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A sense of home in prison?

Annie Bunce

When I sat down to write about my sensory experience in prison I hesitated. I have a lot of rich data from my participants describing their sensory experiences, which have greatly enhanced my knowledge and understanding of the prison environment. But my sensory experience? Having not spent extended periods of time in prison, I wasn’t sure I had a right to claim any significant sensory experience. During my first and most significant experience of prisons research, I spent approximately one year going in and out of four UK prisons interviewing prisoners who were participating in a rehabilitation programme, BrightHorizons, which was the focus of both my PhD and a wider evaluation study. Throughout these interviews I focused closely on what my participants said to me, and I have always considered the stories I heard to be the main source of my own knowledge and understanding. However, when I looked over my fieldnotes and data and reflected on my experience, I was hit with an avalanche of sensory memories. I realised that the sounds and tactile experiences that I had been surrounded by whilst in the prisons had hugely influenced my interpretation and understanding of my participant’s accounts of their experiences of prison and the programme.

BrightHorizons was a dual-purpose initiative that brought groups of at-risk young people into the prison estate and trained teams of prisoners to deliver interventions to them, with the aim of diverting young people away from the criminal justice system and supporting prisoners’ rehabilitation. The programme was delivered in four Cat C/training prisons in South-East England (three men’s, one women’s), with a designated space for the programme to run within each prison. This consisted of the main programme room where all the action happened, a kitchen area and/or office, and a toilet. Two prisons had their own separate portacabin, whilst the other two had designated areas within the main prison. I interviewed prisoners in either the kitchen or office, with the door shut and a view through a small window into the main room.

I was struck by how the sensory experience in the privacy of the interview space was sharply juxtaposed with that in the adjoining room, where the rest of the team were training. The presence and absence of sound and touch was particularly profound and are the focus of this blog post.  

Sound and its absence

I always arrived at BrightHorizons to a cocktail of sounds. There were usually between seven and ten men or women in the room, but it sounded like a far bigger group. There was layer upon layer of different sounds, which got invariably louder as each of the participants clamoured to be heard. Somebody would tell a joke and the room would rumble with laughter, there was a constant stream of what was popularly referred to as “banter”, hands slapped together in high fives and every now and again somebody would break into song or start rapping.If I closed my eyes I could have been standing in a school at playtime, or amongst a group of friends at a festival. I suppose such a lot of noise from a group of near strangers in an unfamiliar environment could have been intimidating, but instead all of these sounds bubbling over one another put me at ease.

Inside the interview room, however, it was the absence of sound that made the most noise. Participants spoke softly and slowly and there were regular, long silences as they considered their answers. The tone of the interviews was mixed- words dripped with sadness and regret, sighs were heaved and voices wobbled and cracked as participants spoke about their past. And then the tone would lighten, become animated and eager, and laughter would be shared as they regaled stories of their families, their time spent on BrightHorizons, and their hopes and dreams for the future. At times the tone was more serious- words carefully chosen, measured (other than the odd expletive!) and laced with frustration, as they reflected on the dark side of being in prison and the less positive aspects of the programme. Throughout the dynamic tones and relative quietness of the interviews, the constant muffled sound of laughter and banter could be heard from the main room- which felt like a reminder of the relief that the group atmosphere provided in the context of such complex individual life stories (Collica, 2010; Marshall and Burton, 2010).

Touch and its absence

Touch is one of the most essential elements of human development, a profound method of communication… and a powerful healing force.” (Bowlby, 1952)

Something that struck me straight away when spending time at BrightHorizons was the centrality of touch in prisoner’s interactions. Stereotypical depictions of the prison centre on iron bars, high razor-topped fences and heavy metal doors, which connote a physical separation, isolation and coldness antithetical to tactility. Touch in prison can be a ‘taboo’ (Houston, 2009). The BrightHorizons space was filled with high fives, back slaps, hugs, fist bumps and handshakes. Touch was obviously a vital aspect of participant’s interactions, and it strikes me as I write this how deeply people in prison must be missing such sensory experience during the current Covid-19 lockdown (Douglas et al., 2020). But it wasn’t just about touching and being touched by others. One warm and sunny day when I was interviewing at the women’s prison, I sat outside the portacabin with the women on the surrounding field at lunchtime, feeling the grass between our toes and the sun on our faces. This felt quite significant for me, as I felt a little bit less of an outsider. From my fieldnotes:

“M popped in while I was writing and said they were sitting in the sun for a bit and I was welcome to join them nice to be involved as can feel a bit awkward when just hanging around not sure where to plonk myself.”

