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Singing, Sex and Silence on a Victorian prison island

Katy Roscoe

Mrs Macpherson, ‘Cockatoo Island, Sydney’ (1856-7), courtesy of State Library of NSW.

CW: homophobia, sexual abuse.

In 1857, Reverend Charles Roberts, writing under a pseudonym, wrote into a local newspaper, The Empire, complaining that the shouting and singing of inmates from Cockatoo Island Prison was drifting over the harbour to the Sydney suburbs. Worse, it was interrupting his families’ prayers on the Sabbath,

He wrote:

Disorder on Cockatoo Island

“On Sunday last myself and my family were at a distance of nearly a quarter of a mile, we were disturbed by a frightful yelling and hallooing”

He went on to complain that “on calm evenings, I hear most distinctly singing and chorusses until a late hour”. (Empire, 26 Sept. 1857)

Philip Doyne Vigors, ‘Convicts Letter writing at Cockatoo Island: Canary Birds! NSW’ (1849), courtesy of the State Library of NSW.

By this time in the nineteenth century, silence had become foundational to ‘proper’ prison discipline. In 1820s New York ‘the silent system’ was introduced at Auburn prison, enforcing complete silence 24 hours a day. Prisoners were only allowed to listen to the gospel in weekly-services or during visits from the Chaplain. This was supposed to protect them from ‘moral contamination’ by fraternising with other criminals.

Cockatoo Island was far from a silent prison. The inmates’ days were marked by the clanging of pickaxes on sandstone, the blasts of explosives felling cliffs, and the sloshing of water against their legs as they finished building a dry dock for repairing ships (which opened in September 1857).

However, it was the noise of prisoners in their barracks at night that most worried the Victorian public. Another witness “G.W.H” wrote directly to the Empire’s editor Henry Parkes, complaining that the young lads were mixing with hardened ‘old lags’ and that ‘touch, pitch and defilement’ (Ecclesiastes 13:1) was bound to follow.

G.W.H. described a fictional 18-year old prisoner being sent to Cockatoo Island:

‘[He is] compelled to co-mingle with villains… compelled to the disgusting recital of their deeds of darkness… and sleep is banished from his sorrowful eyes by the wild chorus of vulgar, ribald and licentious songs’. (Board of Inquiry into the Management of Cockatoo Island, 1858)

Here, again, noisy singing drifts across space, crossing boundaries between prisoners’ bunks and between the prison island and the city. For Victorians, unwilling to name directly the ‘unspeakable’ crime of homosexuality, bawdy songs become a metaphor for illicit, sexual acts that took place in darkened barracks. Yet, the censure of male-on-male sex full stop renders the question of consent – was he “compelled”? – unknowable.

This speaking without saying persisted in an Select Committee into Cockatoo Island prison in 1861, which was chaired by Henry Parkes (the newspaper editor who had kicked off these inquiries). Prisoners testified that homosexual acts took place, but insisted that they had heard rumours, rather than having witnessed them directly. They described the prison slang for effeminate boys (‘sailor boys’ ‘sprigs of fashion’, or pejoratively ‘bleeding nuns’). But they displaced themselves from the room, by having heard rather than seen or touched anyone. Their testimony is silenced by the enforced morality of the board of inquiry.

As a historian, it can be frustrating to be confronted with all this “silence” at the heart of all this noise. What songs were sung, stories told and tender words shared by these Victorian prisoners is sadly lost to time.

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‘Feeling’ feelings

Kate Herrity

Privileging the sensory has implications for how we understand how we know as well as what we know. The process of working with our patient, pioneering contributors has been a lesson (as we hope to discuss elsewhere) in the kind of editors we want to be as well as how significant a departure this presents from academic convention. As the most junior and least experienced of the three of us this was particularly valuable for me. I have contributed to edited and reviewed works but never before assumed this role. For me it has been formative; an intimate process of collaborative and supportive exploration rather than distanced and dictatorial. I hope this is reflected in people’s engagement with the book. I am not about to reflect in depth on the editorial process here but rather a particular, recurring, issue that prompted further interrogation.  I have spoken about the distinction between feeling and feelings before[1]. I may well do so again as I try to better understand the role of the sensory in prison social spaces, though there are broader implications here for epistemology and emotion in criminal justice and criminology.

Foregrounding the sensory brought the distinction between senses and emotion, as well as between privileging the sensory and reflexivity in to stark relief. Prompting academics to reflect on this more sharply demarcated the distinctions between these facets of knowledge and experience, and in so doing added clarity to both. There are linguistic obstacles as well as cultural ones that must be vaulted or circumvented when asking of someone “what did that ‘feel’ like?” but reaching further than whether they were happy or sad, safe or unsettled to what was mediating those emotions in the social world they sought to understand, and what reflecting on ‘feeling’ those ‘feelings’ taught them about those spaces. Rather than drawing on research on the complex relationship between emotion and sensory perception[2], I want to reflect on rather more direct demonstrations of this relationship by using a couple of examples of the surprising ways this has manifested.

