How fathers construct and perform masculinity in a liminal prison space

AuthorTess S Bartlett,Anna Eriksson
Date01 July 2019
Published date01 July 2019
Subject MatterArticles
How fathers construct
and perform masculinity
in a liminal prison space
Tess S Bartlett and Anna Eriksson
Monash University, Australia
Through a lens of identity and the self, this article analyses the views of 39 primary
carer fathers incarcerated in Victoria focusing specifically on the points of intersection
between fathers and their children. Using the prison visiting room and phone conver-
sations by way of illustration it explores differing expressions of masculinity and seeks
to understand the conflict of identity that exists for fathers within these liminal, in-
between spaces. We aim to address a gap in research and theory by providing new
insights into fathering and conflicting constructions of masculinity within the prison as
seen in ‘frontstage’ and ‘backstage’ selves and by exploring how fathers perform fathering
within this space. We conclude by summarising the key theoretical and practical impli-
cations of our work.
fathering, Goffman, imprisonment, liminality, masculinity, visiting
‘You can’t really play with the kids here too. You have to sit on your seat. It’s very
hard, you can’t actually interact with your kids. They’ve got six officers, so, you
know ...’ (t). These are the words spoken by a primary carer father incarcerated in
prison in Victoria. Through a lens of masculinity, identity, and the self, this article
Corresponding author:
Tess S Bartlett, Monash University, Dandenong Rd, Caulfield East, Melbourne, Victoria 3070, Australia.
Punishment & Society
2019, Vol. 21(3) 275–294
!The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1462474518757092
examines a dilemma that exists for fathers such as this. We do so by addressing the
following research question:
Is it possible for incarcerated fathers to embody differing expressions of masculinity in
prison and if so, how might this be facilitated?
In Australia, the absolute majority of prisoners are men (Australian Bureau of
Statistics (ABS), 2016); yet little formal attention has been paid to the parenting
status of this group. An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) study
indicates that in 2015, 46% of the 1011 male ‘prison entrants’ had at least one
dependent child prior to imprisonment (AIHW, 2015: 8). However, since only 49%
of prison entrants overall (both men and women combined) took part in the study
one could expect that to be an under-estimation. Research undertaken in
Queensland on incarcerated fathers (Dennison and Smallbone, 2015; Dennison
et al., 2014) estimates that in any given year some 0.8% of children (n¼8033) in
that state will be affected by paternal incarceration and approximately 4% in their
lifetime (Dennison et al., 2013). But apart from these two studies, Australian data
is largely absent. In the state of Victoria, where this research is located, no data
exist that focus exclusively on fathers in prison. Hence, not much is known about
fathering in prison and how men construct and perform masculinity within the
prison visiting space.
Previous work on masculinity in prisons tends to focus on the hyper-masculine
prison environment (Mosher, 1998) and a prisoner’s ability to negotiate his place
within the prison hierarchy. Similar to Ricciardelli et al. (2015), we argue that
malleable models of masculinity exist for all imprisoned men (as they do for
men outside the institution). These expressions of masculinity lie outside tradition-
al notions of masculinity and may be witnessed, for example, within the prison
visiting space where fathers interact with their children.
Using Goffman’s (1956) exploration of ‘frontstage’ and ‘backstage’ personas, as
shown in The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, we argue that fathers’
conflicting expressions of masculinity are negotiated and ‘performed’ within the
prison visiting space, despite these two roles being contradictory in nature. We aim
to expand on Goffman’s frontstage and backstage persona and how these are
adopted within the prison environment to describe what happens within an indi-
vidual when he moves between different spaces and interactions. It is within the
prison visiting room that fathers are presented with an internal conflict, between
their ‘frontstage’ and ‘backstage’ self. In order to address these nuanced mascu-
linities, we argue that prisons need to change the physical structure of visiting
spaces in order to facilitate men’s roles as fathers with an eye to desistance.
Research indicates that father absence due to, and during, incarceration can
strain financial resources for families and lead to the loss of consistent father and
child interaction (Sharp et al., 1998). Conversely, maintaining father–child bonds
during imprisonment strongly correlates with ongoing involvement of the father in
a child’s life upon release (Roettger and Swisher, 2013; Turney and Wildeman,
276 Punishment & Society 21(3)

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