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Mathew, D. (2013). Prison language: A psychoanalytic approach to the language of British young offenders in the twenty-first century. Int. Forum Psychoanal., 22(2):95-107.

(2013). International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 22(2):95-107

Prison language: A psychoanalytic approach to the language of British young offenders in the twenty-first century

David Mathew


I present and analyse here the phenomenon of a specific language that was spoken within the walls of a maximum security prison in the south-east of England between 2006 and 2007. In doing so, I look at the adolescent who becomes an offender, and how his language is thereby altered, here exploring language in groups and drawing on Freud and Bion, as well as the sociological contributions of Emery, Goffman and Messerschmidt, and the linguistic contribution of Teresa Labov. Examining the social structures that the language enforced, I examine my own role within and outside the prisoners' language, and explore what the prisoners learned from me and my language, and vice versa. I explore the nature of learning a language inside a prison, and examine the need for a homogeneity of language and the social adhesive in the language used. I look at my experience of one-to-one teaching versus group teaching: specifically, the differences in language used by the prisoners in these different scenarios, and try to determine to what extent language comes from outside influences and what to extent it forms and permutates inside. Using actual examples, I argue that despite the exuberance and inventiveness of the language, its usage follows Freud's “Beyond the pleasure principle,” in that there is an attempt to reduce excitation. Finally, I regard prison language as a psychic retreat, drawing on the work of Steiner, Meltzer, Emanuel, and Leader (among others); and I ask questions not only about the prisoners, but also about the function of learning inside a prison itself, while regarding the language used as a depressive defence. No identifying reference to any single prisoner, or any specific crime, has been included in these pages. The people and the place that are alluded to throughout have been rendered anonymous.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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