Categories
research TransitionalJustice Violence visual

Sensing Justice: Feeling the Archive

Benjamin Thorne

International Criminal Justice

The theatre of law, the performance of accountability, justice and peace. The aesthetic grandeur of shiny courtroom glass, the scent of polished wooden fixings and fittings, the nostalgia of legal dress: dark shades of silk, the gleaming white centrepiece of robes, and the noticeable absence of clustered horsehair. The glare of the world through high-end Sony lenses, strategically placed to capture the actors in this performance of law. Their moments of triumph, despair, authority, indifference. The abrupt but comforting material banality of security x-ray machines, the fire evacuation diagram fastened to a wall, the heavily branded hot drinks machine, which accompanies, bears witness to these seismic life events.


Ratko Mladić in the Courtroom of the IRMCT Hague branch. Appeal Judgement 8th June 2021

Parallel to the public spectacle of international criminal justice, are the behind-the-scenes activities, back passages and corridors that is the legal archive documenting, recording, categorising, constructing, producing stories of past events, actions, actors, and experiences.

The archive, the material – who is it for? Me the researcher, me the teacher, me the curious member of the public? The legal people: lawyers, clerks, the investigators, the victims’ advisers? Them, over there, the individual, community, society, the bearers of trauma, the nameless who international justice purports to put centre stage, but all too often remain distant, absent, at the margins, a hollowed out rhetorical vessel of hope?

Space, place, and material stimulate the senses and memories. The distant memory of a particular smell. A trivial touch that thrusts us back to a moment of lived potency. The low toned circular sound of machinery providing momentary soothing respite. These stimulations are particularly evident at sites such as legal archives documenting traumatic pasts.

Archives are not neutral depositories of history.1 They are interplays of social, legal, cultural, and political constructs.2 Archives are also not neutral in the way they stimulate memories and the senses, which directly interacts and shapes our experience both of them and the stories within.

A legal archive: outside

The manmade and natural environment neighbouring an archive building can act as sources of sensory and memory stimulation before one enters, but which may journey with us inside. A soft warm breeze gently resting on our skin, meandering through our nasal cavities tickles a fond memory of a day in the countryside. Ascending the few steps leading to the building’s entrance a slightly out-of-place and elevated concrete slab engages at speed with the toes of our left foot. A first jolt forward head overtakes the knees, the right foot steadies the body, a quick glance around to see if anyone has witnessed this embarrassment, followed by an attempt at normalcy. A memory of vulnerability presents itself, not a specific memory but a feeling which like the blown seeds of a dandelion, scatter and linger in the mind. We open the door and enter.


IRMCT Arusha Branch

A legal archive: inside 

The bright and artificial harsh lighting makes it clear we have entered the institution. The small circular green and amber lights rhythmically flash as we pass through the metal detector. The sights and sounds of the archive reception room bring a sense of excitement and anticipation for the explorations to come. At the same time, the mood board of memory and sensory stimulation gathered during our morning remains close. The catalogue, a formidable gatekeep of the archive. It simultaneously brings a sense of order whilst being an unrelenting and impenetrable mass – numbers, labels, titles, dates. The rhythmic and authoritative ascending numbers and letters of archival coding, only partially quenches the sensory overload.

The material and post-conflict communities

Testimonies of action, the premeditated and spontaneous, the mundane. Spoken by witnesses, victims, perpetrators, foreigners. The objective storytelling of forensic reports, the matter-of-fact experience of death and suffering, the clinical imagery of x-rays showing a single neat bullet hole in the cranium of a nameless victim: ‘female, age 13-17’, a statistical accolade marking the failings of humanity. The letters and diary entries of perpetrators detailing, a ruthless plan, the functionary itinerary of a top-brass meeting, self-reflections on loneliness and fear. Imagery, the theatre of the trial, visual representations of atrocity, but also the everyday lived realities of its aftermath, and the intimate portraits of family celebrations before the violence.


Exhibit P38A submitted by the prosecution in case of Georges Rutaganda (ICTR-96-3) at International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda]

These materials are memories, fragments of memories, which unlike the theatre of law whose story is singular and rigid, are plural, fluid and dynamic. These somewhat side-lined fragments can stimulate the senses, memory and dialogue, and between individuals and within communities. Words can be hard to find, particularly those that seek to describe traumatic and complex social events and relationships. The material fragments of memory through its sensory stimulation can be a gateway to articulating plural experiences of shared traumatic pasts, and connections to the present and future. The material fragments of memory in atrocity legal archives can open up understanding about how justice, peace, and social repair might look, sound and feel like to those who have experienced horrendous suffering.

Sight: the Rockstar of the senses

Sight as a tool to explore crime, law and justice, especially the ‘serious’ international versions has elevated this sense into somewhat of a socialite of the senses: wherever there is a sensory ‘gig’ sight is there at the top table of the VIP room. Before the tumbleweed crossing this blog occurs following the exiting of offended visually-orientated readers, the ocular has a lot to offer archival fragments of memory. A photograph of the post-conflict period depicting an image of a church could stimulate plural dialogue. Photographs are sites not when meaning is given but where meaning is negotiated and searched for. But, to fully seek the potential of archival fragments of memories for local communities we must consider not only the ‘look at me, look at me’ socialite of the senses but embrace the opportunities of the wider sensory field.

The sensory entourage

The sounds of atrocity, justice and attempts to navigate life in the aftermath of violence, are sources of stimulation. A stimulation of memories about difficult past events: both the internal memories of lived experiences, and external memories of narratives and trauma connected to lived realities but belonging to other people. The fragments of sound can also stimulate memories that are somewhat detached from the origins of the aural source though can equally stimulate reflection, exploration and dialogue. Touch, taste and smell are also present in archival encounters, sometimes through physical interaction with the material, and sometimes through the visuality which stimulates a past scent, a forgotten touch, a sweet taste. The senses, like memory, do not exist in an enclosed sphere, like an ornamental snow globe that when shaken the snow travels only within the boundaries of the glass wall. Instead, the senses are dynamic and fluid, pivoting from one direction to another sometimes with no warning and dashing in different directions. The lived reality of shared past experiences is plural, and the untethered nature of the senses is arguably a core component of legal archive material as well as post-conflict communities engagement with them.   

International criminal justice likes distance, it embraces it, usually insists on it. The justification for this distancing from the sites of atrocity is neutrality and objectivity, to keep it sterile from the events it is judging.3 The archives of international justice are also distant from those these courts claim to put centre stage: none of the archives are located within the territories of the affected communities. Some material of international criminal justice is digitally available. But, the distance of the physical archive undoubtedly impacts on sensory, and likely memory stimulation. Whilst digital archives can engage these, the loss of physical materiality of both the archive and the material for affected communities continues to put up hurdles for the potential of legal archives.

Legal atrocity archives are commonly understood as having utility value as evidence or sources for fact finding endeavours. However, these archives understood instead as sites of research in themselves and interplays of the social, legal, cultural and political, force us to challenge and disrupt our understanding of what a legal archive is, what is its purpose, and who is it for? Crucially it illuminates that these archives in their attempts at institutional sterility and distance act to remove the actors that these materials record. There is an urgent need to relocate atrocity affected communities to the centre of legal records documenting their lived experiences. Ultimately it requires international criminal justice to listen to these communities, and to allow them to be active participants in exploring what justice, peace and social repair looks, sounds and feels like.

  1. Thorne, B., 2020. Remembering atrocities: legal archives and the discursive conditions of witnessing. The International Journal of Human Rights25(3), pp.467-490.
  2. Redwood, H.A., 2020. Archiving (In) justice: Building Archives and Imagining Community. Millennium48(3), pp.271-296.
  3. Clark, P., 2018. Distant Justice: The Impact of the International Criminal Court on African Politics. Cambridge University Press.

Categories
Environment Green Criminology

Commissions of Injustice in Rio de Janeiro: Indigenous preservation and resistance

Janine Ewen


“Everyone assumes that the favelas are all unliveable, but they are bound together by close community ties. [Favela residents] had no choice but to make life as liveable as possible since the State turned a blind eye… Some of these evictions are corrupt, [looking] to gain the best areas in Rio de Janeiro.” (James Freeman, Professor of the University of Concordia on the strategic mega-event thinning of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas)

In February 2014, I was carrying out fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro less than two months before the FIFA World Cup commenced. I had been invited to an International Mega Events and Cities Conference to join discussions on human rights, urbanisation, public policy, law, violence and security, accompanied by a tour of the primary site of discussion, the Maracanã Stadium, which was due to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. I still remember the words from the keynote speaker, Carlos Vainer, Professor at the Urban and Regional Planning and Research Institute at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFR): “There are winners and there are losers in life; this is also in the same context as any soccer match. We are yet to determine who will win or lose between the government and the Brazilian people.”