If I closed my eyes I could have been in a garden or park. None of the men’s prisons had green outside space, and this example highlights the differences in sensory experience depending on the specific prison environment the men and women were in. When I asked Anthony what he was most looking forward to upon release he said:

                 “Four and a half years behind a door, just get a bit freedom, even just to do a walk, like I don’t know, walk on some grass or something (laughter).”

Within the realm of the interview touch was far less salient. I sat opposite participants, with a table where the audio recorder was placed physically separating us. Generally, this physical space felt appropriate and comfortable, and did not appear to impede rapport or interview depth. Male participants, particularly, appeared conscious of maintaining boundaries, and were outwardly apologetic and embarrassed if they felt these had been crossed. For example, from one interview:

I:               Okay, that’s interesting, thank you.  So, a little bit about the future now, so you said your parole’s pretty soon –

R:             Sorry –

I:               – that’s okay (laughter).

R:             – I’m playing footsie with you under the table (laughter).  Sorry (laughter).

I:               That’s okay, that’s alright.  So, parole is due relatively soon did you say?

When interviewing female participants the absence of touch felt more palpable. Perhaps due to the shared experience of being female and increased relatedness and empathy associated with this. The interviews with the women were generally of a more emotional nature and I often felt the need to physically comfort them. I felt torn between maintaining professional and ethical boundaries, which made me feel that it would be inappropriate to hug my participants, and responding with care, which made me feel guilty for not huggingthem, as this felt like the most intuitive response to a human being in distress (Dickson-Swift et al., 2007; Cowburn, 2010). I did my best to communicate care, compassion and empathy through my voice and eyes. From fieldnotes:

 “Most harrowing interview yet- she cried at one point and I very nearly did on a few occasions. When she cried I didn’t quite know what to do as was the first time it had happened- she carried on talking and seemed like she wanted to finish what she was saying so I got up and got her some tissues but didn’t interrupt what she was saying and then she kind of pulled herself through it. I wanted to hug her at the end and tell her how amazing she is but I knew that would be inappropriate, so I complimented her on her English (which she was clearly self-conscious about) and wished her all the best instead.”

Concluding thoughts

Tuning into the senses helped me to understand the importance of the programme space in terms of providing sensory and physical stimulation that my participants did not generally experience anywhere else in the prison. This contributed to one of my most dominant findings, that BrightHorizons provided participants with a sense of home. BrightHorizons appeared to function as a sort of sensory bubble. Having somewhere to go where they knew they could relax and unwind gave them the space to recover from general tiredness induced by the prison environment, detracted from the stresses of daily prison life, and made it easier to deal with the rest of the prison (see also Stevens, 2012; Frank et al., 2015):

“it was very like a home, not a home but it’s like a home within prison if you understand what I mean, a go to place to escape sometimes”. (Keira)

Having a space perceived as ‘theirs’ and access to a few ‘home comforts’ seemed to have provided prisoners’ with a community of their own (Stevens, 2014; see also Lloyd et al., 2017), away from the “absolute chaos” (Jonathan) of the rest of the prison:

“To tell you the truth, since I’ve come to BrightHorizons I don’t even think about the rest of the prison.” (Marvin)

But it also occurred to me that there is an element of a sort of sensory time/space trap. Due to the highly structured nature of BrightHorizons and predictability of the prison rules and regimes that programmes are bound by, these sorts of sensory experiences seem likely to lose their significance eventually, as they risk becoming as monotonous as the rest of the prison. This was reflected in my finding that participants who had spent some time on BrightHorizons had found themselves less stimulated and were pursuing other experiences alongside it. Yet they all carried on participating, because groups of youngsters and professionals visiting every week added a much-appreciated element of spontaneity and meant no two weeks were identical. This underscores the importance of people in prison being able to interact with a diverse group of people- including staff, family and friends on the outside, and fellow prisoner- and participate in various creative activities to provide ongoing growth and learning via sensory experience (Houston, 2009; McNeill et al., 2011).