I was in the second year of my PhD when I presented at the carceral geography conference in snowy Birmingham:[3] https://carceralgeography.com/conferences/2nd-international-conference-for-carceral-geography-11-12-dec-2017-university-of-birmingham/conference-programme-2017/1b-health-and-wellbeing/. I was nervous at finding myself in such illustrious company. This was one of few presentations I had given at that point, and, I think, the first time I attempted to illustrate the significance of a focus on sound by banging on furniture. I had pillaged our kitchen for suitable tools – a pestle and a souvenir bottle opener – for makeshift percussion. I reached the appropriate point in my talk and dutifully banged out the different rhythms of cell-door banging as a means of exploring the meanings they signified. Sound, I argued was a site both of symbolic violence and power contestations, a means of expressing dissent or warning from those captive and invisible (though not inaudible) behind the door. I had failed to appreciate quite what potency this might have for someone in the audience suddenly transported back to prison by my amateur banging on the table. He taught me a valuable lesson that day about how sound can traverse time[4]. He also taught me about my insensitivity. I was torn between trying to offer comfort and carve him space to process his visible emotion. He was keen to impress upon me that he was not in a negative place, but rather that the banging had “taken him back there” with a forcefulness he had not anticipated any more than I. What I interpreted as distress was, rather, a man fielding a sudden deluge of memories, smells, textures, sounds, of a time he had left behind but was with him still.

Approaching the end of my fieldwork I attended a conference (the Crime and Control ethnography symposia are always worth it if you can[5]). Many of my friends were there and one in particular, a year behind me, was struggling with her fieldwork. She felt uncomfortable in the prison space but couldn’t work out why. She felt guilty when it came time to leave and struggled to reconcile that with the genuine relationships she had forged throughout her time as both researcher and volunteer. Others speak far more eloquently than I about the contradictions of drawing on your stranger status and humanity to equal if conflicting degree as researcher. In the context of prisons where emotions of all in the community run so very high, this can be painfully intense. If ethnography is about stories then the doing of it is surely about the relationships and meanings they serve to underscore. I wanted to offer her comfort. I do not think it is incidental that I drew on sensory experience, the feeling, in an attempt to offer comfort and support to her emotional state, her feelings, as a way of telling her she was not alone:

https://leicester.figshare.com/articles/Rhythms_and_routines_Sounding_order_and_survival_in_a_local_men_s_prison_using_aural_ethnography/762884 [6]

Leaving (for M)

Emerging from the airlock
Metallic clunk; The freedom signal
Ringing in my ears
Quickening pace
My nostrils hungry for that biting burst of evening air
I speed to slough that lingering scent
The burning afterimage of this place
That clings beneath the skin I vainly scrub
With soap and wine.
Is this enough?

I stand in shitty remnants of your rage
I walk your vale of cries and shouts
Your bangs and crashes
Laugh too loud
My pleasure in your company clear
I hope for better futures for you
Far from here
And yet I fear
This isn’t going to be enough

Wandering aimless through the streets
I see your face on cardboard-cloistered,
Doorway bundles
Watch your ghostly presence weave amongst
The living
As they mindless tread
My memories scar those grubby pavement beds
And now you haunt my fitful sleep
I know

This cannot ever be enough

The sensory is both source and conduit for an array of knowledge, as well as a powerful medium of emotion. Sound – and the sensory more broadly – offers a means of collapsing distance in time, space and between people, evoking shared memories and experience. Privileging the sensory creates a site for scrutinising the social function of shared emotions summoned by it. The relationship between sensory and emotional realms is intimately intertwined but closer interrogation demands we expand our vocabulary to recognise they are nevertheless distinct. Only in so doing are we able to get within, amongst and underneath these facets of our social world, to develop our ability to interrogate the ‘feel’ of our ‘feelings’.


[1] Herrity, K. (2020) “Some people can’t hear, so they have to feel”: exploring sensory experience and collapsing distance in prisons research” Early Career Academics Network Bulletin, Howard League for Penal Reform January 2020, No. 43 https://howardleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/ECAN-Autumn-2019-final-draft-2.pdf

[2] E.g. Kelley, N.J.,Schmeichal, B.J. (2014) “The effects of negative emotions on sensory perception: fear, but not anger decreases tactile sensitivity” Frontiers in Psychology, Vol.5, Pp942. Goodman, S. (2010) Sonic Warfare: Sound, affect and the ecology of fear. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press

[3] This is an audio recording of a talk given at the Second Carceral geography conference (Herrity, K. (2017) “Sound, Space and Time: A rhythmanalysis of prison life” 2nd Carceral Geography Conference, University of Birmingham, December 2017.

[4] David Toop (2010) speaks explores this in Sinister resonance: the mediumship of the listener. London Bloomsbury. Sound, he argues, is a haunting.

[5] https://crimeandcontrolethnography.wordpress.com/2018/06/19/crime-and-control-ethnography-symposium-2018-call-for-participants/ Here’s a link to the 2018 call in Glasgow which was class.

[6] Soundfiles accompanying my thesis (within the thesis the reader is directed to listen at specific points of the discussion. I include them here for those who have not heard a prison soundscape: Herrity, Katherine Zoe (2019): Rhythms and routines: Sounding order and survival in a local men’s prison using aural ethnography. University of Leicester. Dataset. https://doi.org/10.25392/leicester.data.7628846.v1

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The Power of Touch

Jason Warr

I stand there, powerless.

I feel the hands on me, rubbing along my arms, my collar, my chest.

Moving down my body. I grit my teeth.

The unwelcome hands continue their slow journey around my body, assured, strong, practised, down over my stomach, around the waist of my scratchy, well worn, aged and threadbare jeans, down my outer thighs, halting, returning, towards my groin.

I brace myself.

I feel vulnerable. Small.

I want to punch them in their face, to fight them, to take back some power … but I don’t. I acquiesce.

I let it happen.

Anger.

Shame.  

The hands stop.

He says: “Next”.

I amble on, hating myself.

