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prison PrisonFamilies Touch

Staying in touch

Natalie Booth

A number of claims have been made regarding the importance of prisoners staying in touch with their family through prison visits, firstly from a humanitarian perspective of enabling family members to see each other, but also regarding the impact of maintaining family ties for successful rehabilitation, reintegration into society and reduced re-offending (Dixey and Woodall, 2012: 29[i]).

There is now a wealth of literature suggesting that, where possible, people in custody should be encouraged and supported to ‘stay in touch’ with their relatives, friends and/or significant others. Yet, in the context of prison, the phrase ‘stay in touch’ cannot and should not be understood in the literal sense. Aside from a short embrace at the start (and perhaps at the end) of a prison visit, physical interaction – touch – between a prisoner and a loved one is not generally allowed. This is perhaps why Dixey and Woodall have suggested that staying in touch is more likely focussed on another of our senses – sight.

A recent trip to the visitor’s centre of a female prison left me thinking more about the sensory aspects of visiting. Initially, I was drawn to the look of the prison – the institutional ooze of the place – the lino floors that squelch with every step, and the generic, grey painted walls, the ‘fire retardant’ doors and those low squishy chairs with scratchy fabric that you get both in the doctor’s waiting area and our university offices. They’re normally a bland colour – brown, beige or, if you’re lucky, green!

There’s also a smell. Stuffiness underscored with bleach or other cleaning materials. The smell might take you to other institutional settings – a hospital or, in my case, roaming my school corridors after hours, after the cleaners had been. While I talk about a recent trip to the visitors centre, I know this isn’t the first time my senses have been enlivened by the visitors centre. There’s no doubt my memory has previously transported back to those school corridors. However, it was the first time I really considered touch.

Feel. Stroke. Press. Hold. Pat. Embrace. Cuddle. Hug. Lean. Snuggle. Touch.

Tactility and physicality were brought even more strongly into focus during my discussion with a visitor. This greying male visitor half-jokingly remarked that ‘the officers touch me more when I come here than my wife of 30 years!’ While at first we both chuckled at this comment, when our eyes connected, we both felt the sting of truth which underscored his observation of ‘the visit’.  Indeed, the pat down search from the officers – much like that which you might experience at an airport – is likely strong competition for the short embrace he was permitted with this wife when he first entered the visiting hall.

This competition was twofold. First, in its duration. Second, in the level of intimacy it involved.

I am referring to a ‘normal’, social visit at a prison which likely lasts around an hour and takes place fortnightly for sentenced prisoners. It is not my intention to consider what his statement signals about prison security. Instead, the discussion here focuses on a reflection on the interactions, connections, communications which are – and which are not – possible within this space. Recalling visits I have attended, I find myself questioning afresh some of the observed interactions…

How a young couple, used to living together, used to sleeping next to each other every night, copes with a 5 second embrace once every 14 days? How they navigate sitting across a table from one another for an hour when they’re accustomed to snuggling up on a sofa for whole evenings at a time? How a brief, brush of their hands out of view of the prison officer reminds them of the time when they could walk hand-in-hand?

What about a mother seeking to hold, to calm, soothe and help ameliorate the pain, the vulnerability, the worry their adult incarcerated child is displaying? What happens when a sob escapes? When tears trickle down a cheek waiting to be wiped away by Mum who, instead, cannot reach across the table to fulfil what she might feel is her intrinsic, maternal responsibility?

How must it feel to parent in prison? To be a parent who may be allowed to hold a young child on their knee while stationed at their designated table in the visits hall, but who cannot get up, chase, play, run, tumble or jump around with their young child in the children’s play area? Who cannot lift their child up and make noises and gestures which turn their child into an imaginary aeroplane? Or bounce them around to the tune of ‘the Grand old Duke of York’?

Visits contain intrinsically personal moments, feelings and experiences in a particularly stark, institutional and very public space. I am not suggesting that all physicality appropriate within the home or private spaces would be – or could be – directly replicated within the social visiting environment.  Yet, this does not mean that opportunities for tactility are not appropriate at any time or place within the prison.