Bowlby, J. (1952) Maternal Care and Mental Health: A report on behalf of the World Health Organisation. Geneva: World Health Organisation.

Collica, K. (2010) ‘Surviving incarceration: two prison-based peer programs build communities of support for female offenders’, Deviant Behavior, 31(4), pp. 314–347. doi: 10.1080/01639620903004812.

Cowburn, M. (2010) ‘Principles, virtues and care: ethical dilemmas in research with male sex offenders’, Psychology, Crime & Law, 16(1–2), pp. 65–74. doi: 10.1080/10683160802621974.

Dickson-Swift, V. et al. (2007) ‘Doing sensitive research: what challenges do qualitative researchers face?’, Qualitative Research, 7(3), pp. 327–353. doi: 10.1177/1468794107078515.

Douglas, M. et al. (2020) ‘Mitigating the wider health effects of covid-19 pandemic response’, BMJ, p. m1557. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m1557.

Frank, V. A. et al. (2015) ‘Inmates’ perspectives on prison drug treatment: A qualitative study from three prisons in Denmark’, Probation Journal, 62(2), pp. 156–171. doi: 10.1177/0264550515571394.

Houston, S. (2009) ‘The touch “taboo” and the art of contact: an exploration of Contact Improvisation for prisoners’, Research in Dance Education, 10(2), pp. 97–113. doi: 10.1080/14647890903019432.

Lloyd, C. et al. (2017) ‘A short ride on the penal merry-go-round: relationships between prison officers and prisoners within UK Drug Recovery Wings’, Prison Service Journal, 230, pp. 3–14.

Marshall, W. L. and Burton, D. L. (2010) ‘The importance of group processes in offender treatment’, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(2), pp. 141–149. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2009.08.008.

McNeill, F. et al. (2011) ‘Inspiring desistance? Arts projects and ‘what works?’’, Justitiele Verkenningen, 37(5), pp. 80–101.

Stevens, A. (2012) ‘“I am the person now I was always meant to be”: Identity reconstruction and narrative reframing in therapeutic community prisons’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 12(5), pp. 527–547. doi: 10.1177/1748895811432958.

Stevens, A. (2014) ‘“Difference” and desistance in prison-based therapeutic communities’, Prison Service Journal, (213), pp. 2–9.

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TALKING ABOUT NOT TALKING: THE SENSES AND THE VICTORIAN PRISON

Richard W. Ireland

I write this as the COVID-19 pandemic still dominates everyday life and where in Wales, from which I write, restrictions on movement and association are still much stricter than in other parts of the UK. The changes that lockdown has made have often been remarked upon in terms of sensory experience; roads are quieter, birdsong more noticeable, air purer etc. The observation that sensory experience is both (inter alia) historically and geographically variable is banal, and will come as no surprise to those interested in this site. But it is the experience of sudden change which I want to pursue here and I will do that in relation to the impact of imprisonment in the nineteenth century. The examples which I will cite here come, unless I indicate otherwise, from my  researches into the daily workings of a particular County Gaol, that of Carmarthen in South-West Wales, between c.1840 and c.1877, but many will find echoes down the corridors of other Victorian prisons.

For those who may be unacquainted with the momentous changes in the criminal justice system in the nineteenth century a few words of introduction may help. In the hundred years between Howard’s State of the Prisons in 1777 and the nationalisation of the prison system in 1877 massive changes took place within state punishment. The punishments of the stocks, pillory and transportation had been abolished and whipping and capital punishment had both been much restricted in their use and brought inside the walls of the prison. Imprisonment had become the focus of the response to crime. Elements of the carceral experience which we now consider axiomatic, such as the cell and the uniform, become generally employed only at this time. The regime to be used in prison, and the aims to be pursued, became a matter of vigorous debate and experimentation.in the period covered by this piece.  The “Separate System”, which had seen its highpoint in the opening of Pentonville in 1842, promoted religious reform through isolation of prisoners in solitary confinement, while the rival “Silent System” allowed association, but forbad any talking between inmates. Both, it can be seen, were defined by limitations of sensory experience. We will have cause to consider both in due course, but I will use consideration of different senses as the framework of my discussion, although it will be clear that there is considerable and unavoidable overlap at times.