Power. The prison is a manifestation of power. In its very fibre, in its practices, and in its purpose the prison is designed around the issue of power. That power is often encoded not just in the practices and ethos of the institution but also in the manner in which it subjects you to specific forms of sensory experience. Perhaps the most blatant of which is touch. As a prisoner you are forced to endure the touch of powerful others on a daily basis. There is little gentleness, no thoughtfulness, no comfort to these touches. In the texture of this touch is woven the matrices of penal power that you, as a prisoner, are now forced to endure. You are subjected to multiple bodily violations of person and privacy on a daily basis. Leaving the wing, leaving the workshop, gym, exercise yard, library, education department, medical wing, every breach of a portal means you are subject to a search, a rub down. More hands, unwanted hands, rubbing, pawing, at you.

It is not just in prison though that someone like me is subject to the hostile touch of powerful others. The vignette above is about prison but could, just as easily, have been any of the times it occurred on road. As a person of colour, a person of mixed ethnicity, it was a reality that shaped my growing up. A reality not shared by many of my friends. I was 8 years old when I suffered my first stop and search at the hands of police. I was walking home from school with one of best friends of the time, Mark. Mark was slight, light brown hair, blue eyed. Not me, I was what they used to call ‘swarthy’. A police car swerved and mounted the pavement next to us. The officer said I ‘looked’ like someone they were looking for. They sent Mark on, leaving me alone with them. I don’t remember the words but I remember the hands, the touch, the power. It was not the last time that I, a child of indiscernible ethnicity, would be subjected to the powered touch of a search. I never told my family about this, I was ashamed. It became a regularity throughout my childhood. As it does for so many of us, but so few of you.

For many of us there is a continuum here. Power is physically imposed upon us through unwanted touch. If you react to that touch negatively, you prove the threat that you are, and that just invites more hands, more unwanted touch, more powerful others imposing their will, and the power of the state, on you. They touch. You are powerless. There is no preventing it. How many videos do we now see on a daily basis of white police officers stopping young people of colour, touching, escalating? If you are lucky this intimate intrusion stops there, something that filters its way into the seething bank of shamed memories that shape your habitus. If you’re not lucky then it continues, out of sight, in the van, the station, the custody suite. The power increases, as does the intimacy of the touching and searching. However, sometimes it does not stop there. Sometimes it carries on, for decades …

I feel the hands on me

You never really come to terms with it. You do become inured and conditioned into the routine. Arms up, legs slightly apart, passive, waiting for the touching to commence. To cease. Move along. The person behind you undergoing the same routine humiliation of practised indifference. Power. Theirs. Your lack of it. In every touch is a reinforcement of your status, your position, your vulnerability, your lack of autonomy, the deprivation of your freedom. Your status is encoded within those touches. Day in, day out the touches come and tell you who you are, what you are, but more importantly, what you are not, who you are not.

In the 12 years I spent in prison I was subjected to more than 8,700 rub-down searches. That was 8,700 times that I was forced to endure the hands of someone else being placed, with power, on my body. 8,700 times I was forced into bodily acquiescence. That’s not even including strip searches. Its one of those prison tropes that you see replicated in the prurient prison films that litter our popular media, the reception process and the strip search. These are often inaccurate and played for the fetishistic and voyeuristic gaze of true crime connoisseurs. The reality is that people, persons, our fellow citizens, are those who are subjected to these searches. Not just in reception either. During my years in prison I was strip searched at least twice a week, 52 weeks a year, for 12 years. That is more than 1,000 times where I was forced to take my clothes off in front of two officers. Nearly every visit. Every piss test (that’s a whole different story of voyeuristic discomfort and sensory horror). Remove your clothes they say, you do. There is a routine, a ritual, that is designed to ‘preserve your dignity’ – it doesn’t. It doesn’t take away that your nakedness, physical, emotional, psychological, is being coerced, under threat of punitive action.

Nakedness, coerced. It is a strange sensory experience, the ritualised humiliation of handing over your clothes to be rummaged, of exposing your naked skin to the cold and fetid air and judgemental gaze. A gaze that takes on a securitised caress. You stand there, skin exposed, and can feel, physically feel, their gaze on you. Again, it is the imposition of power and rendering of powerlessness. It is always uncomfortable, awkward. The sensations come thick and fast and are, eventually, just as quickly dismissed, ignored. Ordinarily the sensory data you are subjected to, as an embodied entity passing through the corporeal world, inform your interaction with that world. However, in the midst of a strip-search the overwhelming sensory experience is one denied, ignored (as much as possible), best forgotten. Pushed to the back of your mind to lie, in the dark, festering away with all the other resentments the prison has inflicted upon you. There they conjoin with all those seething memories of imposed touch that were inflicted upon you on road, by the creeping, groping hands of different authorities.

Anger. Shame.

I have been lucky in my life to never have been physically or sexually abused as we commonly define those offences. So many who come into contact with our criminal justice system, from police to prison, have not been so lucky. So many have had lives blighted by prolonged and continual abuse of every physical description. How do they experience the coerced nakedness, the unwanted touch, the imposition of powerful hands? What consequence does inflicting this breach of bodily autonomy have, what long term effects on psyche and self? What does it do to those who do the searches? Does it desensitise them to the laying of hands on powerless others? Do they even recognise the powerlessness of the ‘other’? This is a sensory practice/experience that we, as a society, inflict on 10s of thousands of our citizens every single day – yet we have little understanding of what effect this may have. We perhaps need to think about that …    

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A rich sort of quietness: Experiencing Iceland’s open prisons as a researcher

Francis Pakes

It’s night. But it’s light. I need to go to the toilet. I get up, leave my room, leave the door slightly ajar and make my way to the toilets. It’s so quiet. So quiet, even, that flushing the toilet somehow feels as if I’m creating a racket! I’m wearing shorts, flip flops and a T-shirt and I’m thinking, “well, in prison I’m a researcher 24-7” so I pop in to see the sole officer in charge overnight. I say ‘hi’, and he says ‘hæ’. Friendly but short. No conversation ensues. I trundle back into my room and fall asleep again. The next thing I notice is noise in the corridor. It is 7.30am. Breakfast time. I had slept very well.

