Of Mice, Men and Patriarchy

Of Mice, Men and
The Socially Constructed Experience of
People with Intellectual Disability in
Custodial Corrections
Kathy Ellem
School of Social Work and Applied Human Sciences
University of Queensland
Key Questions
• What are the common beliefs, values and
assumptions made about prisoners with
intellectual disability?
• How might the systemic and social
processes of custodial corrections
perpetuate such beliefs, values and
Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck
• Story of a friendship
between two men, one
with an intellectual
• Set in the Great
Depression in California
in early 1900s
• Eugenics Era in which
many people with
intellectual disability
institutionalised, and
• Principal character but the least
• A strong man with ‘mental
• Wrongfully accused of rape
• Loves to pet soft things
• Blind devotion to friend George
and dream of farm
• Incredible physical strength that
leads him to accidentally kill a
• A ‘big kid’ who is killed by his
friend as an act of mercy
Lennie’s Destiny
• Society never to accept
• Life is organised by his
friend George
• Potential for violence
• Innocence leads to
inevitable destruction
• Killing of Lennie seen as
merciful and necessary
Stigma: Managing the Spoiled
Identity (Goffman 1963)
• Stigmatised individual = someone who possesses a
trait that can turn others away from him or her
• Person’s undesired “differentness” leads to
discrimination, reducing life chances
• “We construct a stigma theory, an ideology to
explain his inferiority and account for the danger
he represents… We use specific terms… and we
tend to impute a wide range of imperfections on
the basis of the original one” (p. 5)
Lennie = Stigmatised Identity
• Regarded as stupid, a
child, a big kid
• Lunatic
• Burden
• Object of ridicule
• Behaviour seen as
disrespectful when he fails
to obey George’s
• Less than human – killed
as an act of kindness
Some reasons for our social
constructions of people with
intellectual disability
• Reflects our social anxieties over people who are
different (Nicholson-Crotty & Nicholson-Crotty
• Escape the dilemma of social accommodation and
integration of “different” people (Longmore 2003)
• To justify our responses – to deny a person
particular supports or to condone their placement
in particular environments/programmes (Blatt
The Stigmatised Identity of “Prisoner
with Intellectual Disability”
Having an Intellectual
Disability means…
• Dangerous
• Non-human
• Unable to learn
• Gullible
• Victim
• Perverse
• Sexually promiscuous
• Feeling the need to pass
• Burden
Being a prisoner means…
Being hated is legitimated
Object of gossip
Socially dead (Arditti
• Burden
People with Intellectual Disability
Who Offend – Who Are They Really?
Holland et al (2002) identify two broad
groupings of people who are arrested for
criminal offences:
1. People who experience social disadvantage,
with no formal service supports
2. People whose behaviour within the disability
service sector has been relabelled from being
“challenging” to “criminal”
Life Experiences of Offenders
with I.D.
(Winter et al 1997; Murphy
et al 1995)
• Severe psychosocial
• Offending by other family
• Self-reported behaviour
problems dating back
from childhood
• High rates of
• Mental health needs
Patriarchal Nature of Prisons and
Responses to People with I.D.
• Patriarchy = a system that values power
over life, control over pleasure and
dominance over happiness (French 1986)
• Can refer not only to unequal relationship
between men and women, but also unequal
relationships between men alone and
women alone – notion of multiple
masculinities (Connell 1987)
Patriarchal Nature of Prisons and
Responses to People with I.D.
• Distinction needs to be
made between private
sense of self and
public presentation of
identity (Jewkes 2005)
• Public presentation of
a tough, no-nonsense
reputation needed for
• People with I.d. may
not have the social
sophistication of
maintaining such an
• Failure to fit in
predisposes people
with I.d. to
stigmatisation and
Constructions of People with
I.D. in Prison
As people who are unable to learn…
• Access to habilitation and
rehabilitation denied
• Need to be ‘responsive’ to access
• Need to be serving more than one
• Often serve full sentence
• May remain in maximum security for
their protection
As people who don’t exist
• No evidence base to
determine the number of
people with i.d. in prison
in Queensland
• People may not have their
intellectual disability
identified (Hayes 2000)
• Discontinuation of support
from Disability Services
As people who are gullible
• Used by others to
violate institutional
rules (Glaser & Deane
• Victims of verbal,
physical, sexual, and
financial abuse
As people who are dangerous
• Parole boards may still
equate intellectual
disability with criminality
(NSWLRC 1994)
• Services reluctant to
provide support to people
upon release
• Use of psychotropic
medication, restraint and
isolation to control
As people who are burdens
• May be in prison because
seen as a burden to
• Difficulties understanding
routine and procedure treated as rule infractions
(Hall 1992)
• Incite conflict through
failure to understand
personal space and
Further Questions and
• How far have we progressed since Lennie’s time?
• Need for research on perspectives of people with
I.d., female prisoners with I.d., efficacy of
rehabilitation programs, prevalence and
identification of prisoners with I.d.
• More collaboration needed between disability
services and correctional services
To A Mouse
(Burns 1759-1796)
“The best laid plans of
mice and men
Gang aft agley (= often
go wrong)
And leave us naught but
grief and pain
For promised joy”

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