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July 12, 2007

Many fewer men would be in prison if they had grown up with fathers in their lives, argues prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham

Posted by Emily Kingham

If we are to reduce the prison population we need more fathers, believes prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham. Here she explains why.

I am learning so much about men from working in a men's prison that I feel I have gained a real insight into how, culturally, we set ourselves up for recidivism in the male population specifically.

I may have commented on this before but a lot of men in prison tend to be attractive and / or charming. This alerted me to the possibility that a lot of them would be narcissists. At the same time, a lot of prison officers are quite plain. If plain men are forced to abide by the rules, because that is all they have, handsome men will flout them. Charming, attractive men (I'm sure the same goes for women) get away with bending the rules. They can charm their mothers, women generally, and possibly impose themselves on men as well, in manipulating their way to the top, bottom or sideways. Their sense of entitlement is huge. Simply by being good-looking they feel they deserve more leeway and a greater priority in having their needs met.

Single mothers I have known turn their sons into kings when they're not too busy complaining about how useless men are. Their boys grow up feeling entitled to everything without knowing how to work for it. Having lived in Italy, I have also seen at close quarters how men are feted by their mothers and thus ruined for other women. (It is no coincidence that Italy has the lowest birth rate in the world.)

Time and again in prison, young men will flirt with me, flex their muscles, flatter me - all the usual manoeuvres - to get what they want. Culturally, we extol youth and beauty at a great cost. Sadly, they gain more pleasure from attaining their goals through manipulating someone than they do from working towards it "legitimately". This pleasure is a symptom of their narcissism because it reinforces their need for power.

"John" is an interesting example of a good-looking young man who is exceptionally intelligent and artistic, well spoken and agreeable and utterly devoid of a sense of self. He has no idea who he is. He writes endless rap lyrics that express his pent-up frustration and rage in pornographic, misogynistic terms. He flirts with me outrageously and is very cheeky in such a way that sometimes I cannot help but laugh. Big mistake! I am reinforcing his narcissism, but, hell, you have to laugh sometimes.

I am worried about John as he is also the target for bullying. He insists that, on release, he will have a recording contract with Sony within a few weeks and a consultative position attached to Gordon Brown's cabinet. In short, he is delusional. The other prisoners encourage him to tell them his fantasies and then rip him to pieces out of sheer boredom. I have to come to his defence, but in so doing, I am still playing into his hands. I have tried to press him regarding his post-release plans but he clings to his fantasies so desperately that he becomes agitated, defensive and unmanageable.

I have possibly made the mistake of challenging him, albeit gently, in the presence of other prisoners. But when I tried again on our own, the same thing happened. I think he is repeating an early experience. John is used to being the centre of attention in a frightening environment; he is used to not trusting the people around him. His experience of the family group is utterly negative. His early childhood was dominated by his mother and stepfather's drug habits and regular prison sentences. When I asked him about the first time he came to prison, this is what he wrote:

So you want to know about my first ever experience with prison, do you? Well, to tell you the truth, the first time I ever entered a prison I was about five years old. I was visiting my stepfather with my mother. I remember being able to fit under the table, and my mother asked me to pass my step father a Mars bar underneath it. At the time it seemed perfectly innocent, but later on I found out that my mother smuggled in drugs for my stepfather.

Now I wonder whether I was used as a mule. We visited my stepfather frequently, and I do remember my mother saying that I wasn't supposed to say anything about the smuggling. Although I didn't really understand it at the time, I am now aware of the fact that I was part of an "undercover operation".

Mission: pass the drugs and don't act like you're doing anything wrong.

It's funny how all these years later, I look back and I can actually remember the sense of anxiety and fear that ran between my mother and stepfather. It also affected me. I was aware that they were doing something undercover and that I wasn't to say a word to anyone.

I seem to remember saying to myself, "Mustn't tell", "Mustn't let it slip", "Don't know what you're talking about", "Haven't seen anything", and a nice big smile for the man in the white shirt and tie. "Mustn't grass it up, mustn't grass it up", and "It's all okay now, it's all over, it's okay, no need to worry".

The slightly manic use of repetition that characterises his writing also creeps into his speech patterns. At the same time, as Will, my magazine editor, pointed out, John is like "your typical heroin addict". He acts "mad" as a defence against possible violence from other addicts / dealers. If you act in an unpredictable, disconnected fashion, the thinking goes, others will retreat in fear of provoking a violent reaction.