Let’s rewind.  I’m in the middle of doing fieldwork in a remote open prison in Iceland. It is basically a sheep farm with less than 20 prisoners who are in the latter stages of their sentence. Upon arrival I was given a room, the key (like everyone else) and I, as much as possible, lived the daily routine of the prisoners. This project was quite some time in the making. I am forever grateful to the Iceland prison authorities who allowed me to do this, both prison governors and, more than anybody, the many prisoners who shared their views, some of their emotions, their frustrations and also some laughs with me.

Whilst I had been excited about this project for some time, on the scenic drive from Keflavík Airport to the prison, my nerves started to jangle. Once over half way, the landscape becomes desolate with very few buildings or people. There are vistas of fields, rocks, waterfalls and streams. But I’m no longer seeing it. My mind is racing and I’m driving ever more slowly. My emotions are basically shutting down my senses.

And then, suddenly, I’m very very near. The prison is situated across a bay. If you know where to look, it suddenly comes into view, as a tiny set of white-ish buildings across the water. I stop the car and get out. It’s windy. I’m looking across the bay and realise that the prison is maybe 5 or 6 kilometres away. I’ll be there in about 15 minutes. I’m very nervous now.

How does a prison researcher walk in on day one? With hindsight, I don’t think I thought about this moment quite enough. It is early evening. And in this (very) open prison, you can simply walk in as it lacks even the most basic of security features. I take my shoes off and am welcomed by a prisoner, a guy who I have met before on a previous visit. Turns out he was given the task of looking after me. He shows me to my room, gives me a towel, and talks incessantly. It is weird. Someone is actually trying to make me feel at home. We played a game of snooker later that week in the basement room (yes, this prison has a fully equipped snooker table). I won. I don’t know if I should, but I feel a bit bad for it.

Prisons frequently are an assault on the senses. This was emphatically described by prison reformer John Howard in the 18th century and it still applies today. Prisons often sadly continue to be loud and stinking places. And at the same time they can be sensory-depriving too: it’s often a case of either too much or too little. But here in Iceland in this open prison there is a rich sort of quietness, at least at night. At night it’s quiet and light, as it hardly gets dark in Iceland in June. It is kinder to the senses.

It seems selfish to say that this project was a rare opportunity. But it was. I knew that in terms of prison ethnography, my role of quasi-prisoner, with a room, who did the same daily routine as prisoners was going to be interesting. To also stay overnight (full board, as it were) was quite special. And I wanted to make it count. I wanted to ‘get’ these prisons as best I could and experience every minute intensely. I wanted to understand the prisoners and their perspectives on this place, and the staff too, as deeply as possible.

I had thought of the night time in advance. Beforehand, I had planned to somehow stay ‘alert’, for any overnight happenings, ready for some nocturnal ethnography. I had assumed that I would not sleep well, and that my subconscious ear would always be listening out. But it just didn’t happen. If anything occurred, I slept right through it. That is what I mean with a rich sort of quietness: it was more than the absence of noise. It allowed me to sleep.

The bedtime silence frequently came after a phase of noise: of men playing on their playstations with the doors often left open. The corridor sounded like an arcade. Loud, but leisurely loud. And then, from some time between 10 and 11pm: silence. Bedtime silence. Thick silence.

The richest silence I felt in the week I was at this prison was in a communal place: the toilets. One early evening I was about to step into the toilets. But I sensed immediately I was interrupting something. One prisoner was cutting another’s hair. It was silent. It was serious. It was also, in a way, intimate, between the two men. A silence in such an intimate setting is different. I felt an intruder. Some silences are meant to shut you out. I got the hint and left.

But sleep well, I did.

But maybe that was just me. However peaceful this place was to the senses, there was, I sensed, a lot of worry. Many prisoners worried about returning to society post-sentence. Foreign nationals talked about possible deportation. Many prisoners engaged in impression management while they were in prison, so that, for instance, small children would not find out about their whereabouts. Any prisoner, anywhere, in whatever prison, has a lot to worry about. While the quietness may be conducive to sleep, worry certainly isn’t. There is plenty that keeps prisoners awake at night, and this prison, so different from most prisons that I have seen, in that respect, may not be all that different from elsewhere.

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On the sensory discomfort and voyeurism of a “prison tour”

Janani Umamaheswar

A few years ago, I took a group of students in a penology undergraduate course to visit a maximum-security men’s prison in the U.S. I believed that this experience was particularly important for my undergraduate students, many of whom unquestioningly accepted American punitive sentiment, and few of whom had any first-hand contact with the penal system. These were students who infrequently expressed compassion toward incarcerated persons and who felt that people in prison deserved whatever deprivations they encountered while incarcerated because they had broken the law. In arranging the visit to the prison, my hope was to encourage students to confront, however distantly, what it feels like to be in prison, and to thereby cultivate a sense of empathy and understanding among my students for those experiencing incarceration. For my students, the trip initially represented little more than an exciting adventure: After all, when again would they have the opportunity to step inside an actual, lived-in prison cell?