To some degree or other there are existing opportunities for tactility in prisons. In prisons overseas some couples are permitted conjugal visits. Whereas, many prisons serving England and Wales offer extended visiting days, sometimes called ‘family days’, ‘lifer days’, or ‘children’s days’. Some prisons have overnight facilities for mothers and children[ii], while others have recently introduced family rooms[iii]. After the initial searching, security at these events is generally reduced meaning that movement and interaction is more readily available[iv]. This includes opportunities for appropriate (e.g. non-sexual) physical contact.

Importantly, we should not get into the habit of arguing that the availability of some extended visits in some prisons serving England and Wales provides exemption from questioning the significance of touch…or its absence. This is especially relevant when there are so many discussions in research and policy emphasising the benefits of ‘contact’ for individuals experiencing a period of enforced separation by imprisonment[v]. We are talking about husbands, wives, partners, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters and friends who, in the prison, may be trying to continue performing their roles and, in the future, may wish to resume previously held identities. How might increased tactility aid these ventures?

Beginning to engage in this kind of sensory questioning has – at least for me – raised more questions than it has answered. At an extreme, I am wondering whether it would be possible for people separated by imprisonment to stay in touch by actually staying in touch…


[i] Dixey, R., and Woodall, J., (2012) The significance of ‘the visit’ in an English category-B prison: views from prisoners, prisoners’ families and prison staff. Community, Work and Family, 15 (1), pp.29-47.

[ii] e.g. Acorn House at HMP Askham Grange.

[iii] e.g. recently created family rooms at HMP Oakwood.

[iv] See: Booth, N., (2018) Family Matters: A critical examination of family visits for imprisoned mothers and their children. Prison Service Journal, 238. Available: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/psj/prison-service-journal-238.

[v] e.g. Lord Farmer., (2019) The Importance of Strengthening Female Offenders’ Family and other Relationships to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime. London: Ministry of Justice.  

Categories
mobilities prison

Ghost in the sweatbox

Jason Warr

“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light”

Milton: Paradise Lost (lines: 432-433)

I once spoke to a member of the INLA who said that he had been tortured by the British military in the six Counties. He said the hoods, the sensory deprivation, the shouting, the beatings, the white noise were bad but the real pain, the blot out everything but the very fibres of your body pain, came from the stress positions. Being forced into cramped and crouched positions for extended periods of time so the pain built and built and became all consuming – even after being allowed to move. As I sat there in the cramped Perspex and metal box, knees painfully wedged against the ridged front, arse numb from the hardened seat, broiling in nought but my boxers as the mid-morning sun turned the, only moments before, icy box into an oven, fighting the staccato and nauseating swaying, the caustic smell of ancient vomit, sweat, plastic, and fear burning my nose and throat this is what I thought about. Torture.

As I sit here in my academic office the echoes of that confined sensorium experienced 20+ years ago revisit me. I shiver. I don’t often reflect upon the embodied experiences of my decade plus incarceration, preferring rather to rationalise, examine, evaluate. I did then, and still do impose a distance between myself and my memories. I utilise them to inform research questions and interpretations of the contemporary prison. They are a filter. However, if we wish to explore the true nature of prison, punishment, and processes of social control (that is after all what my job as a prison’s researcher is) it behoves me to find the honesty in my own experiences. To no longer deny my embodied captivity but to explore it in all its sensorial glory. That it is what I have done in our book and what I do here. For the prison is an embodied experience, not just one of mind. The prison doesn’t just impose itself upon the ghost but the machine as well. The ‘penal’ is sensorially encoded into every constraint and restraint that you as a prisoner are subjected to. Bars, bells, bolts, bangs, and boxes – all are experienced through the senses; all communicate a symbolic message – thou art prisoner!

