Janani Umameshwar, Suppression on top of Oppression: A Symbolic Interactionist Perspective on the Affective Experience of Incarceration’, The British Journal of Criminology, 2021

The law and the criminal justice system, we are told, is logical and dispassionate. There is no space in it for the emotions and vulnerabilities of its stakeholders. Consider the life of a ‘prisoner’; incarceration isolates them from everyday life and restricts their autonomy so severely as to be dehumanising. Coupled with the experience of being isolated from their loved ones, feelings of powerlessness, anger and humiliation are common. At the same time, popularly accepted gendered notions stigmatise the expression of emotions by incarcerated men (“men don’t cry”, “men don’t talk about their feelings” etc.). It is therefore not hard to imagine that the emotions of incarcerated men have received little academic attention as well. 

Suppression on top of Oppression: A Symbolic Interactionist Perspective on the Affective Experience of Incarceration’, has been authored by Dr. Janani Umamaheshwar, Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society at George Mason University, whose research interests lie broadly in the area of the sociology of punishment and incarceration, and gender. In the article, Umamaheshwar presents findings from her interviews with 24 incarcerated men in a state-run prison in North-Eastern United States, on the complex interplay of emotions and identity that structures of incarceration generate. As the title suggests, Umamaheshwar builds on the theories of ‘symbolic interactionism’ and ‘sociology of emotions’, as well as the efforts in ‘narrative criminology’, to focus on how perception of social conventions and expectations shape emotion and identity work performed by incarcerated men. 

The ‘pains of incarceration’ severely alter and erase the pre-incarceration identities of imprisoned men. Umamaheshwar notes that earlier research has largely considered the manner in which prisons shape the identities of their inmates but has not substantially focused on the emotional aspects of their lives; particularly, the role of emotions in identity formation. Her work is therefore most interested in the experiential dimensions of incarceration, i.e., how men ‘feel’ incarceration. 

Umamaheswar begins her research by acknowledging that the authoritarian environment in prison and the lack of social support systems has the potential to drastically restrict the free expression of emotions and can cause emotional detachment. However, she proceeds to inquire into: a) how negative emotions generated by incarceration lead to isolation and marginalisation of such men, and b) how incarcerated men manage negative emotions by engaging in the construction of morality-based narratives and other similar identity shaping behaviours. 

Through her fieldwork, she finds that incarceration produces strong emotions of sadness, shame, humiliation and anger. Incarcerated men cope with these uniquely difficult feelings by isolating themselves from their support systems, including family and friends. The author cites the example of one man who resists meeting his family to avoid the humiliation that his loved ones face during such visits. Another prisoner avoids visits from his family, which he calls “too depressing”, given his inability to stop thinking about them for many days later. The inability to perform the roles of ‘father’, ‘son’ or ‘husband’ (roles aligning with their pre-prison identities) causes immense shame and results in them internalising the feeling of being a ‘failure’. The manner in which incarcerated men cope with these complex emotions is what Umamaheshwar terms ‘emotion/identity work’ – the radical transformation of emotions such as shame, anger, humiliation into feelings of pride, gratitude, self worth. This involves weaving a series of alternate narratives and moralistic identities, separate from the ones that the experience and structures of incarceration engender in prisoners. 

Umamaheshwar’s research shows that prisoners often cope with perceptions of failure by creating identities that compare themselves to other prisoners, who they deem ‘morally inferior’. The interviewed prisoners display emotions of heightened pride or gratitude as they speak of being “real men” or “men of respect”, better than the average joe in prison, who whiles away his time and accepts his doomed fate. Unfortunately, this identity work often leads to oscillating feelings of humiliation and pride – a troubling sense of cognitive dissonance.

Umamaheshwar poignantly concludes that the punitive and coercive structures of imprisonment are meant to fester negative emotions such as humiliation, sadness and anger among prisoners, especially by cutting off crucial social support resources such as the family and community. These negative emotions, in turn, perpetuate a deeper sense of marginalisation among incarcerated men. Umamaheshwar’s work is an important contribution to the existing psychological research that considers cognitive strategies deployed by stigmatised and marginalised groups. The negative experiences of incarceration have far-reaching consequences on familial and social ties of prisoners. In the Indian context too, the unending isolation and marginalisation that incarceration causes to prisoners and their families can only be ended by restoring dignity and ending the stigma around incarceration. A truly reformative criminal justice system must not turn a blind-eye to the negative emotions produced by incarceration and must focus on encouraging healthy bonds between prisoners and their loved ones. 

Janani Umamheshwar’s other work may be found here.