Sight

I want to begin here, not with the walls and the cell, but with the transformation of the prisoner within the Victorian gaol. Such immediate marks of individuality as might be conveyed by the visual indicators of clothing and hair were removed, this latter only in the case of male prisoners. The haircut was a source of some controversy, particularly as the end of a sentence approached, for it could serve as a badge of criminality even after discharge. In Carmarthen in 1846-7 there were significant disputes, including the invocation by the prisoners of the authority of the Home Secretary, led by inmates James Hunt and James Hargrave and which centred on the haircut. Institutions where the separate system was rigidly enforced even the face itself was concealed: males wore “Pentonville peaks”, caps the peaks of which were pulled over the face, leaving only holes for vision. Even so, if prisoners met outside the cell whilst being moved one had to turn to the wall as another passed. Women prisoners wore a thick black veil, through which their features were indistinguishable. What was visible under such a regime was not a person, but a symbol of controlled criminality.

Prisoners who were in any way visually impaired could provide particular problems for the prison routine. John Wilson, a tea dealer “blind in both eyes” was sentenced to twelve months with hard labour in 1846 was unable to be employed within the prison and his conduct during his sentence was described as “very bad”. Twenty-five years earlier a 74-year-old debtor, James Davies, whose eyesight was so bad that he collided with the prison walls, won a bet that he could run 420 yards before another debtor could eat two muffins. Others could be subjected to abuse, David Jones was punished by Governor Westlake in 1845, whose spelling is here typically erratic,  “for neglecting to work on the wheel in is turn and calling George Gilbert a blind eye has he had lost a eye”.

There was another visual problem, of immense theoretical importance, inherent in the penological transition of the nineteenth century. If prison was intended to deter (an aim which ebbed and flowed reciprocally with reformation during the century) then how could suffering be conveyed to those outside the walls? The crowds who witnessed the pains and shame of physical punishment, the public whippings and executions, had the moral drama played out in full sight. Prison had to employ a different strategy, the architecture of the building supplanting the body of the criminal as the site, and the sight, of deterrence. Architecture tended towards the massy and powerful, prisons often in highly visible positions within towns and cities. Carmarthen’s gaol, on the site of the old castle, dominated the townscape. It was built by the celebrated John Nash, the carved chains on the gatehouse recalling Newgate. It also had, at one point, a unique (as far as I know) yet symbolically perfect substitute for the suffering body hidden within. When the treadwheel was in operation a painted, life-size pewter model of a prisoner revolved on a pole above the walls. It may have been this, or perhaps the sails and regulators which were visible indicators of the wheel in other prisons, which was pointed out to the “thimble gentry” arrested at a fair in the town in 1833.

Touch

One of the most important rituals of the experienced criminal starting a sentence in some cellular Victorian prisons was entirely tactile. He or she would run their fingers along the ledge beneath the ventilator over the door of the cell. I do the same whenever I enter a preserved gaol now. They were feeling for a nail which might have been left there by the previous occupant. Nails could be a great help in picking the daily allocation of oakum, one of the tasks assigned as hard labour. Oakum was old ships’ rope which had to be pulled apart into its constituent fibres; a dirty and unpleasant task. That it could damage the fingers to the extent of hindering completion of the task seems evident from the records. It need hardly be added that the susceptibility to injury would to an extent depend on the variable sensitivity of the hands into which the uniform lump of rope was delivered: the miner and the clerk would not necessarily experience the punishment in the same way. Other hard labour tasks could also result in painful injury. One of the many prisoners’ names for the treadwheel  was the “shinscraper”, the desire to use bodyweight as well as muscle power to drive the revolving treads prompting, I think, a desire to move further forward on the step, risking contact with the one above as it descended.

If such tactile encounters were unwelcome, one benefit of incarceration may have been that prisoners may have scratched themselves rather less than they had been used to. A large number of those admitted to Carmarthen Gaol (in one quarterly report from 1870 more than one third of them) were suffering from scabies, which meant that they would begin their remand or sentence by entering a liminal space with an undeniably sensory title: the “Itch Ward”.

