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.