The Brazilian government was involved in greed, corruption and, as you might expect, a lack of consideration for the people of Rio through rapid urban transformations (which the image below vividly depicts). From exploring Rio, I could feel the intensity of the mega-event developments from the explosion of street protests, FIFA-themed resistant art and the noise resulting from helicopters hovering over Rio’s favelas and the stadium construction. The increased occupancy of the UPP stations (“Unidades de Policia Pacificadora”) maximised and militarised security by restoring state control in the favelas and integrating the favelas to address urban violence and disarm drug traffickers. In other words, the government wanted to set the stage for a global audience: a problem-free and glamorous Rio de Janeiro, but with a high price to pay for those not invited to the match.


One of many street visuals that popped up across Rio de Janeiro during the World Cup 2014 developments, representing overbearing greed, corruption and a gold stadium in darkness.

Manguinhos, a favela In Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone.

The Aldeia Maracanã is a sacred, multi-ethnic village and resistance space in Rio de Janeiro that sits next to the Maracanã Stadium. The area has been occupied by indigenous urban people since 2006 and is the site of Brazil’s first indigenous museum, a building abandoned since the 1970s. Between 2006 and 2013, the Maracanã village bloomed into a community that became home to over thirty indigenous people from 17 different ethnic backgrounds. The indigenous people now had a vibrant space for rituals, fairs, cultural classes and bioconstruction to disseminate ancestral knowledge and demystify prejudices that indigenous people “do not belong” in the city. There have been numerous eviction attempts, with many of the community living in constant – and ongoing – threat of violent removals. The village faced brutality in the preparations for the World Cup and Olympics. In 2013, a military operation stormed the indigenous village using tear gas, pepper spray, stun grenades and physical violence. Brazil’s colonial past has created a socio-political disintegrated landscape in which both race and ethnicity remain problematic. Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, and the ILO Convention 169, ratified by the government in 2002, offers protection to indigenous and quilombola groups. However, the reality suggests otherwise. An example of this is the non-existent land rights and a lack of building ownership for the indigenous Indians in Rio de Janeiro. The defence of tribal land rights are under enormous pressure from the current right-wing President Jair Bolsonara as Indigenous leaders have been fighting against Bolsonara’s man-led genocidal policies of environmental destruction of rainforests, including the Amazon.

https://www.youtube.com/v/H1mHrXZQs2s?app=desktop


An exhibition of violence at the Aldeia Maracanã in 2013

The building stands vacant in the aftermath of the Aldeia Maracanã

Participants in the International Mega Events and Cities Conference, including myself, visited the Maracanã site with a local guide who lived close to the stadium. We were also taken to the Aldeia Maracanã.

The above picture shows the front of the indigenous home. On approaching the sacred building, I was met with an eerie sense permeating the space, and of what had been left of the Aldeia Maracanã from state-sanctioned violence, even though this visit occurred a year after the attack. The eeriness increased as I stood in the largely empty space in the aftermath of the tragedy. I began to picture a lively image and spirit of the indigenous community nurturing a home and school of sanctuary; creating art through painting, music and laughter. I also saw a garden in bloom with colourful vegetables and fruit, having the power of spoken words to educate the people of Rio on their traditions, and perhaps, creating common ground in a shared world where violations of residents’ rights led to thousands of Rio’s poorest being evicted for the games.

This was a life lived on guard against the threat of outsider raids – the violence nearing, not waiting or knocking, but forcing through their home. The air was stale and silent, despite being beside the stadium construction, and the windows represented dark, empty eyes on the inside, as if presenting a witness to the disappearance of indigenous life. Once we drew closer to the building, the display of the murals covering the Aldeia created a sense that theindigenous movement would return and that we are to view the murals as a visual message of presence, pain and resistance – “Commissions of Injustice”.


The local guide explained that the police were suspicious of visitors around the Aldeia Maracanã

The building, standing like a skeleton, provides the framework for an indigenous man’s head; a gaunt portrait of what has been left in the ruins. The man’s eyes hold no fear as he looks directly at the viewers, who have no choice but to stare back into the windows of a now shattered shell. The portrait, painted on a crumbling plaster façade, is like a Giotto fresco. The image was not, however, paid for by a rich family like the Medicis. Instead, it came at a higher price, the cost of displaced indigenous families. Ruby war paint, a red cross in battle, covers the indigenous man’s nose, mouth and forehead like markings of blood and violence enveloping his sense of smell, vision and future insight. The arch of his eyebrows and nose opens into wings like the tail of a bird. Unlike a dove of peace, it leads to a pathway cut out by the disfigurement of his ebony raven locks—a shaved centre parting carved across his skull with a phoenix descending into a yellow flame.

On the corner of the Aldeia, the face of an indigenous child is crying heavy tears of blood as if they will drown in them, creating a pool of redness around the edge of the chin that does not leave the child’s face. The red eyes represent what the child may be seeing and experiencing; the battle against their family and community members, suffering, perhaps anger, but most certainly danger, as shown by their small mouth gaping in horror at the display of violence. The child’s hair is missing from the middle, deep enough to have been pulled out by the roots. With more harm inflicted from the missing part of their head, they will not forget this, even if it represents the onset of becoming invisible after the battle. The vulnerability remains beside the boarded fence which prevents the viewer from seeing beneath; a stick of sorts is either diagonally going into the child or being held up in defence. It is difficult to look away from the indigenous child’s trauma.

The perimeter of the Aldeia has the appearance of a prison with high steel fencing, wire and the reflection of the security camera indicating state control and monitoring of the sacred building. The chain padlock on the fencing adds another element to the atmospheric mix of distrust and control. The government is determined to prevent indigenous freedom and does so by keeping away and shutting out culture, diversity and Mother Earth. This is a village and university in survival mode floundering in a sea of tension due to war and encroachment on sacred space by the government. Indigenous people are not “urban rubbish” that can be discarded, and they are not losers in the games played by FIFA. A reinstatement of ancestral territory ownership will be reborn. The collective fight will return.

Alongside studying criminology and finishing my copy of Sensory Penalties, I have attempted to breathe life into my field notes that sat untouched in a drawer; scribbles on how I felt, what I saw and what I imagined by sharing the whole experience when I visited the Aldeia Maracanã. I believe I received a learning gift from indigenous communities in standing up to and epitomising injustice as fully as possible. I have opened the sensory aspects to a space and building where indigenous life had forcefully disappeared – and I was moved by the absence of the community and the after-effects of the military police ‘storm’ tactics of grenade bangs, weapon whacks and shots of pepper spray that left stale air and stone-cold silence. The initial unease of ghostly eeriness on approaching and standing in front of the Aldeia Maracanã acted as a trace to the brutality of 2013 and the outside remains, the murals, allowed me to resist a simplistic interpretation of the Aldeia as a vacant ‘haunted like’ building, but one in which Indigenous preservation and resistance are still present.

Categories
Interviewing research space Zoom

Zooming in: shifting time, space and distance

Anna Kotova

In mid-2020, my small, city-centre studio apartment became not only my lecture theatre and seminar room, but also the space where I conduct my research. I am, at time of writing, researching the use of video-call technology in prisons in England and Wales, looking specifically at how this is experienced by families of people in prison. This technology – an app called Purple Visits – was designed specifically for prisons with the necessary security features, but at its core it allows people in prison and their families to video-call in a way that has become increasingly familiar to many of us during COVID-19.

In a peculiar twist of fate, I have only been able to conduct interviews using either Zoom or the telephone. The original research design, mapped out prior to the start of the pandemic, would have involved me meeting with research participants face-to-face. So, whereas I would normally spend hours travelling to the interviewees, the research participants and I now enter each others’ homes, albeit virtually.

For those who opt for Zoom with the video on, this is all the more true. They can see my kitchen, the gin bar behind my shoulder, hear my neighbour’s dog (the bane of my current confined existence) barking next door to me. Likewise, I am able to see the research participants’ homes. At times, this helps build rapport – some show me their pets, their living rooms, or other items they are talking about during their interview (for example, one interviewee displayed the artwork she shared with her incarcerated loved one on their video-call and another her home office). Recently, an interviewee showed me the photos of her imprisoned sons. In another interview the interviewee’s teenage child was sat next to her and I could hear the young woman’s voice in the background. This would not have been possible were we sat in a community centre or office, and adds an additional dimension to the interviews.

There is also a sense of ease and comfort to these interviews, which, upon reflection, was unexpected for me as a researcher. In ‘normal’ times, these would be held in a private office, community centre, or a function room of a pub or cafe. We would be surrounded the hubbub and sensory intrusions of everyday life – the smells of coffee, the noises of doors shutting, even interruptions of someone knocking on the door or needing to pick something up from the room we were in. It would also be a neutral space with a sense of “official research interview” to the meeting. I would be dressed in work clothes, for example, and have my hair and makeup done. Online interviews are arranged (when possible) at a time when participants are mostly in a quiet and totally private place so there was very littlebackground noise. Likewise, I live alone, so there is very little interruption (noisy dog notwithstanding).