The mood in the bus as we traveled to the prison was cheerful and lively, and the students inquisitively took in their surroundings as we pulled up outside the prison. (We were not allowed to pull into the prison grounds themselves for security reasons.) Unlike the women’s prison that I had recently visited for my own research, there were no tree-lined driveways here, no well-manicured lawns, no quaint, cottage-like buildings that almost made you feel like you were on a college campus. Instead, there was a short driveway leading up to a single concrete building. As we disembarked, the students noticed the guards that were stationed high in a tower next to this building, guns in hand. My students immediately became nervous, especially as it became clear that nobody was quite sure where we were supposed to go next. I tentatively led the group toward the main building as the students anxiously watched the guards, who in turn cautiously watched us. As soon as we entered the main prison building, all of us became even more tense. The lobby was dimly lit and there was a great deal of background noise as doors were buzzed open and banged shut. The students watched uneasily as visitors walked through a metal detector and were frisked before being granted entry into the prison wings. I had received a list of strict instructions from the prison regarding permissible clothing, and I hoped that nobody had (knowingly or unknowingly) violated any of the facility’s rules, of which there were so many that I had lost count: No sleeveless clothes, no midriff-baring shirts, no short skirts, no shorts, no shirts with writing on them, no khaki-colored clothes, no orange-colored clothes, no hoodies, no bras with underwires…the list went on. Each student passed uncertainly through the metal detector, hoping not to hear the jarring beep that meant that they would have to repeat the process after identifying and removing whatever object set off the detector. Fortunately, all the students were permitted to enter the prison, and our “tour” of the facility began with our “guide,” a muscular, White, male correctional officer. Immediately, the students realized that being in prison meant that we could not simply walk through the facility as we wished, even if we were led by a correctional officer: A door needed to be buzzed open at the end of each hallway before we could enter the next one. We crammed into each narrow, dimly-lit passage and waited (increasingly impatiently) for a guard in a nearby monitoring room to buzz open the next door so we could escape the tight confines of one hallway only to enter another one. It felt like prison was little more than an endless maze of dim, suffocating, windowless hallways. The students’ excitement was already beginning to wane as they realized how much of our visit would involve simply standing and inhaling stale air in empty, dingy hallways.

Finally, we reached the point in the tour about which the students were most excited: We were about to visit a cell that was currently inhabited, but that had been evacuated for the purpose of our visit. We entered a particularly dark wing of the prison that had no natural light whatsoever. Bare bulbs illuminated the hallways just enough that we could see a row of metal bars on cell doors and nothing else. The men who were locked inside these cells stuck their arms out of the bars and used some sort of reflective material to see us at the front of the hallway. We were told that they were under strict orders not to talk to us, and a strange silence settled in the hallway as students uncomfortably watched the men in their cells quietly try to catch a glimpse of our group. As we observed the incarcerated men’s efforts to see who we were, we were suddenly deeply unsettled by our own freedom to move away and with the growing voyeuristic feel of the visit.

Our discomfort sharpened as we approached the prison cell that we were allowed to enter. At the beginning of yet another dark hallway, we turned toward the narrow opening that served as entry into the cell. Several students had to duck their heads to enter the cell, and as they stepped into it, they were startled by its small size.  How could two men fit in such a small space, they wondered aloud. The correctional officer then told them that even more than two men occupied this space at times. My students grew visibly upset as they contemplated the experience of sharing such a small space with so many other adults. Taller students quickly exited the cell when they realized that they were too large to fit inside comfortably. All of us noted with sadness the small but meaningful ways in which the residents of the cell had personalized their living space with a handful of mundane objects: A few photographs, a cereal box, a string with a small sheet that presumably represented the men’s futile attempts at preserving some semblance of privacy. We saw the toilet in the corner of the cell and could not bear to consider the prospect of using the toilet in the presence of multiple people. One by one, we exited, relieved to leave the confines of the tiny cell and to end what felt like a tremendous invasion of privacy. As we left, we were led through another series of hallways into an area that overlooked one of the prison’s outdoor spaces. This particular outdoor area was composed of small, fenced-in spaces that could not be described as anything other than cages. As we watched men pace in these fenced-in areas through a large window, I could see my students’ sense of uneasiness and awkwardness heighten even more. They tried to avert their gaze but could not help staring at the men restlessly pacing up and down by themselves in their tiny, fenced-in spaces. Some students would later recall, with a great deal of embarrassment, how inappropriate it felt to be watching these men as if they were animals at a zoo. Finally, we were led to another wing of the prison. Here, we were relieved finally to see some natural light, but in sharp contrast to the eerie darkness and silence of the previous wings, this wing was incredibly, disturbingly loud.  My students could not hear each other above the overlapping sounds of clanging cell doors, shouting, fighting, and singing that all contributed to a distressingly cacophonous setting. Over and over again, my students tried to envision what it would be like to live in such a noisy, chaotic environment. How could anybody sleep, or even think, with so much noise?

In our post-visit reflections, all of us described feeling like an immense weight was lifted the moment we stepped outside the prison. Although we had only been inside the facility for a short period, many students could not believe how good the warm sunshine felt when we exited. In fact, in essays and classroom discussions, many students described feeling claustrophobic in the prison, even though we were only there for an hour or two. As I reflected on my own decision to take my students to visit the prison, I was conflicted about whether it was a good idea in the end. On the one hand, the visit made my students understand the depths of the sensory pains of being in prison—its darkness, its noise, its loneliness, and its tediousness—and it forced all of us to confront the immense privilege we had in being able to leave the prison when we wanted to leave. On the other hand, the intense voyeurism of the visit left all of us feeling deeply unsettled. Ultimately, I was (and still am) uncomfortable with my own role in further eroding the tiny modicum of privacy that incarcerated men have by turning these men’s prison lives and living spaces into spectacles that were passively observed by outsiders who then seamlessly returned to their lives after the visit was over.

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Staying in touch

Natalie Booth

A number of claims have been made regarding the importance of prisoners staying in touch with their family through prison visits, firstly from a humanitarian perspective of enabling family members to see each other, but also regarding the impact of maintaining family ties for successful rehabilitation, reintegration into society and reduced re-offending (Dixey and Woodall, 2012: 29[i]).