I have read many accounts of the transition from the open “wards” of the pre-reform prison to the cellular Victorian version, made compulsory after 1865, which stress the intention of preventing “contamination” both moral and physical between prisoners, and the disruption of the inmate subculture, but few which actually consider how strange it would have seemed to those subjected to it. To sleep in a room without anyone else in it, even in the bed itself, would have been unprecedented for many adult offenders, and not only those with spouses and children, but also to those who slept in overcrowded lodging houses, servants’ quarters or miners’ barracks. It is unclear whether that nocturnal solitude, without the warmth and opportunity for conversation which a shared bed brought, would have been welcomed, but the supposition is certainly not unreasonable. In the year 1856-7 there were five beds for women prisoners in Carmarthen gaol and at one point they were occupied by no fewer than thirteen adults and two children at the same time. When the womens’ prison was rebuilt thereafter to allow greater segregation it was still condemned by the Prison Inspector, the separationist J.G. Perry as not entirely excluding association.

Hearing

As has been indicated earlier, the prison regime of the nineteenth century was predicated on silence, whether it depended on solitary confinement or association. Yet this was easier to propose than to enforce, particularly in local gaols which had not been built to a particular pattern, as had, for example, Pentonville. In that “penitentiary” the Separate System was enforced to such an extent that prison officers wore felt slippers to muffle the sound of their perambulations. But the construction of individual cells in older local gaols, financed by ratepayers, was expensive in terms of construction, whilst the alternative Silent System needed an increase in staff to be effectively enforced. In fact the 1835 Select Committee heard that within Wales only Cardiganshire claimed to enforce silence, a prisoner on the Discovery hulk stating that the cursing swearing and obscene stories he had been exposed to in Carmarthen were “enough to ruin any young man”. Even after the system had been officially improved within the gaol the Governor admitted, in an unguarded comment in his Journal, that it could not be fully enforced.

To the reasons for such failure to control communication we will return shortly. Suffice it to say that even in prisons where it was strictly enforced the ban on communication might simply promote a change of sensory register: the sign language used within the silent system (tapping the nose for tobacco, hence “snout” in prison slang”), or the banging on pipes connecting separate cells. I want to pause here though to consider the language which was used within prisons when the opportunity did arise. The county which Carmarthen Gaol served was a predominantly Welsh speaking one, and our best estimate suggests that around one third of the population spoke no English, whilst the proficiency of others in English may have been limited. Yet the official language of the prison was English as was the language of the courtroom, in which offenders were tried, even on capital charges, in a language they did not understand. But it is not this question of understanding that I want to address here, but simply the sound of the language of official penality, quite different from that to which the Welsh speakers (and indeed Irish speakers who were also confined there) were accustomed. We have seen that visual signs of the transition to an alien environment (the uniform, the haircut) marked the significant fracture from previous experience. Here was an aural one.

As Katy Roscoe’s blog at this site has admirably demonstrated, despite the theoretical insistence on, and optimistic reporting of, the regime of silence, such a rule could not, as we have mentioned earlier, be fully enforced. Nor was such noise as there was always contained within the walls. One Sunday in August 1846 Mary Ann Awberry, a frequent prisoner who often showed contempt for the rule of silence, was confined to the punishment cell where she continued to sing loud enough to be heard in the two main streets around the gaol.

I want to pause here however to consider an element of Victorian imprisonment which inevitably compromised the supposed requirement of silence, namely the presence of babies and toddlers in the prison. This was not by any means an isolated occurrence. Women gave birth in prison or brought in young children who would otherwise have nowhere to go, and cries and talk would have been unavoidable. In Beaumaris Gaol (Ynys Môn/Anglesey) an attempt to distance mothers from children in separate rooms involved an extension of the tactile, as a rope passed through a hole in the workroom ceiling to rock the cradle positioned in the room above.

Taste

Much has been written, and more should be, on the Victorian prison diet, but the discussion has largely been confined to the nature and the adequacy of the meals provided, rather than their taste. Yet this is not quite as inaccessible to the modern commentator: I have myself on many occasions made, eaten and served to others (sometimes large numbers in lectures) food prepared in accordance with approved prison dietaries. Such experiments can actually reveal more than might be expected. Asked to make a short film on prison food a while ago for Archives Awareness Week (available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rs2uexvfKc8 ) I learned something interesting about that staple of prison food, gruel. I had to drive for a couple of hours from my home to Ruthin Gaol for an early start to filming, so made the gruel the night before. What was usually a warm thin liquid porridge had congealed when cold into a viscous lump, as it might have done in a large cold prison. Of course I do not know exactly what it would have tasted like to a Victorian prisoner, but I suspect that it would, like so many aspects of life which we have considered above, have been at the very least very alien. Whilst local prisons could, whilst under local control, permit local taste to be catered for (Ruthin at one time served “lobscouse”) other ingredients such as “Indian meal” (i.e. maize) were not, as far as I know, to be found regularly in the kitchens of West Wales.