It is peculiar how the dynamics change when one is sat in their pyjama bottoms, in one’s own living room. Or, if the interview is on the phone, lying on the sofa or bed with my eyes closed, recovering from what is usually an exhausting day of teaching and marking. Even on video-calls, I am usually dressed in lounge or sports clothes rather than business attire. For me, the experience becomes an informal conversation, the sort of chat we have become so accustomed to during COVID-19 lockdowns. I become an over-worked academic in a similar situation to the stressed participants, who are often juggling work and childcare and supporting someone in prison. The researcher-participant hierarchy feels, to some extent, flattened for me – though of course I am aware that this might not be the case for those I interview. For instance, most appear on Zoom video calls dressed in what seem to be “work clothes”, and so might experience the interview as more formal than I do. Nonetheless, there is a sense of togetherness I seek to create via chats about lockdowns and COVID-19 and other topical issues (currently, this is vaccination in prisons!).

The sense of ease and the familiarity of one’s own setting helps most of the interviews to flow easily, with participants sharing their experiences openly and candidly. Those on Zoom are able to illustrate how they would stay still during a prison video-call, or show the backgrounds they use to ensure the call goes smoothly. This is because the technology can glitch or stop the call if portraitss or photographs are visible, or even if the caller’s head moves too much. This enables me to see exactly how the interviewees conduct themselves on a prison video-call – via them briefly reeancting the experience for me on a Zoom call – a fascinating experience which would not be possible offline (because I would not see the backgrounds, the framing of them on the screen, etc.).

Despite the positives, I wonder about the conflation of research and home. It is at times difficult to detach after the interviews, in a way that I might have done taking the train back after meeting with a participant. I would occupy myself with getting home, buying food, settling down for the evening. When one’s trip back is the few steps from the desk to the sofa, the interview lingers. It stays, intangibly, within my tiny studio apartment, the words of the interviewee lingering much longer in my mind as I reflect on what we have discussed. Since lockdown means very little sensory and experiential distraction – no trains to rush to, no adverse weather to be annoyed about – there is more headspace for the interview to occupy my mind after the event.

I am certain that remote interviewing is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future – and it is undoubtedly beneficial for those who have accessibility needs or for whom there are other reasons why a Zoom interview might be easier, practically and/or emotionally. Nonetheless, we need to be careful and consider the ethics of ‘entering’ someone’s home, albeit virtually. I do not know whether I linger with the participants after the interview, but there is no reason to suggest why this would not be the case for participants as well as the researcher.

Interviewing during a pandemic, thus, raises some interesting questions about power its fluidity in research. To some degree, inequalities are flattened because participants can choose what they show me, where they are located (for example, they can choose a white wall rather than a place where I would be able to see much of their room). They can even choose for me to not see them or their home at all if they opt for a phone call. On the other hand, I as a researcher still enter their home environment to some extent, albeit indirectly. Morever, it is possible that my perception of power inequalities flattening is heightened because I am used to conducting research interviews and therefore am comfortable with lying down and conducting a phone interview from my bed! For participants, this may not be the case – this might be the very first time they have taken part in research. Ultimately, the choice should rest with the interviewee.


Categories
Children custody prison smell

Revealing Sensory Scars

Gemma

I came across sensory criminology fairly recently whilst browsing social media, completely distracted from what I should have been reading. I found it fascinating, not least because it helped me to identify and make sense of some of my experiences whilst conducting prison research. However, what I was not expecting was the power this perspective has given me to really consider and understand my own position – transporting me back to pain, revealing scars I didn’t realise existed and considering what this taught me about the prison.

To give some context then, between the ages of 12 and 15 I was in and out of police custody. I was never sent to secure[1] (although almost ‘for my own protection’) but I regularly spent periods of confinement in cells, often for full weekends when they had nowhere else to send me. This was during the mid to late 90s so pre-YOT[2] and the YJB[3] and, as a female, the police would often tell me I was better off in a cell than on the streets anyway.

My life has changed significantly since then and in both work and voluntary roles I have revisited criminal justice sites and institutions with relative emotional ease. However, this was challenged during my time conducting research in a prison and it is these challenges that shall be the focus of my writing. In particular, I found there were three experiences that acutely activated and revealed what I feel are sensory scars – that is sites of old wounds revisited via: the smell, the cell, and leaving the prison.

The Smell

I was, and still am, surprised that the smell of the cleaning fluid activated emotion. That chemical disinfectant, that I’m assuming must be standard for communal areas in cold, soulless institutions with hard blue and green floors. It took me straight back. This smell is only around at certain points in the day so conducting research, rather than visiting, meant more opportunities to connect with it. That cheap, sterile, cold smell – it reminded me so much of being escorted down the corridor often by men twice my size, just a body, chucked in a cell and kept until another place or person knew what to do with you. I suppose that was the message, the ‘we don’t know what to do with you’ smell – you’re an inconvenience to society, it doesn’t know what to do with you so we’ll contain you for a bit in this building, disinfecting human traces.

The Cell

I was given a small office to work from during my research. It was an old cell, small with cream walls and no natural light. It was similar to the cells I had been held in when I was a child, but without the window made from thick square panes of glass and set with concrete. I didn’t hold keys during my research and I couldn’t leave this office unlocked. This meant that I had to, or felt like I had to, wait for a prison officer to relieve me. I was very appreciative of the space I’d been given and didn’t want to add to the workload of prison staff and so sometimes I could be waiting a while – it was this that revealed the second sensory scar. The sounds while waiting…footsteps walking down the corridor, keys jangling and that feeling of relief that someone is coming. You think it’s time for you to go…only for the sounds to tail off at someone else’s door. It’s not your turn so there’s that sinking feeling. Then, waiting longer, and again, the same process repeated. You’re enclosed and powerless with nothing to do, convinced you’ve been forgotten about. Life is buzzing onwards and you’re left, no one is coming and you don’t matter. You’re forgotten.

Leaving

The act of leaving the prison each day reminded me of how it felt every time I left police custody. Switching from the dull, still, confined space, with stale air and limited natural light to a heightened awareness of the outside world and that feeling of being free. The crisp, clean fresh air hitting your face after feeling nothing but stillness, demanding some consciousness. Having to wait a few seconds while your eyes adjust to the brightness, waking you up from the dull artificial gloom. The sounds of cars, birds and people walking past on the pavement. It made me feel so grateful that I could leave behind the emptiness of confinement and this time, step towards life.

Reflecting upon these sensorial experiences has provided me with a source of insight and understanding around some of the experiences of prison and social control. This is particularly with regard to the dehumanising nature of these institutions and the act of confinement. Perhaps the most pertinent aspect of this is reflected in my reaction, when discussing this blog, to someone using the word child. That really hit me… the idea that I was a child. I’d never thought of myself as a child. I certainly didn’t feel like a child at the time and over 20 years on, I still needed to be reminded that I was one. That is probably a testament to the long term damage dehumanising spaces have on our bodies and sense of self and it is the etching sensory scars that lay dormant ready to be raised to remind you of that.


[1] “Secure” here refers to secure children’s homes (SCH’s) which offer full time residential care for children aged 10-17 (14 if referred for custody). 43% of placements were those commissioned by the Ministry of Justice in 2020 (80 children): https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/children-accommodated-in-secure-childrens-homes For more information see Howard League for Penal reform, (2016) Future insecure: secure children’s homes in England and Wales. Available here: https://howardleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Future-Insecure.pdf

There are three types of custody for children in England and Wales (who mysteriously become “young people” when criminalised): Secure children’s homes (SCH’s) – run by local councils for children 10-14, Secure Training Centres (STC’s) – for children up to 17, run privately by for-profit organisations, and Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) – for children and young people 15-21 (termed “people” on the government website), run by the prison service and private companies https://www.gov.uk/young-people-in-custody/what-custody-is-like-for-young-people).

England and Wales has the lowest age of criminal responsibility (10 years old) and the highest rates of child incarceration in Western Europe. Most children in custody are held in prison, (YOI’s). For some comparison, in December 20/21 60 were held in SCH’s, 94 in STC’s and 454 in YOI’s (figures taken from gov.uk: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/youth-custody-data).