There is now a wealth of literature suggesting that, where possible, people in custody should be encouraged and supported to ‘stay in touch’ with their relatives, friends and/or significant others. Yet, in the context of prison, the phrase ‘stay in touch’ cannot and should not be understood in the literal sense. Aside from a short embrace at the start (and perhaps at the end) of a prison visit, physical interaction – touch – between a prisoner and a loved one is not generally allowed. This is perhaps why Dixey and Woodall have suggested that staying in touch is more likely focussed on another of our senses – sight.

A recent trip to the visitor’s centre of a female prison left me thinking more about the sensory aspects of visiting. Initially, I was drawn to the look of the prison – the institutional ooze of the place – the lino floors that squelch with every step, and the generic, grey painted walls, the ‘fire retardant’ doors and those low squishy chairs with scratchy fabric that you get both in the doctor’s waiting area and our university offices. They’re normally a bland colour – brown, beige or, if you’re lucky, green!

There’s also a smell. Stuffiness underscored with bleach or other cleaning materials. The smell might take you to other institutional settings – a hospital or, in my case, roaming my school corridors after hours, after the cleaners had been. While I talk about a recent trip to the visitors centre, I know this isn’t the first time my senses have been enlivened by the visitors centre. There’s no doubt my memory has previously transported back to those school corridors. However, it was the first time I really considered touch.

Feel. Stroke. Press. Hold. Pat. Embrace. Cuddle. Hug. Lean. Snuggle. Touch.

Tactility and physicality were brought even more strongly into focus during my discussion with a visitor. This greying male visitor half-jokingly remarked that ‘the officers touch me more when I come here than my wife of 30 years!’ While at first we both chuckled at this comment, when our eyes connected, we both felt the sting of truth which underscored his observation of ‘the visit’.  Indeed, the pat down search from the officers – much like that which you might experience at an airport – is likely strong competition for the short embrace he was permitted with this wife when he first entered the visiting hall.

This competition was twofold. First, in its duration. Second, in the level of intimacy it involved.

I am referring to a ‘normal’, social visit at a prison which likely lasts around an hour and takes place fortnightly for sentenced prisoners. It is not my intention to consider what his statement signals about prison security. Instead, the discussion here focuses on a reflection on the interactions, connections, communications which are – and which are not – possible within this space. Recalling visits I have attended, I find myself questioning afresh some of the observed interactions…

How a young couple, used to living together, used to sleeping next to each other every night, copes with a 5 second embrace once every 14 days? How they navigate sitting across a table from one another for an hour when they’re accustomed to snuggling up on a sofa for whole evenings at a time? How a brief, brush of their hands out of view of the prison officer reminds them of the time when they could walk hand-in-hand?

What about a mother seeking to hold, to calm, soothe and help ameliorate the pain, the vulnerability, the worry their adult incarcerated child is displaying? What happens when a sob escapes? When tears trickle down a cheek waiting to be wiped away by Mum who, instead, cannot reach across the table to fulfil what she might feel is her intrinsic, maternal responsibility?

How must it feel to parent in prison? To be a parent who may be allowed to hold a young child on their knee while stationed at their designated table in the visits hall, but who cannot get up, chase, play, run, tumble or jump around with their young child in the children’s play area? Who cannot lift their child up and make noises and gestures which turn their child into an imaginary aeroplane? Or bounce them around to the tune of ‘the Grand old Duke of York’?

Visits contain intrinsically personal moments, feelings and experiences in a particularly stark, institutional and very public space. I am not suggesting that all physicality appropriate within the home or private spaces would be – or could be – directly replicated within the social visiting environment.  Yet, this does not mean that opportunities for tactility are not appropriate at any time or place within the prison.

To some degree or other there are existing opportunities for tactility in prisons. In prisons overseas some couples are permitted conjugal visits. Whereas, many prisons serving England and Wales offer extended visiting days, sometimes called ‘family days’, ‘lifer days’, or ‘children’s days’. Some prisons have overnight facilities for mothers and children[ii], while others have recently introduced family rooms[iii]. After the initial searching, security at these events is generally reduced meaning that movement and interaction is more readily available[iv]. This includes opportunities for appropriate (e.g. non-sexual) physical contact.

Importantly, we should not get into the habit of arguing that the availability of some extended visits in some prisons serving England and Wales provides exemption from questioning the significance of touch…or its absence. This is especially relevant when there are so many discussions in research and policy emphasising the benefits of ‘contact’ for individuals experiencing a period of enforced separation by imprisonment[v]. We are talking about husbands, wives, partners, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters and friends who, in the prison, may be trying to continue performing their roles and, in the future, may wish to resume previously held identities. How might increased tactility aid these ventures?

Beginning to engage in this kind of sensory questioning has – at least for me – raised more questions than it has answered. At an extreme, I am wondering whether it would be possible for people separated by imprisonment to stay in touch by actually staying in touch…


[i] Dixey, R., and Woodall, J., (2012) The significance of ‘the visit’ in an English category-B prison: views from prisoners, prisoners’ families and prison staff. Community, Work and Family, 15 (1), pp.29-47.

[ii] e.g. Acorn House at HMP Askham Grange.

[iii] e.g. recently created family rooms at HMP Oakwood.

[iv] See: Booth, N., (2018) Family Matters: A critical examination of family visits for imprisoned mothers and their children. Prison Service Journal, 238. Available: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/psj/prison-service-journal-238.

[v] e.g. Lord Farmer., (2019) The Importance of Strengthening Female Offenders’ Family and other Relationships to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime. London: Ministry of Justice.  