We know that there were complaints from prisoners, not only about the quantity of food but also its quality. Indeed, as one of their few recognised entitlements food became a frequent battle between staff and inmates. Soup and bread were often tasted, if complained of, by officers of the gaol, particularly the surgeon or by a magistrate, who would inevitably, in Carmarthen at any rate, rule against the prisoner. It was perhaps disingenuous of a local JP to declare in a case from 1849 that the bread (made with “seconds” flour and deliberately not served fresh to prevent prisoners pulping it into dough to claim it was uncooked and thereby gain more) was “nearly as good as that eaten in his own family”.

Such local issues pale into insignificance when set aside the experience of some elsewhere, who would eat such things as candle ends and used poultices to assuage their hunger. Prison candles were given a “highly offensive smell” to prevent them being eaten. An account of the stomach-turning material consumed by some inmates may be found in Philip Priestley’s excellent Victorian Prison Lives. The question of their taste would seem to have been as irrelevant to the desperate prisoner as they are unthinkable to the researcher.

Smell

After a recent minor relaxation of lockdown regulations, a friend was able to travel from her home in a small seaside town to the nearby uplands. “I’ve missed the difference in the air inland” she said, before pausing, “I think I mean the smell of sheep piss!”. It is, indeed, the unmistakeable aroma of parts of the countryside, particularly in summer. I mention this to make a point which is insufficiently appreciated by academics, most of whom live and work in towns or cities. Until 1851, according to figures recorded in the census, more people in Britain lived in rural than in urban environments, and many areas such as in Wales remained largely rural thereafter. Yet prisons, like universities, are and were largely to be found in towns. The ambient smell of the urban is not the same as that of the rural: not only the animals but the differences such as plant life or the smell of wood fires rather than coal ones. I am not being romantic here: it is simply true. (The same point could of course have been made in relation to ambient sound,  and not simply along the axis of volume, for a visiting city friend confessed that he had been unable to sleep due to the impressive levels of sound produced by a field full of ewes with lambs at foot.) The farm worker from hill country, moved to prison in even a small town like Carmarthen, which was a busy port at the time, would have smelled different things from outside the walls. Inside the smell of people confined and labouring hard would have been notable too. True, things were not as bad as when Howard had toured the unreformed gaols with his vinegared handkerchief to his nose. The miasma theory of disease had led to a concentration on the ventilation of new or rebuilt prisons which was, on occasion, elevated to remarkable levels. The most visible part of Ruthin gaol is a tower, built not as part of the chapel or for observation but to draw air through the building’s ventilation system. Control of contamination had been raised to the status of a public landmark.

Sense as privilege

I want to say a few words about prison punishment, in which deprivation of sensory experience featured strongly, as if it were a luxury to be forfeited for bad behaviour. Meals could be withdrawn and use made of “refractory”, “solitary”, “underground” or “dark” cells (these are not always synonyms in Carmarthen, which could have more than one differently-described punishment room at the same time; the exact relationship still eludes me). In 1851 the two “dark cells” were described by the Inspector as “dangerous to health, perhaps even to life”. Punishment cells were unheated and, I suspect unventilated. Certainly, the sensations experienced by prisoners might not be uniform. In that particular gaol a prisoner was “forgiven” by the Governor after a night in the cell in 1846, the weather being “so cold and freezing”, whilst later in the same year he complained that prisoners preferred to be sent to the refractory cell rather than to labour during a particularly hot spell.

I have tried here to give a glimpse (or echo or feel or taste or sniff: see how easily the sensory permeates even the written document?) of life in the Victorian prison. I have concentrated on the institutions within Wales not only because I know them best but also because the experience of the rural offender in general, and the Welsh one in particular, has been so frequently overlooked. Nonetheless much of what has been considered here is applicable, mutandis mutatis, to other environments. I hope that I have demonstrated that for the Victorian prisoner, and in particular the prison novice, what was lost was not simply liberty, but familiarity. That familiarity is built up by sensory experience and its loss is not an insignificant one.

