperceptions planted firmly in the psyche by films such as The Shawshank Redemption. I was discussing this very subject last night with another ex-con and we agreed that the greatest fear almost all men have when they first face the prospect of going to prison is homosexual rape, usually in the showers. 

I have blogged previously about the sensitive subject of sexual assault and rape in British prisons. It does happen, but is certainly not a common occurrence. It is more the stuff nightmares are made of than an ever-present risk to most adult male cons.

The ultimate 'bromance' prison movie?
However, the other side of The Shawshank Redemption story is the close friendship that develops between lead characters Andy Dufresne and Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding. Initially based on Red’s ability to supply contraband items, their commercial relationship becomes one of close inter-dependence and eventually deep mutual respect and friendship. 

When Andy escapes through his tunnel and Red finally gets paroled it is their eventual reunion on a beach in Mexico that gives the story its closure. I suppose you could describe it as the ultimate ‘bromance’ movie. Women don’t get much of a look in.

Being in prison today bears little resemblance to the fictional Shawshank State Penitentiary. The inmates depicted in the film enjoyed freedoms and privileges unimaginable under Chris Grayling’s mean and spiteful Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) regime. However, one aspect of life that is still of central importance is having your prison mates around you.

Now, for the avoidance of any confusion, homosocial relationships (a term coined by sociologists) don’t usually involve any sexual activity. The concept covers friendships, mentoring and general social interactions between men in a wholly, or predominantly, male environment. In prisons, men turn to other men for mutual support, advice, companionship and generally to have a laugh together. 

Making a prison for yourself
I’ve observed that those cons who are able to develop these social friendships are often the best equipped to serve a prison sentence and emerge at the other end with minimal psychological damage. Men who have a natural talent for making friends and maintaining those relationships will usually do better on the wings than loners and prisoners who are regarded as ‘weirdos’ or misfits – many of whom are struggling with mental illness, addictions or serious personality disorders.

There is also a significant amount of informal mentoring going on between cons, particularly older men who ‘adopt’ younger lads. A high proportion of these young men have lacked older male role models in their lives, so they sometimes find them inside the nick. Not all these relationships are predatory or sinister. Some prisoners miss their own kids desperately and genuinely feel the need to do something positive with their time inside. Mentoring a younger inmate can be mutually beneficial for both sides.

Having a mentor can make a difference
As one older bloke who was serving a long stretch once remarked to me: “I have a son who is a similar age to some of these young kids on this wing. I’d hope that if my lad ever ended up inside the nick, an older con would keep an eye out for him and show him the ropes. So I’m doing the same for them.”

Of course, on the other hand some blokes just can’t resist the temptation to party inside. Forget the cell doors and bars on the windows and you can have the makings of one long lads’ night in, particularly in D-cats (open prisons). Occasionally add in some jail hooch (cell brewed alcohol) and maybe some drugs and that’s how quite a few younger lads – and a fair number of long-termers – will get through their ‘bird’ (sentence). 

I’ve heard it called “getting your head out of the window” (ie forgetting for a while that you are inside a prison cell). Those who get caught can end up on a charge down the Block (segregation unit), but that’s seen as an occupational hazard by many cons and a price worth paying for a boozy session in a pad (cell).

I have known a few homosocial relationships go a bit further than most cons would feel comfortable admitting, even among themselves. A small number do develop into romances, rather than platonic bromances, even among prisoners who would never identify as being gay or bisexual in the outside world. In fact, these guys usually have female partners and families waiting for them.

Surprising twist
One of the surprises of the recent jail film Starred Up is that the father of the main character reveals himself to be what is often called ‘prison gay’ – that is, he has developed a sexual relationship with a younger prisoner with whom he shares a cell. I think the term ‘situational bisexuality’ is probably a more accurate description for what is being depicted.

I never felt the urge to go down the same path while I was in prison, but I can empathise with the need of those cons who are serving long sentences – including lifers – to seek a bit of love and affection in their lives. Although some of these liaisons may be motivated mainly by sexual tension among men who are deprived of physical contact with females, I think that there is also a strong element of desire for emotional intimacy with another human being, even a member of one’s own gender.

On the other hand, many non-sexual homosocial relationships in prison do involve a considerable degree of physical interaction. Younger lads ‘play fight’ with their mates, cons partner up in the gym (often with other lads who look very similar to themselves), body-builders gravitate to other body-builders and there is a fair amount of shoulder patting, matey back-slapping and even hugging going on. Some men cut and style each other’s hair, which can also be an expression of physical intimacy that is publicly acceptable. After gym shoulder massages are very popular.

Safe, bruv, safe!
Whenever I was transferred between nicks, often with very little notice, there was much hugging with my close mates and exchanging of contact details. When I was suddenly released from my D-cat prison without any notice, I managed to go for a last lunch in the dining hall and then walked down the long line of cons queuing for their meal. As I was explaining my very unexpected departure, I must have had 30 or 40 fellow cons hugging me and even ruffling my hair, as well as many more conventional handshakes or fist bumps (a practice imported from the US prisons, I gather).