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Close, closer

Kate Herrity

It is a prisoner who informs staff that Stevie has cut himself: “He’s pouring blood. It’s all over his cell floor. Someone needs to go see him”. He informs several members of staff, talking to all and no one in particular. Catching my eye. His own arms criss-crossed with self-inflicted cuts. Shallow but plentiful. We discuss this at another point, comparing scars and patterned welts on limbs offered up for scrutiny. Puckered scar tissue re-opened. “Why?” asks an officer. “I don’t know, I feel strange” he says. He makes his wound talk for me, squeezing his separated flesh together to form oozing lips. “Hello” he says in a high-pitched voice, laughing, whether at my discomfort or his own macabre delight I can’t tell. I tell him to remove his grubby blood-coated fingers from the undressed wound. When he’s moved to the observation cell his hand appears between glass and wall waving, calling me for attention. I realise, painfully, I can’t respond to it… I tell him I can’t. “come talk to me..”. I can’t. (fieldnotes)

The discomforting collapse between public and private spheres of life within the total institution is a familiar theme in prison sociology. Goffman devotes significant passages of asylums[1] to describing the sensory experience of being at such enforced close quarters with other human beings in evocative and discomforting detail. Dwelling on the emotional labour of navigating the traumatic and intimate spaces of prison alongside those who live and work there runs the risk of lapsing in to self-indulgence. What these embodied aspects of social experience have to tell us about life in carceral spaces, however, warrants further exploration.

Davey – battling his own demons in this regard – expresses irritation about the imposition on me. Characterising self-harm as largely a bid for attention, his implication is that forcing me to bear witness to their injuries is both ill-mannered and manipulative. A macabre display designed to shock and upset. It is uncomfortable being subject to this grotesque power play, with all the meagre opportunities for exercising autonomy and control it extends to those engaging in it. Leaning in to my discomfort and assuming the role of emotional mark[2], is instructive in a multiplicity of ways. I do not mean to imply a cold cynicism on the part of those in distress and self-harming, but rather to indicate the complexity and nuance of meanings assigned to behaviour in this most particular of spaces. There is a brutal, enforced intimacy to bearing witness as someone deliberately cuts their flesh. Usual divisions between public and private do not apply in these spaces shaped by intrusive echoes, unsanitary smells and sharp, cold, grubby edges.

There is a paradox too, between this unbidden, searing intimacy and the necessary suppression of my impulse to tend to his wounds, to offer physical comfort. In the absence of gloves and, frequently, trained nursing staff wounds are not dressed or cleaned by anyone. Rules meant to safeguard health and safety impose a jarring distance. Added to this, as an outsider and a woman I cannot touch the men. The unspoken veto on physical contact of the most fleeting and friendly variety makes me keenly aware of my tactility as well as the perceived riskiness of my femaleness. In order to observe the rules and rituals of this place I must subvert my own ethical impulses and stew in the haunting helplessness this imposes. This is where the potency of my powerlessness rests. I must see and feel but cannot act or aid. Proximity takes on additional force here too, and when I spend a night here, I feel the loss of companionship of everyone behind the door.

A prisoner has hurt himself, bleeding profusely. He is moved to a neighbouring cell where he continues to harm himself. His blood spatters the observation hatch and breaches its barrier, dripping down the outside. Abandoned belongings, soiled and bloody lie piled on the spartan floor of the ruined cell which awaits the sluggish attentions of tomorrow’s orderlies. “You might as well see it all if this is what you’re here for”, says an officer, inviting me to join. He retreats along the spur and re-emerges zipping up a shocking white hazmat suit. Staff retch as the smell of blood, warmed by the summer heat, reaches their noses. He refuses care and remains conscious. A trip to hospital would leave two remaining staff. Not taking him anyway will mean additional anxiety for the familiar ritual of the morning count. To much relief he accepts a sugary cup of tea, a breakfast pack having been sought out and fetched in an effort to replace some fluids. He settles, and our footsteps withdraw from their clustering around his cell. Customary routines are resumed (fieldnotes).

Sudden, visceral violent confrontation was ameliorated with cups of tea. The female senior officer and I laughed at the officer donning a hazmat suit, as much for the inadequate barriers against such brutally infectious despair offered by its flimsy material as for the unintended statement of excessive cautiousness it represented. My laughter though, was doing more work than I acknowledged at the time. He too was asking for my discomfort, just as Stevie had done, in challenging me to “see it all”. My greater reluctance to assume the mark for him, rooted in the asymmetry of power between officer and prisoner, amplified the distinction between my perspective of his position and his own. He too, wanted me to bear witness. These instances were not isolated but rather part of a broader range of interactions in which I was invited to hear, see, smell, touch, feel and in so doing transport these visceral impressions with me to breach the walls. There is something in these fleeting and uncomfortable encounters which tells us about the social relations between the closed spaces of the total institution and the outer community from which its realities are largely concealed. Our rigid, creeping, ethical practices reinforce the assumption we outside observers occupy positions of power. Our utility and effectiveness may conversely lie in our willingness to shed it.



[1] Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. St Ives: Penguin

[2] Goffman, E. (1952) “on Cooling the mark out: some aspects of adaptation to failure” Psychiatry Vol.15, no.4 pp451-463. This is not to suggest a ‘fraud’ is being perpetrated, but rather to draw some similarities between this emotional power play and the conditions on which a successful confidence trick rely, namely emotional investment.

