I recently found a blue plastic prison issue mug in a brown cardboard box at home, sitting on top of a collection of classroom notes from a class I taught in prison. I was in the process of writing an article (Little and Warr, 2022) and thought I’d try to recall something of the sensory feel of that space. Instead, I was reminded that my handwriting is not always as clear as I had assumed it was. The ink had faded a little and the paper curled inwards at the edges, but otherwise was in good condition. However, it was the discovery of the mug that really transported me back to this former pedagogical space, one in which I co-facilitated an eight-week educational course. The course included students from De Montfort University and men serving long sentences at ‘HMP Lifer’. The mug might seem like an unlikely vehicle for such an evocative transportation, and yet to me it screams its institutional association.
To me, the mug is unmistakeably a prison mug. Its insipid light blue colour is distinctive. It might well be the sort of mug used in other institutional settings, but this is symbolically imbued with the essence of punishment. Its colour matches closely the faded light blue prison issue t-shirts worn by many of the men on the wings. It has a very plastic feel to it and is surprisingly lightweight, without substance, in contrast with the depth and weight of the sentences hanging over the prison learners in the classroom. It smells of plastic too, infused with a slight whiff of instant coffee, perhaps because it hasn’t had a very good wash yet, even after several years. Its authenticity has been preserved, like a relic from a bygone era found intact. The tasting notes of the coffee it contained promise that it “…makes a solid morning cup. It’s rich, bold, and robust…”. Just like me, I chortle inaccurately to myself.
I feel the need to clarify fairly early on that the mug was taken from one of our weekly sessions, hastily gathered up as we sought to depart the prison on time. The mug was taken accidentally, packed up in a box containing papers and stickers, photocopied readings and feedback sheets. This defence may not hold up in a court of law, but I know you trust my account.
The prison is not that far away, geographically speaking, from where I’m writing this now, at home. In other ways, however, it’s another world: where I am now there is the freedom to descend to the kitchen, fill up on coffee or snack on toast. I can choose something fresh and zesty or something warm and comforting, a new combination or something familiar. These are items that I’ve chosen, that create some sense of familiarity, curated for the moment. If the space has a smell, it is one that has been cultivated over time by its inhabitants, my family. It does not have that distinctive institutional smell of disinfectant mixed with blood, sweat and fear that a prison has. Or at least visitors have been too polite to mention it.
At the time of writing, I haven’t been back into the prison for a while, a period elongated by the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns. It feels like a long time since I was in the prison, and I miss the classroom space. It wasn’t an easy experience, because planning and organizing it from beyond the prison boundary can be stressful and tiring. As can the facilitation itself. Going through notes and interviews with participants helped transport me back to moments and sensations experienced in the prison classroom. The classroom itself generally felt like a convivial space, a chatty place where people engaged in conversation easily despite the constrained circumstances. This was a zone where people were able to express something of their real selves, exhibit different thoughts and feelings to the ones they typically felt able to show openly in their institution they ‘belonged’ to. It felt like an honest space, a space rendered sufficiently trustworthy for the people there to engage in conversation despite their deeply contrasting experiences of day-to-day life.
University students spoke about seeing the men as humans, as individuals they could relate to; with perspectives and experiences they could learn from. I remember clearly a university student explaining to me about how this experience had also helped to humanize myself and my colleague, university lecturers. Compared with a lecture theatre environment, she was more able to see us as individual people with real thoughts, views, emotions, a sense of humour and a life beyond university. I was slightly surprised, but it made sense, and I was pleased she felt able to say this. Some months later, I was lecturing during the pandemic lockdown and I was confronted with the realization that the experience of prattling away to my laptop alone in a room at home was likely further reducing my pedagogical humanity in the eyes of students.
Back in the prison classroom, and some of the thoughts, feelings and life experiences expressed weighed heavily on me and I took some of this away with me, without even realizing it at first. Finding the mug took me back to the session it came from, and then a previous session when we were taking a break.
At break-time, everyone mingled as a group. The second week was the first time during the course we were able to take in refreshments for the group. The prison had agreed to this and to provide the hot water in flasks, but nothing more. This contrasts with the experience of the very first course, in 2016, when we were eventually able to have lunch together from the restaurant. The food had been provided by the on-site restaurant and one of the prison students proudly showed off his baking skills. Now, the prison would not, or could not, provide refreshments because the restaurant had long since ‘temporarily’ closed, and has been ever since. We were now allowed to take certain – limited – items in. We took in some biscuits, fruit, juice, teas and coffee. I was pleased with this, as I recognized from a previous course that break time is important in setting some sort of tone, in communicating something of the course essence. Commensality tends to be more limited in our society these days, especially in prisoner society. It can helpfully echo the social nature of learning and helps humanize the space. It helps put people more at ease and communicates something of the pedagogical equity we’re aiming for during the sessions. Of course, there were considerable differences between the living circumstances of the people in the room. However, for these moments, social interaction was enabled and normalized, and subsequent conversations suggested it was a very welcome part of the overall setting. Just being able to converse with ‘normal’ people from beyond the prison boundary, who had no power or interest in impeding their paths to official rehabilitation, was experienced as worthwhile and valuable. Paired with new, fresh, products from the outside world, the effect was a sensory delight.