[2] YOT refers to “Youth Offending Team”. Set up following the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, with an emphasis on “protecting the public” (and reducing reoffending as their principle aim) See HMIP (2017) “The work of youth offending teams to protect the public”: https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprobation/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/10/The-Work-of-Youth-Offending-Teams-to-Protect-the-Public_reportfinal.pdf

[3] YJB refers to the “Youth Justice Board”, also established in the wake of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, to monitor and promote good practice. In 2000 they assumed responsibility for commissioning custodial places (taken from www.beyondyouthcustody.net)

Categories
power taste Women

A proper brew: sensory recollections of my time in prison

Danica J.M. Darley

My memory is crap. It’s a standing joke with my sister. I have no recollection of holidays we took as kids, favourite toys, friend’s birthday parties or family pets. Years of ingesting too much alcohol and fatty foods probably hasn’t helped the matter and many a counsellor has told me that it’s my brain’s way of suppressing childhood trauma. So, imagine my surprise when at work last year a taste transported me back to a situation I would much rather have forgotten. A cost cutting exercise at the day centre for young people with learning disabilities – where I worked throughout my undergraduate degree – had led them to downgrade the usual Yorkshire ‘proper brew’ tea bags to a much cheaper version. On that sunny morning in June I was sent back (thankfully only figuratively) to prison.

In July 2014 I started an 11 month prison sentence in Scotland’s only prison for women, the infamous Cornton Vale.  I had never been in prison, never even really been in trouble with the Police, and here I was wrenched away from my home in England, my husband and my 16 month old daughter for an offence I had committed 7 years previously.  My brain has done its usual trick of hiding many of the events that unfolded in the next 5 months, spent in that run down 1970’s building. However, what it chooses to whisper often comes back as recollections triggered by my senses.

Taste has always been one of the biggest triggers for my memory, helping me to recall the emotions, practicalities and surroundings of some of the most important and mundane situations of my life.  Many mothers will tell you about how good (or awful) the first thing they eat after giving birth to their children is.  For me, that was a soggy cheese sandwich on plain white bread with some sort of value, low fat spread.  I’ve never had a better cheese sandwich in my life! Bound up inextricably with that waxy cheese slice is the memory of becoming a mum for the first time, and all that goes with that, the feelings of love, exhaustion, pain, fear and overwhelming joy.

The taste of that cheap teabag whisked me back to the cramped ‘staff’ room at the side of the card workshop where I spent much of my days in ‘The Vale’. The tea was made from the cheapest possible tea bag that the Scottish Prison Service could lay their hands on. The taste was more akin to the mud soup you would whip up as a kid than any sort of tea I had tasted before, strangely chemically tasting and earthy all at the same time.  However, as is so often the case with food and drink, tea was part of a ritual. Breaks from the job were an important part of the rhythm of the day in prison, they gave us an opportunity to chat, vent, seek advice, size each other up and decide if we wanted to invest time in a friendship with our fellow prisoners. So I endured, I made tea, gratefully took tea made by others, screwed up my nose and swallowed down cup after cup of bargain basement, lukewarm, only slightly brown prison tea. 

However, I was one of the lucky ones. I had a job in the prison that meant I made a few pounds every week and I had a supportive family on the outside who could afford to send in money for me to buy the things I needed whilst in prison.  I didn’t smoke and kept my head down, choosing to spend much of it in the gym, in education or reading in my cell.  All of this meant that I was able to afford the luxury of a pack of Tetley tea bags every other week off of my shop sheet!  It’s funny the things that suddenly become important to you when you have little else to focus your mind or attention on.  Shop day was the best day of the week, ask anyone who’s been in prison and they’ll tell you that, and the best thing I got from the shop was my delicious, longed for ‘proper’ tea bags.

Having time, space (and the privilege) to now reflect on my experience in prison I realise that this sensorial taste experience can really help us to unlock important insights into how we view imprisonment, prisoners and the physical spaces in which people are locked up.  For me, it throws up questions about how society views people who are sent to prison. Is the fact that the prison service provides prisoners with the cheapest of everything representative of the way that prisoners are viewed by the wider population?  Could we not stand the ensuing moral panic created if prisoners were to be given Tetley? If, like many a liberal prison officer will tell you, the punishment is not in fact the prison experience but the deprivation of liberty itself, should the dehumanizing conditions in prison be something that people have to endure? There are also questions around the self-worth of prisoners. So many of the women that I met in prison came from awful situations which forced them to often unquestioningly accept the hand that they were dealt. They coped with life by just putting up with all the crap that was thrown at them and I wonder if the acceptance of the most foul tasting tea could be seen as indicative of their life experiences? A life that had so often ground them down that they didn’t see the point of sticking their head over the parapet and demanding better. 

All of this from a cup of fetid, brown liquid?

For me, the biggest thing that this sensorial recollection has brought was gratitude. That sounds ridiculous, but in some ways I am grateful for the experience of being in prison. Don’t get me wrong, there is so much work that needs to be done to reform all our systems so that they deliver much fairer, less harmful and just (in the truest sense of the word) outcomes for everyone whose lives they touch. However, the ability to recall in brilliant technicolor my prison experience opened my eyes, not only to how lucky I was, but to how I was wasting the opportunities that life had given me. It helped me see the world of opportunity that was before me, and set me on a path that will hopefully lead to me getting my PhD and helping to affect some really positive changes for people who come into conflict with the law. Three years of undergraduate study has given me the opportunity to retrospectively apply my sociological lens to my time in prison, and it’s interesting to do this from a sensory perspective. The senses allow us to get up close and personal with not only a person’s individual experience but with the emotions, sensations, thoughts and all the messiness that comes with that.  It allows us to more deeply interrogate and hopefully understand the situation from all angles, and perhaps come up with more creative and innovative solutions as a result. 

Categories
Comparative Penology Drug Use Emotions research Sensory Penalities Women

A taste of …Down by the river

Amy B. Smoyer

Amy’s chapter in “Sensory Penalities” revisits fieldnotes from extensive research experience in correctional settings, to ponder what value lies for our understanding in revisiting the “The Everything Else”. She prompts us to consider “what is the price of sharing these visceral details? What is the
price of keeping them hidden?” and argues that “Sensory perceptions” allow us to “move forward with an intention to build a more authentic representation of our shared humanity”. These impressions, usually excluded after the data has been stripped and “consumed”, comprise not the “scraps” and left behinds as we commonly regard them, but are “the thickest cut that bleeds when you chew it, gets stuck in your throat, turns over in your stomach, and gives you a taste of what is actually being served” (Smoyer 2021: 202, full citation at the end of the piece).


As social scientists, academics, and activists dedicated to understanding, improving, and undoing correctional systems, we regularly travel through prison spaces. Our upcoming book, Sensory Penalties, describes some of these experiences touching, smelling, breathing, and hearing punishment. These observations of the inside become even more pressing and relevant today, as the COVID epidemic has pushed many of us to the outside, rendering correctional spaces invisible. And yet our work is deemed non-essential. Today, the inquiry persists outside, as we move through and with community, noticing the traces of prison all around us.

Research has found that the six months following release from prison are the most deadly, especially for women who live with opioid addiction (Binswanger et al., 2013). Was the woman who died in the park by the river several years ago on this pathway home? The news does not share this detail, but knowing that it is easier for a person who uses drugs in the US to go to prison than treatment, the scenario is possible.

Since the COVID lockdown began in March 2020, I have walked by her memorial countless times. Every once in a while, I will stop to see it. The memorial, which has been meticulously maintained through all the seasons over months and months, exudes a powerful love that shimmers with grief. Rainbow-colored mobiles capture the wind, mirrors and glass reflect light, knickknacks suggest an inside joke, candles build warmth. I have never seen anyone tend to the memorial and imagine a brigade of fairies building the project by moonlight.

Last week, I could barely make out the latest additions to the monument because the sun shone directly into my eyes and I was hesitant to stand too close. We see what and when we want to. The river was still, the park was quiet, and the cold air smelled like distant snow. I imagine her as a newborn baby, covered in goo; a child raising her hand in class, heart pounding; a young person in love, sweating; a desperate person causing harm, surviving; a grown woman waiting in the prison med line, impatient. I imagine her sitting next to the tree, mind focused on one destination, distant from fairies who would tend to her spirit when she departed.

Binswanger, I. A., Blatchford, P. J., Mueller, S. R., & Stern, M. F. (2013). Mortality after prison release: Opioid overdose and other causes of death, risk factors, and time trends from 1999 to 2009. Annals of Internal Medicine159(9), 592-600.

Smoyer, A.B., (2021) “The Everything Else” in Herrity, K., Schmidt, B., Warr, J.J. (eds) Sensory Penalities: Exploring the Senses in Spaces of Punishment and Social Control, 195–202. Sensory Penalities is now available here: https://books.emeraldinsight.com/page/detail/Sensory-Penalities/?K=9781839097270.

Categories
Ministry Of Justice power research sound space

Experiencing Research Interviews at the Ministry of Justice

Harry Annison

I like to walk to the Ministry of Justice. In part because you just can’t beat the Waterloo Sunset (so to speak); in part for the symbolism of a route that takes me past the Houses of Parliament, past the Supreme Court and past an assortment of other government departments. I can navigate most of it on auto-pilot by now. Off the train at Waterloo, racing to beat the crowds at the barriers. Out onto the South Bank. I squeeze past the endless waves of tourists near the London Eye, experience never teaching me that a quick pace is impossible. Over Westminster Bridge, usually dotted with bagpipers and tourists smiling at their selfie-stick phones. I use the road to skirt around people, until I remember this is ill-advised in central London. I push on through the hordes, wading through treacle. The air is thick with dirt. I arrive.