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Ghost in the sweatbox

Jason Warr

“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light”

Milton: Paradise Lost (lines: 432-433)

I once spoke to a member of the INLA who said that he had been tortured by the British military in the six Counties. He said the hoods, the sensory deprivation, the shouting, the beatings, the white noise were bad but the real pain, the blot out everything but the very fibres of your body pain, came from the stress positions. Being forced into cramped and crouched positions for extended periods of time so the pain built and built and became all consuming – even after being allowed to move. As I sat there in the cramped Perspex and metal box, knees painfully wedged against the ridged front, arse numb from the hardened seat, broiling in nought but my boxers as the mid-morning sun turned the, only moments before, icy box into an oven, fighting the staccato and nauseating swaying, the caustic smell of ancient vomit, sweat, plastic, and fear burning my nose and throat this is what I thought about. Torture.

As I sit here in my academic office the echoes of that confined sensorium experienced 20+ years ago revisit me. I shiver. I don’t often reflect upon the embodied experiences of my decade plus incarceration, preferring rather to rationalise, examine, evaluate. I did then, and still do impose a distance between myself and my memories. I utilise them to inform research questions and interpretations of the contemporary prison. They are a filter. However, if we wish to explore the true nature of prison, punishment, and processes of social control (that is after all what my job as a prison’s researcher is) it behoves me to find the honesty in my own experiences. To no longer deny my embodied captivity but to explore it in all its sensorial glory. That it is what I have done in our book and what I do here. For the prison is an embodied experience, not just one of mind. The prison doesn’t just impose itself upon the ghost but the machine as well. The ‘penal’ is sensorially encoded into every constraint and restraint that you as a prisoner are subjected to. Bars, bells, bolts, bangs, and boxes – all are experienced through the senses; all communicate a symbolic message – thou art prisoner!

I don’t know whether the INLA man told me the truth about him being one of the ‘Hooded Men’. It mattered not. As I sat there it was that particular story that my discomforted mind dragged forth. Of course, I am not saying my experience was similar to the horrors of ‘enhanced, 5-point, interrogation’ but it was, nevertheless, what my mind conjured as the pain in my knees grew, my back began to cramp, and every thought narrowed to the nagging senses of my twisted and uncomforted body. I had never been inside one of these contraptions before. In the preceding years, though experiencing multiple moves and journeys doubled cuffed and squished between the sweating and nervous bodies of officers, I had been moved in singular roomy vans or cars. Yet here I was, for the first time, going fuck knows where, in a sweatbox.

An apt name. A box of sweat.

Long is the way and hard …

That morning I had been rudely forced from sleep as 4 officers had burst into my cell. Panic. Fear. I had jumped out of bed, sleep blinded, clad in just my boxer shorts, and had swung at the unknown, amorphous, and blurry bodies in front of me. Thems the rules in prison. The hard lessons you learn in Young Offender Institutions – people burst in on you, you fight. There is no choice but to fight. Connection. Crunching impact as fist impacts with something. “Ooogh”. Hands reach, bodies swarm, lights flash, shadows dance, uniforms glimpsed, grips take hold. Pain. Sharp and intense. Arms going one way, head another, kick in the nuts. The swing may have been a bad idea! “What the fuck Guv? What’s going on?” Grips loosen. I’m told to calm the fuck down and comply. I do. I’m told that I’m being moved. I cry that I have a visit that day. I complain. Grips retighten, twisting. Pain. I’m told that my mum will be notified when the wing officers come on in the morning. I struggle but it’s no good. I’m being ghosted.

Ghosting … old prison slang for being forcibly and unexpectedly moved from hosting prison to somewhere else in the estate. A laydown or permanent move. You know not. I did not know why I was being ghosted. I was told that it was for security reasons. I didn’t know where I was being sent. Security reasons. Laughingly they told me I was heading up North. What the fuck?? Ghosting is one of the more pernicious aspects of being in prison. The discombobulation. The anxiety. The stress. The not knowing. The deprivation of certitude. It ruptures what ontological security you may feebly cling to. You do not warrant security; you gave that up when you came to prison.  It creates a schism between you and the spaces you inhabit. Nothing is solid. Nothing permanent. No place is yours. Transportation has a long history in carceral practices. The process itself is designed to both physically and symbolically cast you as an outsider, no longer a member of this society, you belong outside, over there, away from us. Any sense of belonging, of community, is to be denied to you, your civic status revoked. That loss is encoded into the very embodied experience of transportation. Of course, in my ghosting, I am not saying that I am some Jim Jones being sent o’er seas to Botany Bay[1] nor a Sarah Collins heading for Van Dieman’s shore[2]. However, the forced movement, and the status and powerlessness it reinforces, are microscopic instances of the same power being imposed for the same reasons.

So, there I sat, in my boxers, sweating, in pain, rocking and banging about as the vehicle ran roughshod over pothole and bump. Heading to where I knew not in the barren North. Cramped, nauseous, muffled, a world of green blurring by, no comforting concrete to be seen. Wilderness. The interminable minutes stretched into hours. The heat and funk rose as the plastic of the booth, the miniature cell, closed in and compressed the air around me. The stench of me combining with that older undertone of vomit and detergent and heat to make my own self a source of disgust. The roar of the tyres and the diesel engine, pitched to the point of visceral white noise, intruded into my mind; occasionally blocking out the pain emanating from my lower limbs and back. My thoughts, when they came, were bloody and black. I raged. I wanted to hurt anyone associated with that experience. With every passing, torturous mile I became more feral. With every passing mile I shrank, I became less. To survive I needed that journey to end. Even if all that lay at the end was another cell and countless years.

Long is the way …


[1] MacColl, E and Lloyd, A L (1957) ‘Jim Jones at Botany Bay’, Convicts and Currency Lads, Australia: Wattle Records.

[2] See old English Ballad Female Transportation: https://digital.nls.uk/english-ballads/archive/74892349?mode=transcription