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
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
History prison research

TALKING ABOUT NOT TALKING: THE SENSES AND THE VICTORIAN PRISON

Richard W. Ireland

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

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

Sight

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

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

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

Touch

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

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

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

Hearing

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

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

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

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

Taste

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

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

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

Smell

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

Sense as privilege

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

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

Categories
History overcrowding prison smell

eau de Durham

Michael Spurr

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


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


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


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

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


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

Categories
Comparative Penology Emotions History homophobia prison

Singing, Sex and Silence on a Victorian prison island

Katy Roscoe

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

CW: homophobia, sexual abuse.

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

He wrote:

Disorder on Cockatoo Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Emotions power prison research sound

‘Feeling’ feelings

Kate Herrity

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving (for M)

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

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

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

This cannot ever be enough

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
power prison Touch

The Power of Touch

Jason Warr

I stand there, powerless.

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

Moving down my body. I grit my teeth.

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

I brace myself.

I feel vulnerable. Small.

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

I let it happen.

Anger.

Shame.  

The hands stop.

He says: “Next”.

I amble on, hating myself.

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

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

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

I feel the hands on me

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

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

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

Anger. Shame.

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

Categories
Comparative Penology prison research

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

Francis Pakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But sleep well, I did.

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

Categories
Penal Voyerism prison research Teaching

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

Janani Umamaheswar

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
prison research self-harm Touch

Close, closer

Kate Herrity

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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