But John's repetition, his insistent, nagging voice of anxiety has been haunting me. It seems so familiar. I know it rather too well. Quite uncalled for, John replicated a scene from early childhood. He wailed like a baby, then mimicked his mother's voice screaming at him, the baby, and her partner - "you arsehole, you arsehole," she wailed, like a baby, over and over again until her crying and her baby's merged in a crescendo of mounting hysteria. There was no one there to stop the screaming. There was no quiet voice of reason. When the baby cried, his mother joined him. I also remember Roberto Benigni, the Italian comic, singing "Ice cream, You scream, He scream, We all scream!" in the film Down by Law. It sounded nonsensical at the time but now it makes perfect sense.

I think this lack of a responsible adult is quite common to a lot of childhoods - it certainly was to mine. As a result, I feel an empathy with John, and he has been quick to pick up on this. My God, these boys are sharp. He uses everything to hand as a weapon - not necessarily to attack, but to shore up his defences: my empathy for him is an opportunity for him to be over-familiar with me. My pity and compassion are turned to his advantage: they make him powerful. One thing in particular I have learned about men: they turn weaknesses to strengths in the blink of a fluttering eyelid.

Another advantage to his rambling raps and delusions of grandeur is that everyone leaves him alone to get on with his own thing instead of calling him to account when it comes to delivering work. He is hard work and in a workshop full of demanding men, I cannot devote so much time to him. I can only really step in when he is being targetted by other men who see only a bullshitter and not a rather tragic fantasist. This brings me back to him recreating the conditions of his childhood. The others mock him but turn it around quickly into gentle teasing so that he is left feeling confused as to their real estimation of him; i.e. he cannot trust anyone in the room, because we are all lying to him. No one, least of all me, is going to come out and say, "You're fantasising". It would be cruel to crash through his defences so bluntly. Sometimes I think he is playing a game with us and will turn around and say, "You don't really believe that I think the Prime Minister of this country is about to employ me, do you?" Sadly, though, I think he genuinely thinks Gordon, as he calls him, is about to do just that.

I dread to think what will happen to him on release. The usual pattern is that he goes out clubbing, gets into a fight, resists arrest, and ends up in prison. This is his fifth sentence. No one in the prison is addressing his psychosis, or his vulnerability. I feel powerless to help but then these men are good at making you feel powerless. Because underneath it all, that is exactly how they feel, though they would never, ever admit it.

I don't know if the same holds true for middle-class men, but working-class men have to feel powerful in order to be men. They cannot admit to any weakness, almost as a matter of life and death. Our expectations of men hit them hardest. They are weeping babies inside. If they were pretty babies, they got some attention. Whatever attention they got, it always seems to have been the wrong kind. This is why our prisons are over-crowded. Building new ones isn't going to solve anything. We need fathers. Psychoanalysts talk about "the decline of the paternal function within Western society". If you don't know what that means, come to prison.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.


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Can't believe no-one comments here. Excellent piece, thank you very much.

Posted by: Tim (Random Observations) at September 27, 2007 03:59 PM
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Emily gets almost to the end of this engagingly written article before committing a grievous error. Sadly, she appears to give in to her fuzzy feminine sympathies to the downtrodden, rather than remaining objective in the way that Dalrymple does. We do need more prisons, as a matter of practical necessity. Regardless of the generative backdrop to criminality and incivility, corrective measures cannot be applied after the fact. A fatherless thug at 29 is likely to be a basket case to all intents. Dangerous dogs have to be put down I'm afraid, and there is no way around this. She is correct of course in identifying the lack of fathers as a key generator of criminality. This would be better expressed however as welfarism's long-range assault on the traditional family, leading to a great deal of social pathology. In other words she should be having a massive pop at the welfare state, not fatherlessness per se. This is entirely consilient with Tocqueville's Memoirs On Pauperism where absent fathers often made sound economic sense in terms of the workings of the Poor Laws. Perverse incentives maketh for a perverse society. So on the one hand she speaks common sense, but as a policy maker she could be befriended by the likes of Frances Crook of the Howard League, an extremely anti-social person indeed.

Posted by: cybn at November 10, 2009 06:32 PM
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