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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
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!