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Close, closer

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.

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.