The brutalist exterior of 102 Petty France looms over me. It is a magnificent building, in its own way. I look up; take it in. Architectuul tells me that it is “a big, assertive building which succeeds in its job as a symbol of government authority and a landmark on the local skyline”. It is somewhat facile to describe it as prison-like, with its cold, concrete exterior and resistance to the outside world. But it is just that. I am a little early. I stroll down the side street, Queen Anne’s Gate. A plaque on the side of this mega-building tells me that Jeremy Bentham lived in a house on this site. I gaze through a barred gate. I could be free, launched into the open air of St James Park. I turn back.

Built in 1976, 102 Petty France was extensively modified from 2003 before the Ministry of Justice eventually became its new tenant in 2007. A high glass roof was installed, covering the former rear courtyard, meaning that there is now a large bright atrium at the building’s core. This contains a café, seating across various levels and glass-boxed meeting rooms. It looks remarkably like one of those overly-optimistic architect’s visualisations of how a space will be utilised: it feels light and spacious and there is a thrum of activity. Things happen here; power is held within these walls. I like being here, but feel a pang of guilt: I am there to talk about prisons, about punishment, about pain.

Getting past reception can be a challenge. They never seem to know the person I am meeting, to the point of doubting their existence to me. Initially this would induce panic in me. “Shit, I’ve got it wrong. Why didn’t I double check the details? What an idiot!” As I become more experienced, I realise that this seemed to be reception’s default approach for anyone. “Justice Secretary? Nope. Have you got a mobile number for them?” So, over time, my reaction shifts from panic to amusement. (And being more organised in asking for a contact number in advance). I sit and wait to be collected from reception.

I notice the whirr of a coffee machine: there is a brightly coloured mobile coffee shop shaped like a little tuk-tuk in the reception of the Ministry of Justice. I ponder the meeting at which this was decided to be A Good Thing. It is squeezed into the frontage, fitting – just – in amongst the anti-terrorist defences that have been installed. Out of the window I glimpse smokers, hanging around the huge strategically-placed planters on the pavement outside; more situational crime control in action. I hope that I’m collected soon; the longer I wait the more liable I am to have my bag searched by the security guards who inhabit the reception area. It would only take a moment, but it’s aggravating. My interviewee arrives.

Small talk, as we walk from reception, through the security ‘pods’ (think Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap) and to our meeting room. We walk past the signage for ‘independent’ bodies who are in fact physically based in the Ministry of Justice’s flagship building. This is normally coupled with a quip by the person I am meeting with. At the time this passes as polite chit-chat. But on reflection its importance strikes me more clearly: they mention it – and are primed to mention it – because they feel the problem. Every time they walk someone past it. Every single day.

A more recent experience involves the act of actually finding a space to meet. One interviewee had told me in advance that we might need to sit in the atrium as meeting rooms were hard to come by. It happens again. And again! And then, it became difficult even to find a table in the café. “Look forward to seeing you at 12. I’ll work in the café from mid-morning, before all the tables are taken.” What is going on?

Once I’m attuned to this situation, it can become hard not to be distracted by it. I notice people walking across my eyeline, like animals prowling the savannah looking for their prey. A free table! And they’re down, out of sight. I have also found myself, more than once, in a glass-boxed meeting room designed, I can only assume, for two-thirds of a small adult human. Being packt like sardines in a crushd tin box does not make for the best interview, it must be said.

These sometimes rather farcical experiences tell the tale, in their own way, of the crushing grip of austerity on the Ministry of Justice. Personal desks are being taken away; hot-desking is in. Partial home-working is another scheme, intended to reduce the need for office space. Different parts of government, and semi-independent bodies overseen by the MoJ, are moved in (and out), re-organisations to try to squeeze some more value (in a certain sense) out of this central London prime real estate. To the extent that this evokes the senses, it is a sense of impermanence and transience (there are always moving boxes somewhere, if you look for them), coupled with a low-level friction (people have been doing ‘more with less’, for a decade now).

My concluding observation is one that perhaps I shouldn’t admit, as a purported expert in penal policy: the Ministry of Justice makes no sense. Job roles change all the time. If you’re lucky, you may find an organogram (imagine a family tree, but for job roles) that putatively tells you who-does-what. You will invariably find that it is out of date, or does not help much on the specific issue you are researching, or both. The policy/operations boundary and related organisational schematics wash in, and out, like the tide. The organisations within 102 Petty France are contingent social constructions; they are in a permanent state of near-becoming.

Put another way, HMPPS is very much not the MoJ, and the MoJ is very much not HMPPS (or NOMS, as it was previously). Talking to insiders about issues that required a precise understanding of the current MoJ-HMPPS (and related organisational) dynamics would sometimes remind me of my French exchange trips as a young boy, trying to follow the rapid-fire chatter of my French family.

The observation that organisations – just like cultures, historical events and so on – are inherently resistant to efforts at a single and coherent account (and perhaps become more so, the more one learns about them), is by no means novel. I have myself explored what the Ministry of Justice ‘is’ from an interpretive analytical perspective, examining the narratives and webs of belief relied upon by penal policy makers.

Here, I have reflected on my sensory experiences of conducting research interviews in the Ministry of Justice headquarters, 102 Petty France, over recent years. This will hopefully be of interest to some, and perhaps even helpful to others. At the same time, I have a hunch that there is much more to investigate, to learn, and to theorise, about the sensory experience of being in spaces devoted to the development and maintenance of criminal justice policy, in addition to the direct study of spaces of punishment and social control.

Note: This account is an amalgamation of numerous visits to 102 Petty France, in part to ensure the anonymity of research respondents. To the extent that it can be said to take place at a particular moment in time, it occurred in spring 2018. For those planning to conduct their own research on penal politics and policy making, I am told that the appendix to my book Dangerous Politics, ‘Studying Penal Policymaking: Access, Ethics, and Power Relations’ is helpful and am happy to share the text with anyone who cannot access the book.

Categories
Comparative Penology power Sensory Penalities

A Taste of… Ethiopian Notes

Ian O’Donnell

Ian O’Donnell’s chapter in “Sensory Penalities” describes the assault on his senses that characterised a series of visits to a prison in southern Ethiopia. Foregrounding facets of the research experience that are seldom given the benefit of sustained academic attention it addresses themes of going, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, being, reflecting and comparing. What follows is a collection of excerpts from the chapter, with the addition of photographs which are not included in the book (full citation at the end of the piece).

Going

In 2016, Paddy Moran, a missionary priest, invited me to accompany him to a prison in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State of Ethiopia, where he had been working for many years. The brief was fairly loose. I was to make a visit, see what struck me and prepare a short report in conclusion. These were unusually unspecific instructions (but none the less welcome for that) for one who is used to being trammelled by the bureaucratic demands of grant-making bodies. I updated my travel insurance, arranged for the necessary vaccinations and set off.

I had visited prisons in Europe, the United States and Australia but never in Africa, and it was difficult to prepare in advance by reading – a particular disadvantage for a bibliophile – as the pertinent literature was virtually non-existent. In short, I had no sense of potential pitfalls or pratfalls. For someone who had been studying prisons for almost 30 years, this was a reminder of early days in the field when uncertainty reigned.

Seeing

The prison that I visited (for a week in 2016 and for a few days in each of the two following years) resembled a small and bustling village with a population of around 2,000 men and 100 women. It was located in a large town, a short drive from the main thoroughfare with its traffic honking and braking, drivers shouting and waving, livestock wandering, in a weirdly crash-free synchrony. There was a steep and potholed hill up to the prison where progress was slow and pedestrians waved and greeted Fr Moran and myself as we progressed – swervingly – towards the prison gate in a battered jeep.

The immediate vicinity was busy with traders touting for business, the ubiquitous three-wheeled, blue-liveried, bajaj taxis whizzing around collecting and delivering passengers, sometimes perilously overloaded, children walking to school and playing. A metal sign had been erected just inside the gate upon which one of the prisoners had painted an almost life-size representation of a member of staff in camouflage-style uniform. The sign requested visitors to stop and cooperate with any security checks. The figure in the painting offered a respectful salute, suggesting an ethos of cooperation rather than coercion. Not being able to read the official language, Amharic, was a challenge that I had neither the time nor the talent to overcome. It was impossible for me to make sense of the written word, its mystery adding to its elegance in this stranger’s eyes.

