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.