So, for me the mug is associated with a break, and yet a continuation of the values in the space, with informal dialogue privileged to facilitate interaction and the exchange of information, ideas and stories. The mug provided people with a vehicle for activity, or inactivity: something to do (make a drink), a catalyst for conversation, or a way to remove oneself from interaction for a short while. But the mug was never the main event, nor could it be, especially when drinks would have tasted so much better from something designed with a little more sensory pleasure in mind. The main event for me was the biscuits and these are good for generating abstract conversation (Little and Warr, 2022). There were some plainer classics (your ‘Nice’ biscuits – how do you pronounce that word?), some popular favourites (Jaffa Cakes are not cakes), through to some more luxurious chocolate coated options. These offerings were popular amongst some but the group was careful not to demolish them too quickly. There was no stashing of the goodies in socks, trackies and sleeves I had witnessed when running a similar (shorter) course in a local ‘resettlement’ prison. The most noteworthy observation, in fact, was a palpable initial reticence amongst the prison students to touch or consume the biscuits. ‘Are you sure we’re allowed these?’ I was asked by more than one prison learner. It took what felt like quite a while for one of the students to take a biscuit, despite there being some interest. It’s unusual for a group to resist the allure of such sugary treats. It’s also impossible to eat only one; fact. Based on my autoethnographic research replicated over many years.
Being genuinely asked by a grown man if they could eat a biscuit that had clearly been brought in partly for their benefit came as something of a shock to me. The reason became clear shortly afterwards when one of the prisoners explained that they had recently been explicitly told they should not eat the biscuits. It may even have been included in the prison’s pre-course information briefing session. They were led to believe from prior experience that indulging in biscuits could lead to a ‘nicking’ and they did not want to risk unnecessary aggro for the sake of a custard cream. Whatever the precise reason, it was clearly a shared understanding amongst the group and it took a surprisingly long time to encourage them that it would be ok, and without disciplinary consequence. It was in this moment I belatedly realized that at least some people in the room sensed that I had some power in proceedings, or responsibility, or both. I had been relatively oblivious to this until that point, and now it was being made explicit. Whilst this was ‘only’ about biscuits, the biscuits had become symbolic of these other currents related to power and permission. By the end of the session we were informed clearly not to bring in any shit biscuits again. By which was meant, none from a ‘basics’ range or that might be confused with something that might be easily available institutionally.
Whilst the biscuits, and the responses to them, were significant, they were not quite as big a hit as expected. They were definitely appreciated, but there were quite a few left. By the end of the break, this seemed less about perceptions of permission, and more about personal choice. For even more popular than the biscuits was the fruit that had been brought in; there were grapes and kiwis. I recall thinking that our inclusion of kiwis was a bit of a random touch. This was not the view of one of the prisoners. The unfamiliar fresh citrussy smells cut through the heavy, warm air like nothing else. The bright, natural fruity colours hypnotised their consumers for a few moments: ‘Woah, a kiwi; I haven’t had one of them in eight years’. Cue a conversation about the last time he had a kiwi and how the quality and quantity of fruit generally available in the prison was so limited, and poor. Likewise, the (decent, not from concentrate) fruit juice went down a storm. It reminded me of how important fresh fruit and vegetables are, especially in (island) communities when access is so restricted. It also reminded me that perceptions of what is valuable, are also highly contingent upon personal circumstances.
So, the tea, biscuits and fruit were popular, appreciated and came to symbolise break time. They were a good way of bringing people together for a chat, enhancing the comfort in the classroom space and helped people feel more at ease with each other. A sign that break times were ‘working’ well further occurred when men ‘doing time’ brought in their own tea to share with the group. This human desire to engage in exchange provided a nice touch and validated our sense that this had become a convivial space in which to teach and to learn. We had several more breaktimes like this over the following weeks. And then they changed.
During a later session, perhaps the fifth, the biscuits were stopped. Whilst exiting the prison the previous week we were told not to bring in any more fruit or biscuits for the sessions. This was disappointing but we complied with the request, which was made by a member of the education department staff. Curious to know the reason, the only explanation we received was a concern about ‘conditioning’. Conditioning seemed to be a new buzzword that was being lobbed around by certain staff to explain or justify any new restriction or cutback that further impoverished the regime. This is not to deny the existence of manipulation between people in prison and people employed to hold them there. Indeed, in recent years, there has been an increase in instances of drugs, mobile phones and sim cards being found in prisons. In the year prior to our course, it was reported in the national press that a lack of experienced prison officers had been blamed, in part, for these challenges (The Guardian, 2018). This played a part in the sensitivity towards some items being brought into the prison, such as grapes, kiwis and custard creams. Meanwhile, a prison mug escaped undetected.
Little, R., & Warr, J. (2022). Abstraction, belonging and comfort in the prison classroom. Incarceration, 3(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/26326663221142759
The Guardian (2018) More than 2,500 prison officers disciplined in five years, MoJ figures show [accessed November 2022]