Touching and being

The heat and humidity were bearable but whenever I sat down with my interpreter to speak to prisoners in a dormitory a crowd soon gathered, sitting, standing and crouching around us. They were curious, never menacing; always keen to listen to the discussion and to offer their own observations. There was little in the way of natural light and when the group in attendance grew large the atmosphere could be somewhat stifling. I was an object of some curiosity in a place where Irish professors were seldom, if ever, encountered. There were some challenges for my kinaesthetic sense. Sitting on impossibly small stools conducting interviews was not conducive to comfort for a gangly researcher with a notebook on his knee. I needed to watch my step walking on the compound’s uneven mud paths; they were dry during my visits which made them less hazardous than they would otherwise have been. A sense of always being in a racial minority was a novelty for me – I was told that I was the first white man to visit the prison farm – but this difference was not denigrated. I had a sense of being out of place linguistically, culturally, geographically and also temporally

Not long before going to Ethiopia I visited a supermax prison in the United States. It is difficult to imagine a wider sensory gulf than that existing between the sterility and stimulus-poor environment of the supermax and the vibrancy and all-out assault on the senses that was the Ethiopian prison compound.

O’Donnell, I. (2021) “Ethiopian Notes” in Herrity, K., Schmidt, B.E., Warr, J. (eds) Sensory Penalities: Exploring the Senses in Spaces of Punishment and Social Control, pp. 203–216. Sensory Penalities is now available here: https://books.emeraldinsight.com/page/detail/Sensory-Penalities/?K=9781839097270

Categories
prison research self-harm sound Violence

Proximity and distance: Orality and aurality in prisoner writing

Eleanor March

[CW: suicide, violence, drug use, profanity]

The role of prisoner writing

During the Covid-19 pandemic, comparisons have often been drawn between lockdown measures and prison, yet people with lived experience of prison have countered that such domestic confinement bears little resemblance to the pains of imprisonment. These different viewpoints suggest that the general public has little understanding of what happens behind prison walls. This blogpost considers how prisoner writing can describe prison to the non-prisoner reader (i.e. a reader who does not have lived experience of prison), bearing witness to the carceral experience.

Drawing on examples of short stories about prison, written by current or former prisoners, I examine how these writers recreate sensory aspects of prison in their writing. Carceral texts commonly recount the sights, sounds, touches, tastes and smells of prison; but, in my experience of reading and analysing prisoner writing, it is the depiction of prison sound that is most powerful and affecting. In this blogpost, I examine how prisoner-writers translate the speech and sounds of prison into written form, to convey the carceral experience to those outside prison walls.

Recreating the carceral soundscape

Descriptions of the prison often focus on its noisiness (Wener, 2012), with sounds such as jangling keys, banging doors and gates, and voices of prisoners and staff contributing to the carceral “soundscape” (Herrity, 2019; 2020). Prison culture is overwhelmingly oral, privileging spoken communication methods such as the “grapevine”, and prison language is typified by extensive slang, as a predominantly verbal form of expression. Key properties of the prison environment are therefore its orality, demonstrated by the pervasiveness of oral communication, and its aurality, typified by harsh, high-volume sounds.

While literature may appear to be at odds with prison’s oral culture, spoken and written communication can more accurately be conceptualised as extremes of a continuum. Accordingly, Koch and Oesterreicher replace the labels “oral” and “literary” with the terms “language of proximity” (describing characteristics associated with face-to-face, spoken communication, such as cooperation and shared knowledge) and “language of distance” (describing features of formal, written communication, like unfamiliarity and detachment) (1986/2012, pp.446-448).

Crucially, an utterance may exhibit aspects of both proximity and distance. A literary text may therefore incorporate elements typically associated with orality, such as simple sentence structures, non-standard grammar, interjections, colloquialisms, figures of speech, and slang, jargon and profanity (Chaume, 2012, pp.89-91). My analysis of carceral texts shows that prisoner-writers use the language of proximity to translate the speech and sounds of prison into written form, recreating the prison soundscape for the reader.

The carceral language of proximity

Prisoner-writers incorporate the language of proximity into their writing in several ways. It is common for carceral texts to employ first-person narration, a narrative position that arguably allows the writer to “speak” to the reader. Many carceral texts use reported or direct speech, or employ a conversational narrative voice that represents the narrator’s internal monologue. All of these techniques allow authors to quote the utterances of prison in their writing.

The language of proximity plays a crucial role in bringing these reproductions of oral prison discourse to life, as can be seen in the comparison between the following two extracts:

“You are being rude again.”

“Yes, I suppose if you find the truth rude. And, I suppose at times it is. You asked me what happened and I told you.”

Stranger Than Fiction (14K1600, 2014, p.6)

“Try and deal me a good hand this time Jason, eh? You’ve been giving me rubbish all night! I can’t remember the last time I had a face card or a pocket pair,” joked Mike.

“A good craftsman doesn’t blame his tools, Mikeyboy. You could always try bluffing it,” Sam replied. “Anyway,” added Sam, “You’re just annoyed that I keep beating you. You’re a sore loser. Sour grapes. Throwing your toys out of the pram.”

“Aye, in your dreams boyo. I’m coming for you.” Mike replied, laughing.

Through the Glass (17K0686, 2017, p.1)

Stranger Than Fiction uses full sentences and the words “you are”, rather than the contraction “you’re”, which are typical of the written language of distance. In contrast, Through the Glass uses the language of proximity, including contractions like “can’t”, incomplete or elliptical sentences (such as “Sour grapes.”), the interjection “eh”, the slang “boyo”, the discourse marker “Anyway”, and figures of speech (such as “Throwing your toys out of the pram”). Other texts include elements such as slang, profanity, dialect, or graphological transcriptions of regional accents, to further accentuate the oral nature of prison life. Through these techniques, the language of proximity permeates prisoner writing, replicating carceral orality for the reader.

Oral and aural pains of imprisonment

While such literary reproductions of oral discourse are highly effective in replicating the carceral soundscape, a number of stories go further, placing the speech and sounds of prison at the centre of their narrative.

The story Inside Out opens with a soldier on active duty. The narrator’s internal monologue incorporates speech, military jargon and slang, interspersed with the sounds of battle, “THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP” and “CRACKBANG!!”, which the narrator is able to read as “the tell tale thumps in the near distance of shells” and “a bullet” respectively (PRT18/6, 2018, p.1).

The narrative shifts to a drunken fight, followed by snapshots of the narrator’s arrest and sentencing, before his arrival in prison, all relayed through sounds and speech. The prison environment is described via the same confused narration as the battlefield sequence:

The noise…. So much noise… No noise like it I’ve ever heard!! Chaotic, screaming, the noise… so much noise!! I know, I know… I’m used to battle noise, well I’ve experienced it… Never get used to it, but this… It’s different. Cries of pain, Co dees shouting to each other, but standing face to face… Why are you shouting? A young lad in the stairs, talking gobbledeegoop, he’s gone over, BANGTHUDTHUMPCRASH down the stairs… Blood everywhere all out on the floor, the screws shout to get inside our cells. Spice apparently? I don’t know what that is!! The noise doesn’t bang with munitions in the air… This noise has a deadly, yet silent violence to it… An unknown enemy!!

Inside Out (PRT18/6, 2018, p.2)

The cacophony of prison is emphasised by the repetition of the word “noise” and the direct comparison by the former soldier narrator with the sounds of combat. Military jargon and slang and the sounds of battle have been replaced by unfamiliar prisoner slang and the utterances and sounds of prison.

Crucially, where the narrator could make sense of the sounds of warfare, he cannot read prison noise, and is overwhelmed. He turns to the synthetic cannabinoid “spice” to help him cope, gets into debt, and is attacked by another prisoner, which is again presented in terms of sound:

“Oi you WHACK…. You owe me 4 ounces burn WHACK WHACK WHACK…. What dya mean ya can’t fucking pay me?”

WHACKWHACKWHACKTHUMPCRUCHSMACKWHACKSMACKTHUMP

“double next week……. CUNT”.

Inside Out (PRT18/6, 2018, p.2)

The WHACK and THUMP recalls the CRACK and THUMP of the deadly weapons in the battlefield scene, in an aural embodiment of the violence of prison, enacted on human flesh. In this scenario, the language of proximity conveys the forced, unwanted physical proximity of prison life. Ultimately, the narrator’s inability to decode the prison soundscape leaves him unable to adapt to prison life, and the story ends with his suicide.

Inside Out foregrounds the carceral soundscape, presenting the oral and aural pains of imprisonment as central to both the story and the carceral experience. This technique disrupts the literary language of distance and requires the reader to interpret these unfamiliar sounds and utterances, within a disorientating narrative, thereby exposing them to the dizzying effects of prison orality and aurality.

Reading the prison soundscape

The sounds and speech of prison are similarly foregrounded in Block Busters, which focuses on the ability to read the prison soundscape. The story opens at night, with the prisoners Chips and Joe awakened by screams from the cell of the prisoner known as “T”:

“Arrghh,” an ungodly scream bounced from wall to wall and floor to ceiling as it rang out through the linier corridors of HMP Havoc, eventually being swallowed up by the blackness of the unlit prison wing.

