Wednesday, 18 May 2016

'Tactics', Agency and Power in Women's Prisons by Abigail Rowe

The DA recently read Abigail Rowe’s BJC article, ‘‘Tactics’, Agency and Power in Women’s Prisons’. The article was based on ethnographic research and semi-structured interviews conducted in two women’s prisons in England. Rowe writes that women’s agency has traditionally been framed in terms of resistance, and their coping strategies have generally been considered in the context of inter-personal relationships. In contrast to this approach, Rowe focuses on how agency can manifest as problem-solving, and how women engage with the power of penal regimes.

Rowe explores how prisoners and staff manage the constraints of the prison environment, and divides her findings into the issues of: visibility and discipline, dependency and hierarchy, and staff tactics of ‘lending’ and ‘poaching’. These latter terms are taken from Certeau (1984), whose theory Rowe uses to good effect throughout in her explication of agency and power. Rowe writes that Certeau’s ideas emerged in response to the monolithic, everywhere and nowhere, accounts of power proposed by Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1977). Certeau’s work concentrates on how those with limited power navigate these structures. The concept of ‘poaching’ in this context refers to ‘The subversion of a system to fulfil a private goal’ (at 337). Using Certeau’s ‘tactics’, Rowe's research adds to the complexity of the concept of the post-disciplinary prison.

Surveillance and Visibility

Rowe highlights the ‘very public nature of prison living’ (335) and the repercussions of this for relationships. For example, disagreements between prisoners can quickly be escalated and officially labelled as bullying. Although this is a protective mechanism, it is also a label with harsh outcomes for the individual accused of bullying.

Rowe offers examples of poaching which demonstrate how the systems of power in penal regimes can be exploited by prisoners for their own ends. Institutional mechanisms, such as the official response to bullying, can be used by prisoners to satisfy their own goals. The example is offered of one prisoner who was moved to another wing after false allegations of bullying were made against her. Rowe brands this a ‘tactic’, whereby other prisoners on the wing achieved their desired outcome through use of existing systems.

The DA noted that the necessary structure of complaint mechanisms, which in Rowe’s terms created points of invisibility as well as hypervisibility, was one of the primary areas of conflict and tension within prison, for prisoners and staff. It was noted by the group that certain allegations can effectively ruin the careers of staff, and can prejudice the release prospects of prisoners. This use of penal systems for personal ends therefore offers an effective example of ‘poaching’.

Dependency and Hierarchy

The dependency of prisoners on staff, and the hierarchy of the prison, offered another opportunity for the use of ‘tactics’. While the inequality of prison regimes can be disguised when all goes well, any resistance reveals its true nature.

The DA noted that within this fragile environment, prisoners are just as engaged in the business of affective labour as prison officers. Rowe reported numerous instances recounted by prisoners of how they managed the moods of staff, including stories of how they indulged the jokes of staff, and sussed them out as to their current mood.

Contrasting readings of the same incident were also notable, especially with regard to the women’s stated need to repeatedly ask, sometimes asking multiple staff members, to ensure that basic requests were carried out. This demonstrated starkly the dependency and prison hierarchy. However, prison staff perceived this very differently, as annoyance and as potentially humiliating if women went above their heads to request something. However, incorporating Goffman’s (1963) concept of ‘spoiled identities’, Rowe noted that repeated asking was a ‘tactic’ women used to ensure that simple needs were catered to. The DA discussed how women prisoners are perceived as a needier cohort than male prisoners, however from this perspective the stated and restated needs can be reframed as a means of achieving an outcome that might not otherwise happen.

Staff Tactics: ‘lending’ and ‘poaching’

Rowe’s research also looked at how staff resorted to strategies in the prison environment. However, throughout, staff members’ position as agents of power within the prison was noted. One staff member, who recounted that her attitude towards rude prisoners was framed by knowing that they would need her sooner or later, was quick to state that this ‘wasn’t necessarily a power thing’. The DA noted the lack of reflexivity in these attitudes. However, they also pointed to the powerlessness felt by many prison staff, who were often seen as unloved cogs in the penal machine, slotted between the management and the prisoners. The comments of staff offered in this section were fascinating, and could have provided material for an article on this subject alone.


In summary, Rowe states that she has sought to investigate and explicate the ‘relational, intersubjective dynamics through which penal regimes are delivered and negotiated’ (346). The article offers an alternative approach to theorising the experience of women prisoners. The use of Certeau's framework, and in particular the notion of 'poaching', offered considerable insight into how the institutionalised power in prisons can be adapted for prisoners' needs. The offering of this different theoretical slant on prison research provided new perspective on how individuals navigate within broader theories of the structure of power.

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