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eau de Durham

Michael Spurr

From my room on the third floor of St Chad’s College I would look out across the river and watch the prisoners in Durham Gaol take their daily exercise. Walking round and round in circles. Always in circles. I walked past the gaol myself, most days, en route to the Economic History Department ( or sometimes en route to the Dun Cow ) but like most students (and most people) I really didn’t give the prison much thought. Then a Careers Adviser asked if I’d ever considered the Prison Service as a career. I hadn’t, but the conversation sparked an interest and shortly afterwards I found myself outside the Victorian gate waiting to enter a prison for the first time. ‘Why are you thinking of joining the Prison Service’ asked the Governor, apparently bemused that a Durham University student wanted to visit his prison. But he had organised an Assistant Governor, Jim Phillips, to take me round and that visit set the direction for my working life.


There are two things I remember most vividly from that afternoon. The first was my shock at finding remand prisoners, unconvicted and therefore innocent in the eyes of the law, in the worst living conditions. Three to a cell designed for one with only a bucket for a toilet and locked up for most of the day with nothing to do. The second was the smell – or as one Officer put it the ‘eau de Durham’. It was pungent, an institutional odour but particular and unique to prison. A combination of cleaning fluid and carbolic soap masking the stench of bodily fluids, slop buckets, and tobacco (cannabis and other drugs were not quite so prevalent then). It was an unmistakeable prison smell or to be more precise an unmistakeable local prison smell – for it was local prisons which suffered gross overcrowding, where unconvicted prisoners were held three to a cell with nothing to do and where slopping out was the daily routine. It was a smell I came to know intimately when I became a Prison Officer at HMP Leeds.


And it was at Leeds that I learned, to my surprise, that many unconvicted prisoners did their best to prolong their time on remand. You see it counted towards any subsequent sentence and, whilst living conditions were grim, you were held locally, could have a visit for 15 minutes every day, and you could receive food and drink from your visitors! Two pints of beer or a bottle of wine a day were permitted -though being Yorkshire in 1983 there wasn’t much call for wine. Oh the joy of the visits search detail which meant not only searching prisoners but also decanting beer into jugs; delving into pies; straining stews; and exploring curries for contraband before taking them up to the landings for the men. All these smells added further depth to the distinct prison odour requiring even more cleaning fluid and carbolic soap the next day.


Then there was the original ‘barmy army’ – the cleaning party whose job it was to pick up the ‘shit’ parcels thrown out of cell windows along with the discarded food – a feast for the pigeons and the rats. The men did it with stoic good humour but it wasn’t a job for the faint hearted! A trip to the Bathhouse on C Wing for a shower was a daily reward for the ‘barmies’ but for most prisoners that luxury was at best a weekly event – and only then if you were lucky. Holding around 1300 prisoners in a prison built for 550 created its own challenges. Staff were simply relieved to complete the ‘daily miracle’ and get through the day. Prisoners acquiesced and largely did what was required because that was how it was and stepping out of line risked unofficial physical punishment and an overcrowding draft to Durham or further afield. It was a world invisible and ignored by those outside; ignored that is until it all boiled over at Strangeways in 1990 and riots followed across the country.

The resulting Woolf Report proposed radical changes to the Prison system. An end to overcrowding and provision of proper sanitation in cells were two of its main recommendations. Thirty years on, to our shame, overcrowding is still with us ( around 20 000 prisoners are housed in cells designed for fewer people) but slopping out officially ended on 12 April 1996 and the environment in local prisons was dramatically changed as a result. Unconvicted prisoners had, by then already lost their right to have food and drink brought into prison; showers were increased and moved onto individual living units; and then eventually tobacco was banned (though illicit substances are still smoked in most prisons). These reforms -particularly the ending of slopping out -have permanently changed the environment for prisoners and staff – and definitely for the better!


Prisons today continue to provide a unique and immersive sensory experience. Living conditions for many prisoners, particularly in Victorian gaols -starved of investment, remain very poor (far from what should be acceptable in the twenty first century) but the dreadful unsanitary conditions found in local prisons in the 1980’s have thankfully been consigned to history. Still I will never forget that smell – it has permeated my senses forever!

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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.