The sounds of wood attacking metal and stone proceeded the painful cries, waking those who slept soundly in the peace and serenity of their caged solitude.

“Yo, that sounds like ‘T’!”

“Na, he’s not gonna be smashing his cell up bro.”

Block Busters (17K1032, 2017, p.1)

The story again foregrounds orality and aurality, combining dialogue with written representations of T’s shouts and screams, and descriptions of the accompanying sounds.

As in Inside Out, this text emphasises the need for prisoners and prison officers to read the soundscape (Herrity, 2019, p.156; p.158; 2020, p.251). This skill is central to the story’s plot, as Chips and Joe interpret the sounds of T’s distress and ring their cell bell, summoning the unsympathetic officer, Mr Shaw. Shaw refuses to interpret the sounds around him and ignores T’s screams, ordering Chips and Joe to go back to sleep.

Come morning, Chips, Joe and the other prisoners again read the soundscape, deducing that T has committed suicide:

The sounds of screws rushing around with their keys rattling like angry snakes, shouting from protesting prisoners wanting to be unlocked in order to partake in their daily routines and incomprehensible radio messages fading in and out as officers ran by. Increasingly interested prisoners peering through slightly open observation panels started to holler at others answering the choir of questions being asked.

“They’re all at T’s door, think he’s dead,” one inmate yelled as the wing once again retreated into silence.

“He’s cutting man down,” another barked.

Chips and Joe immediately rushed to their door and put their ears to the gap desperately trying to make out what was being said.

Block Busters (17K1032, 2017, p.2)

This tragic outcome highlights the power dynamics of speaking and listening in a prison setting; Chips and Joe hear T’s distress but are powerless to help him, while Mr Shaw refuses to read the prison soundscape, resulting in T’s death. The harsh noises generated by the prison officers, such as their “incomprehensible” radios and their keys “rattling like angry snakes”, are emblematic of the power of the prison system over prisoners (Herrity, 2019, p.24). Block Busters uses the language of proximity to translate the carceral soundscape into written form, but also demonstrates to the non-prisoner reader how to translate the speech and sounds of prison life.

Sensing proximity and distance

This brief discussion has shown how prisoner-writers replicate the speech and sounds of prison in their writing, replacing the literary language of distance with the oral language of proximity. Crucially, though, this approach does more than simply recreate prison’s speech and sounds; it creates an active, participatory, sensory reading experience. The reader must adopt an active, hermeneutic role, sounding out literary facsimiles of prison orality and aurality, and learning how to read carceral sounds, in order to interpret the story. In short, the reader is required both to sense and to make sense of the carceral soundscape. This participatory approach allows the writer to bring a sense of the unfamiliar prison experience to the reader, but also moves the reader closer to the unfamiliar prison world. By replacing the literary language of distance with the spoken language of immediacy, prisoner writing in turn collapses the distance between the prison and non-prison worlds, creating a new sense of proximity between the imprisoned writer and the non-prisoner reader.

Primary texts

14K1600 (2014) Stranger Than Fiction. London: Koestler Arts archive.

17K0686 (2017) Through the glass. London: Koestler Arts archive.

17K1032 (2017) Block Busters. London: Koestler Arts archive.

PRT18/6 (2018) Inside Out. London: Prison Reform Trust archive.

References

Chaume, Frederic. (2012) Audiovisual translation: Dubbing. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Herrity, K. (2020) ‘Hearing Behind the Door: The Cell as a Portal to Prison Life’, in Turner, J. & Knight, V. (eds.) The Prison Cell: Embodied and Everyday Spaces of Incarceration. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.239-259.

Herrity, K.Z. (2019) Rhythms and Routines: sounding order in a local men’s prison through aural ethnography. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Leicester.

Koch, P. & Oesterreicher, W. (1986/2012) ‘Language of Immediacy – Language of Distance: Orality and Literacy from the Perspective of Language Theory and Linguistic History’, in Lange, C., Weber, B. & Wolf, G. (eds.) Communicative Spaces: Variation, Contact, and Change: Papers in Honour of Ursula Schaefer. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, pp.441-473.

Wener, R. (2012) The Environmental Psychology of Prisons and Jails: Creating Humane Spaces in Secure Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Categories
Emotions Environment Green Criminology research sound space

Deep-Sea-Soul-Sensing : deindustrialisation and the energy transition environment – Aberdeen City

Janine Ewen

Acknowledgements

 I would like to start this blog by acknowledging the people in Aberdeen who are responsible for our street art and the visuals featured within this piece. These people have made it possible for me to start expanding my criminological and sociological imagination thanks to their creativity in our home; I hope that paying closer attention to “unlikely places” will mean that those unknowns will feel acknowledged and less alienated. I would also like to say thanks to Dr Colin Atkinson and Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh – two academics (and friends) who have been generously supportive of me in recent years, and who have inspired me to explore the power of visual and sensory methods in research. Many thanks also to Dr Kate Herrity for giving me the platform to write and discuss partial findings and interpretations of my fieldwork, and for having thoughtful conversations with me on sensory criminology.

Deep-Sea-Soul-Sensing

My first sensory experience of the sea comes from my childhood living in Larne, a seaport and industrial market town on the east coast of County Antrim, Northern Ireland. As a child, I loved to run over the grassy hill at the back of my house and listen to the boats’ horns, watching them glide in and out: I wanted to know what it would feel like to be on one. Little did I know that, one day these moments of curiosity would become a reality, and vital for my family’s safety. When I was eight-years old, I was on one of those boats, escaping, with my mother and brother, from my father’s domestic abuse. We travelled to Stranraer, a town in South West Scotland, and then caught the train up to Aberdeen, where a social worker was waiting to drive us to a women’s refuge in Aberdeenshire.

I will never forget the journey, leaving to start a new life in Scotland, with a mixture of feelings of overwhelming fear, excitement and sea sickness. Whenever my mother and I have reflected on the journey, she apologises that I became unwell. It acts as a trigger stemming from the guilt she still holds for staying with my father as long as she did, trying to change his abusive behaviour. Some mild nausea did not phase me, even as a child. I was on one of the boats I had watched with joy. But most of all, I felt a great sense that we were going to be safer. It is for this reason that I have a comforting, yet reflective, relationship with the sea; watching and listening to the movement of the waves is the ocean’s way of confirming to me that we got away.

When I meet people who are from Northern Ireland and they ask me where I am from, their facial expressions and body language give a lot away. This is not to convey any great love of Larne: “Christ almighty, you’re not really from that rough shithole, are you?” I shrug it off, as it is not as if I personally hold many treasured memories from my birth home, although our next door neighbour was a friend to my mother and a lifeline to us when my father was especially violent and we needed to get out of our house. However, it is the same stigmatised reaction that I get when I tell people I mainly grew up in the North East of Scotland, in Aberdeenshire and in Aberdeen City. That chilly, wet, mean, rich, oil-dominant place that is far away from everywhere else – ‘the Granite City’, as it is commonly known, because of the presiding urban city-scape of locally quarried grey granite.

Admittedly, I have had my own depressing thoughts of Aberdeen. This is not because I believe we live constantly under a hovering ‘Aber-doom’ cloud of grey in the complete absence of bright spells, but because it creates my own frustrations, witnessing and experiencing the impact that the oil and gas sectors’ volatile nature of production and price can have on people’s livelihoods and declining living environments. It denotes the historic discrimination and ongoing survival of working-class fishing communities and our stark social divisions, inequalities and crime. It cuts deeply amongst people living here that we endure great vulnerability as Europe’s oil capital. No area in Scotland is immune to poverty from a decade of UK Government austerity measures, but Aberdonians do ask the question, “Where has all the oil money gone?”

An Illuminating and important spotlight on Aberdeen’s poverty was televised last year, on ‘Darren McGarvey’s Scotland series. It was a relief for locals to witness, on screen that our social challenges were being given national attention, rather than them being drowned in a sea of oil and material wealth. My only criticism is that people living in the North-East barely have a voice to talk for themselves about these challenges at a national level in Scotland. This must now change as we go forward, experiencing another identity as an energy transition environment.