I don’t know whether the INLA man told me the truth about him being one of the ‘Hooded Men’. It mattered not. As I sat there it was that particular story that my discomforted mind dragged forth. Of course, I am not saying my experience was similar to the horrors of ‘enhanced, 5-point, interrogation’ but it was, nevertheless, what my mind conjured as the pain in my knees grew, my back began to cramp, and every thought narrowed to the nagging senses of my twisted and uncomforted body. I had never been inside one of these contraptions before. In the preceding years, though experiencing multiple moves and journeys doubled cuffed and squished between the sweating and nervous bodies of officers, I had been moved in singular roomy vans or cars. Yet here I was, for the first time, going fuck knows where, in a sweatbox.

An apt name. A box of sweat.

Long is the way and hard …

That morning I had been rudely forced from sleep as 4 officers had burst into my cell. Panic. Fear. I had jumped out of bed, sleep blinded, clad in just my boxer shorts, and had swung at the unknown, amorphous, and blurry bodies in front of me. Thems the rules in prison. The hard lessons you learn in Young Offender Institutions – people burst in on you, you fight. There is no choice but to fight. Connection. Crunching impact as fist impacts with something. “Ooogh”. Hands reach, bodies swarm, lights flash, shadows dance, uniforms glimpsed, grips take hold. Pain. Sharp and intense. Arms going one way, head another, kick in the nuts. The swing may have been a bad idea! “What the fuck Guv? What’s going on?” Grips loosen. I’m told to calm the fuck down and comply. I do. I’m told that I’m being moved. I cry that I have a visit that day. I complain. Grips retighten, twisting. Pain. I’m told that my mum will be notified when the wing officers come on in the morning. I struggle but it’s no good. I’m being ghosted.

Ghosting … old prison slang for being forcibly and unexpectedly moved from hosting prison to somewhere else in the estate. A laydown or permanent move. You know not. I did not know why I was being ghosted. I was told that it was for security reasons. I didn’t know where I was being sent. Security reasons. Laughingly they told me I was heading up North. What the fuck?? Ghosting is one of the more pernicious aspects of being in prison. The discombobulation. The anxiety. The stress. The not knowing. The deprivation of certitude. It ruptures what ontological security you may feebly cling to. You do not warrant security; you gave that up when you came to prison.  It creates a schism between you and the spaces you inhabit. Nothing is solid. Nothing permanent. No place is yours. Transportation has a long history in carceral practices. The process itself is designed to both physically and symbolically cast you as an outsider, no longer a member of this society, you belong outside, over there, away from us. Any sense of belonging, of community, is to be denied to you, your civic status revoked. That loss is encoded into the very embodied experience of transportation. Of course, in my ghosting, I am not saying that I am some Jim Jones being sent o’er seas to Botany Bay[1] nor a Sarah Collins heading for Van Dieman’s shore[2]. However, the forced movement, and the status and powerlessness it reinforces, are microscopic instances of the same power being imposed for the same reasons.

So, there I sat, in my boxers, sweating, in pain, rocking and banging about as the vehicle ran roughshod over pothole and bump. Heading to where I knew not in the barren North. Cramped, nauseous, muffled, a world of green blurring by, no comforting concrete to be seen. Wilderness. The interminable minutes stretched into hours. The heat and funk rose as the plastic of the booth, the miniature cell, closed in and compressed the air around me. The stench of me combining with that older undertone of vomit and detergent and heat to make my own self a source of disgust. The roar of the tyres and the diesel engine, pitched to the point of visceral white noise, intruded into my mind; occasionally blocking out the pain emanating from my lower limbs and back. My thoughts, when they came, were bloody and black. I raged. I wanted to hurt anyone associated with that experience. With every passing, torturous mile I became more feral. With every passing mile I shrank, I became less. To survive I needed that journey to end. Even if all that lay at the end was another cell and countless years.

Long is the way …


[1] MacColl, E and Lloyd, A L (1957) ‘Jim Jones at Botany Bay’, Convicts and Currency Lads, Australia: Wattle Records.

[2] See old English Ballad Female Transportation: https://digital.nls.uk/english-ballads/archive/74892349?mode=transcription