The return of the suppressed: Exploring how emotional suppression reappears as violence and pain among male and female prisoners [2018]

Prisons research is familiar with the idea that prisoners ‘mask’ their feelings. But this behaviour is often characterised as a social defence mechanism, or a product of prison masculinity, rather than a deeply embedded psychosocial strategy forged over time. The term ‘emotional suppression’ is introduced as a way of better exploring the ‘biographical depth’ of this behaviour. This article aims to outline why both male (n = 25) and female prisoners (n = 25) engage in suppression, by uniting their traumatic life histories with their current lives in prison. One of the most salient findings is the connection between ‘bottling-up’ emotions and an explosive ‘boomerang’ effect—suppressed emotions return through violence towards others and the self. This implies that emotion suppression cannot easily be separated from subsequent discharge. This article suggests the need for ‘integration work’ and a crucial re-orientation of our current understanding of suppression, violence and aggression in prison environments which are often treated as separate entities. Importantly, withholding emotions has been associated with a range of negative health outcomes, and may be especially damaging in the long-term. Prison regimes could do more to encourage therapeutic talk and psychological attunement to reverse the process of emotional numbing.

Ben Laws

Punishment & Society, October 23, 2018