A new appetite for multi-sensory exploration

In thinking about the potential for criminology/sociology research in the North-East, back in July, I attended an arts-based socially-distanced ‘sensory sea-sound walk’ to explore the acoustic environment (facilitated by researcher Maja Zećo and supported by the ‘Look Again Aberdeen’ organisation). The walk started off at the South Bank of the River Dee, going past Torry and in and around part of Aberdeen harbour

To give a brief context, Torry, which sits opposite the harbour and within Aberdeen city, is an area and community historically based around fishing and boat building, although over the years it has become more of a hub for the oil and gas giants. For better or for worse, Torry is always firmly on the table for discussion due to the area’s deprivation and social stigma that live beside the undeniably diverse and rich community spirit. The industrialised harbour site, once host to the largest fish market in Europe, is acknowledged by some as an urban gift, due to its inner city presence and accessibility, including a claim to fame in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest existing business in the UK. However, the harbour site can be viewed with more nuanced local realities; for example, it is an industrial space where onlookers can watch boats pass by against the backdrop of towering oil tanks whilst eating a bag of chips. However, be sure to prepare for battle with the criminally-aggressive and renowned oversized Aberdeen seagulls about to flock around you.

The focus of the walk was to savour the aesthetic pleasures of listening by examining sounds which we do not normally pay attention to, as well as different volumes and textures, and the relationship between quiet, industrial, and residential zones. Although genuinely curious and keen to participate in the walk, carrying my notebook, pen, fully-charged phone and wearing my face mask, I didn’t expect to experience as many visual, sensory and therapeutic stimuli as I did. This forced me to confront my own problematic relationship with the physical environment, which has led to a level of disengagement. In other words, it became apparent to me that I had neglected to fully register what was so close and right in front of me. The walk gave me a bitter sweet taste; on the one hand, I became revitalised after setting aside my inner frustrations of structural struggle and oppression, but equally I felt guilty because I thought I was making a considerable effort to ensure I was witnessing and acknowledging it – it being the good, the bad and the damn right beautiful and ugly. It is true that the usual urban and industrial suspects were out in force that day: the gulls shrieking alongside the stretch of constant traffic through the city centre, as if they were in competition with one another to make the most noise. Also present were the inescapable odours of fish and other pollutant pongs as a reminder of the atmospheric harm and dominance that comes with the territory of living in such an industrial environment. The group came together at the end to discuss how our personal identities contribute to our experience of listening to places, including the need for multisensory engagement, incorporating histories and memories situated in place.

What was an hour and half’s worth of walking evolved into several weeks of my own independent fieldwork, revisiting the area, looking at the visuals on the streets and abandoned buildings with an appetite to feel, see and listen more. I was also able to visualise the expansion of the urban trail through Torry, with the end point being the site for the new £350 million Aberdeen South expansion project, which will accommodate larger vessels being used in a range of industries, including cruises, as part of addressing the downturn of the oil. Directly opposite the area will also lie a soon-to-be-constructed new multi-million-pound clean energy park (Energy Transition Zone). A campaign group is now in battle with the oil elites to prevent them from taking away the last green space in Torry – St Fittick’s Park. Is history repeating itself again? In an opinion piece I wrote for a national newspaper, entitled ‘Brexit, coronavirus, oil, and the struggles of Scotland’s North-East’, I urged that any current and future developments to address deindustrialisation and economic renewal in the form of a speedier transition from oil and gas to a sustainable renewable energy future could only be deemed ‘just’ if they were driven by a humane agenda. Indeed, we must reflect and learn from our past mistakes, which are rooted in greed and sit beside unforgiveable misfortune, otherwise we have missed the point entirely. There should be no fast flowing free pass to claim success and the future title of “Energy Capital of Europe”. Any risk of harm caused by the unjust exercising of elite power in the pursuit of creating an “energy pot of gold” which exacerbates or causes the persistence of social inequality and environmental harm must be monitored and scrutinised, but also documented. It is for this reason that expanding the criminological and sociological lens in the North-East (green criminology for environmental concern and crime, as one example) would be timely, as it would restore the critical eye in the hope that people’s voices will be strengthened and human lived experiences will become conceptualised over the transition. Such an expansion would also fill a major geographical gap in Scotland in a region which is part of the global phenomenon of deindustrialisation politics – that, for me, is the transition gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s time to swap the ‘shithole’ insults for sensory ethnographic methods to inspire inclusive, therapeutic and collaborative conversations for researching home, belonging and atmosphere

Fieldwork Findings and Interpretations

‘Stuck’: Humorous stickers but hazardous industries

Situated directly opposite the harbour, the imposing cartoon smiley sticker is funny, playful, but it also feels sinister. The smile of the emoji, popular for evoking positivity of the human experience, is trying its best not to be distracted by the toxic eye, representing the hazardous nuclear waste dripping down—but how long?  Do we need to keep just smiling despite the harm?

Close to harbour boats and in the midst of intense noise construction (hammering and drills), this pirate skull sticker armed with crossed swords, gave me an immediate sharp focus for thinking about the dangers associated with our major industries of fishing and oil in the North East, the more unfortunate realities for people working on the sea—rough working conditions and risks to health and life. The sticker gave me a clear message of deadly troubled waters

Separate but linked: ‘Go Fuck yourself; it’s Scotland’s oil!’—the politics of Scottish independence

There is a strong sense of political support depicted through a large number of ‘YES’ for independence stickers on the streets all around Torry and the harbour, next to the North Sea oil. This provided me with moments of reflection, some of which evoked worries, doubts and insecurities about our future, our homes, how we feel living here and our contribution to the debate on Scottish independence. Aberdonians feel tension on this subject, particularly in relation to their industries, economic policies and Brexit. Although one sticker exhibits a fresh and bold-looking sense of freedom, the profanity sticker below, even though distinct, provides a connection and an example of local discussion on the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and the UK government, for instance, the issue related to where the oil money is being distributed. The sticker suggests uprising, frustration and a possible message ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’, which was a political slogan used by the SNP in the ‘70s to build its economic case for an independent Scotland. Both stickers inspire an honest change.

Sweet smell of surprise: a rebellious weed!

This weed took my sense of smell to another direction while I was walking down Sinclair Road. Through the harsh stench of fish and industrial smoke, at either side of me, it offered me a powerful sweet fragrance as if it was trying to be noticed and offering a few moments of relief from the background of strong competing smells. The weed is high enough to cover the background of tall tanks, so I could catch a glimpse of the natural world tangling through hard and tough industrial fencing. It is a rebellious weed that is making a bold statement by climbing high. Because it really wants to be seen, it provides me an inner comfort as well as a feeling of confirmation that exploring the area was an important and necessary experience—we should always have a closer look at the most unlikely places and look out for nature —for inspiration.

Words of accuracy: tanks labelled ‘slops’

When I saw the word ‘slops’ on these tanks, it felt accurate as it depicted my own images of liquid: overflowing, spillage and other industrial harms, including the harm from oil. In my research, I had found that ‘slop oil’ needs careful management since it contains water, oil and a mixture of waste products. Slop oil can cause dangerous environmental hazards and costly storage problems. It is a serious burden not only for oil companies and governments but also for communities. Moreover, it is a reminder of the burden Torry has been ‘gifted’ by the oil industry. Yet, the liquid is stored in front of the community waiting to be dealt with.

The sun still shines on fishes: community strength in Torry

Although Torry has largely been cleared to make way for the oil boom, there are still some small fishing businesses left. Although most of the fishing sector now operates from Fraserburgh and Peterhead. This mural on a fish factory that sits directly across the River Dee gave me the perception of the community—keeping oneself above the dark shadows. The sun still shines on fishes, giving them a needed spotlight. Although vulnerability has made deep inroads, some strength has still survived, preventing from falling into dark shadows beneath and pushing to move on.  It depicts a sense of closeness, resilience and hope. Torry has a long-standing social stigma attached to its deprivation, poverty and crime, particularly drug-related crime. It shows why dark spots of Torry’s history should not be swept aside, along with its social challenges.

Abandoned, but with character intact: double-handed peace amid neglect

When walking back from the new harbour expansion site to the centre of Torry, I walked past this abandoned warehouse which bore several graffiti writings. What brought an instant smile on my face was a double peace sign and cheeky hat on the corner wall of this unoccupied building. To me, the double hand gesture symbolising peace is not there to represent victory but a higher form of resistance against being abandoned, sitting on a skateboard representing activity and movement. The top hat symbolises an upstanding presence. So, perhaps the place is empty but not completely abandoned.

Crashing waves of construction: the comforting sea but the unknown future

This picture represents the first visit to the new Aberdeen Harbour Expansion site. The sea has always been of comfort to me in several ways—particularly for the fact that it has helped to bring me and my family to safety. I will always want to be as close as I can to the sea in the future. However, the experience of watching the developments at the new Harbour Expansion site is disturbing. It is miserable to listen to the crashing sound of the waves in a bleak background and the noises of the machine bringing along the worries of the unknown. The known is what will be physically present here from the expansion, but the unknown is how this will impact people and their living environments—who will benefit? My own experience of moving to the North-East is interconnected with my concern for people and the environment in the North-East. Although it is more fearful and strongly reflective experience to confront the construction atmosphere, it needs to be faced. We cannot allow the decisions about our future and industrial decline to be made by a small number of wealthy men at the top. The time is now to take ownership.