Imprisonment as a grand gesture

In past projects, I have come across the notion of imprisonment as a ‘job’. For example, a drug dealer I once interviewed told me that he would not be in prison again, because there were people he paid to take the fall if his drug dealing was detected. I have also heard several times how people made bargains with their co-offenders on who would go to prison if they were caught (usually the one with the shortest record, because they would get the least severe punishment). Several men have also told me that they have taken the blame for an offense committed by their partner, because they did not want to see their women go to prison and lose their children. This shows how criminal punishment is something that can both be negotiated and used as a resource.

In this research, with people for whom repeated imprisonment is a constant in their lives, I have heard several examples of a new (to me) way of using prison as currency.  Some interviewees have described how they have taken the blame, the fall, or the rap for people to whom they owed something (but not money). They might have done something to wrong that person, and to ‘make up’ for this wrong, volunteered  to go to prison on their behalf.

This is an interesting illustration of the different role criminal justice plays in the lives of the (often) imprisoned. If they are harmed in a criminal way, many would not go to the police, because this would constitute ‘grassing’. Such harm is often seen as par for the course because of the lives they lead, shrugged off with a ‘what goes around, comes around’ attitude. However, in this instance, they use the criminal justice system for their own devices. Many of us owe something to others, because we have done something wrong. We might have cheated on a partner, lost our rag with a friend, or broken something that cannot be replaced. All these debts cannot be settled with money. Therefore, we might be extra considerate towards the wronged person’s needs for a while, express our regret many times, in as forceful a way as possible, or try to make amends through grand gestures.

Going to prison is one such grand gesture, but not one that many of us would consider. For these men, prison has become sufficiently normal and non-aversive that opting to spend time there is a feasible way of clearing a (non-financial, non-criminal) debt. They may also have limited resources to carry out other grand gestures. Either way, imprisonment here gives them a chance to atone for a wrong they have committed, but not the wrong the criminal justice system thinks it is all about.