As I walked down to Reception and the main gate, carrying my prison holdall and accompanied by a few of my closest mates, I really started to feel a genuine sense of loss, even though I was obviously overjoyed to be a free man again. For nearly a year at that prison I had been part of a community, some of whom had become as close as family to me. Now I was leaving and it would be some time before I’d see any of these guys again. Like other men who have bonded and supported each other during times of adversity, we have become a band of brothers. I feel proud and privileged to count them as my friends.


  1. Friends. Alalapupulala

  2. Do the prison authorities group prisoners in a way to help relationships blossom and trouble to be minimized?


    1. Hi Peter, thanks for your question. Within specific wings, pretty much everyone wants a quiet life, including the screws, so where there is cell sharing, they do try to put people together who won't kick off.

      I've known many cases where staff will say to an individual con "find a mate to pad-up with" rather than impose someone. Most screws are pretty sensible like that and will support good pad sharing arrangements to minimise conflict.

      With young lads who have been in trouble inside prison staff will sometimes ask an older, more mature cons to keep an eye on them. I've done that myself loads of times, mainly in my role as an Insider (peer mentor).

      I recall one really timid young lad aged about 18 who was too scared (and embarrassed) to even take a shower in one nick because he was terrified he'd be raped in what was just a big wet room with no dividers or stalls. After a week or so he really stank, so rather than let him get punished two of us marched him down the wing to the showers when it was empty and stood guard at the door while he took his first prison shower. Eventually he started accompanying one or other of us when we took showers and once he realised he was safe and had got over his bashfulness at showering with other blokes, the problem disappeared.

      At another prison, a D-cat, the wing manager actually put two openly gay lads in a cell together even though they were civil partners outside. In theory this shouldn't have been allowed, but it kept everyone happy. Interestingly, they were really good lads and very popular, so as far as I know they never experienced any homophobic comments or bullying. Cons can be very liberal-minded these days, probably more so than some of the screws!

  3. Can you post please on how to keep busy inside

    1. Thanks for your request. I'll cover it in a forthcoming post, although to be honest 'busy' isn't a word I'd really associate with being in prison!

  4. All I can say is that anyone who was fortunate to come across Alex was a very lucky man. His knowledge, insight, and continued support even now remain a tower of strength. Keep up the good work in terms of helping people, and keep strong! know who I am!

    1. Cheers for that undeserved praise! I've gone a bit red (blush).

      I'm really hoping that all the information in the blog posts and readers' comments and contributions are helping to inform people about the reality of prison in all its aspects - good, bad and sad.

  5. It seems to me that the social skills needed to survive and emerged unscathed from prison must be the same ones that are valuable on the outside too. Do you think these are things that we should try and teach early in life, and might it lead to fewer people being sent to prison if we did?

    1. Thanks for your observation and question. I think you are right and you do get to meet all sorts of blokes in prison, some of who have real charisma and not a little charm. While you might expect that in conmen and confidence tricksters (and there are a fair number of those inside), you can find it right across the spectrum from killers to drug dealers to bent barristers!

      I think that many problems with young men (and doubtless young women) can be attributed to poor socialisation and limited inter-personal skills acquired during childhood and adolescence. Someone who is a loner on the outside is likely to replicate that behaviour inside the slammer.

      I once spent six months in a C-cat living opposite a young lad who was serving an Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) and who we nicknamed 'Quiet Boy'. I heard him speak about six words in half a year. He had a single cell and no mates. When we were unlocked for association in the evening, he slammed his own cell door shut again. He clearly had serious problems and these, I believe, were holding him back from progressing his sentence and getting parole.

      I agree that a better focus on social skills during early childhood would be beneficial, both for the individual and society as a whole. However, the real challenge is when the family background is so seriously disfunctional that interventions just don't seem to help.

      I would estimate that around 70 percent of adult male prisoners have experienced serious problems in childhood, ranging from abandonment or being placed in 'care', right through to serious abuse (physical, sexual, psychological) and early exposure to domestic violence and/or alcohol and drugs in the home). Address these factors and I think that we could substantially reduce our prison population.

  6. Hi Alex, I met a lifer called Shane during my 3 year sentence in 1997, he had done 10 years by then. Although from completely different social backgrounds we made a healthy bond and he helped me through a traumatic time toward the end of my sentence. I am still in touch with him through visits and letters 16 years later. We have learned to trust and support each other thru good times and bad, he still aint got D cat but we look fwd to the day. My aging parents have also taken him to their heart and cos he grew up without parents of his own, he has "adopted" them for himself!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Joe and for sharing this great story which illustrates very well some of the points I've made in the blog post. I think that these relationships can be among the most important we make in our lives because they are based on shared experience in a situation of adversity.

      I find that people who have never been in prison often find it difficult to understand what we've been through. We can talk to them about what we've lived through, yet it's only with ex-cons that we are talking the 'same language'. It's a bit like having been in the armed forces. The experience changes you - for better or worse - for the rest of your life.

      It's great to hear that you, Shane and your family are all still in touch. It's not the first time I've heard about the parents of one prisoner 'adopting' another lad who they've got to know through their loved one, especially when the other con doesn't have any close family of his own. Hopefully he will get parole in the future and I'm sure with the support of yourself and your parents he'll have a much better chance of successful resettlement back in the world outside of prison.