Categories
Ministry Of Justice power research sound space

Experiencing Research Interviews at the Ministry of Justice

Harry Annison

I like to walk to the Ministry of Justice. In part because you just can’t beat the Waterloo Sunset (so to speak); in part for the symbolism of a route that takes me past the Houses of Parliament, past the Supreme Court and past an assortment of other government departments. I can navigate most of it on auto-pilot by now. Off the train at Waterloo, racing to beat the crowds at the barriers. Out onto the South Bank. I squeeze past the endless waves of tourists near the London Eye, experience never teaching me that a quick pace is impossible. Over Westminster Bridge, usually dotted with bagpipers and tourists smiling at their selfie-stick phones. I use the road to skirt around people, until I remember this is ill-advised in central London. I push on through the hordes, wading through treacle. The air is thick with dirt. I arrive.

The brutalist exterior of 102 Petty France looms over me. It is a magnificent building, in its own way. I look up; take it in. Architectuul tells me that it is “a big, assertive building which succeeds in its job as a symbol of government authority and a landmark on the local skyline”. It is somewhat facile to describe it as prison-like, with its cold, concrete exterior and resistance to the outside world. But it is just that. I am a little early. I stroll down the side street, Queen Anne’s Gate. A plaque on the side of this mega-building tells me that Jeremy Bentham lived in a house on this site. I gaze through a barred gate. I could be free, launched into the open air of St James Park. I turn back.

Built in 1976, 102 Petty France was extensively modified from 2003 before the Ministry of Justice eventually became its new tenant in 2007. A high glass roof was installed, covering the former rear courtyard, meaning that there is now a large bright atrium at the building’s core. This contains a café, seating across various levels and glass-boxed meeting rooms. It looks remarkably like one of those overly-optimistic architect’s visualisations of how a space will be utilised: it feels light and spacious and there is a thrum of activity. Things happen here; power is held within these walls. I like being here, but feel a pang of guilt: I am there to talk about prisons, about punishment, about pain.

Getting past reception can be a challenge. They never seem to know the person I am meeting, to the point of doubting their existence to me. Initially this would induce panic in me. “Shit, I’ve got it wrong. Why didn’t I double check the details? What an idiot!” As I become more experienced, I realise that this seemed to be reception’s default approach for anyone. “Justice Secretary? Nope. Have you got a mobile number for them?” So, over time, my reaction shifts from panic to amusement. (And being more organised in asking for a contact number in advance). I sit and wait to be collected from reception.

I notice the whirr of a coffee machine: there is a brightly coloured mobile coffee shop shaped like a little tuk-tuk in the reception of the Ministry of Justice. I ponder the meeting at which this was decided to be A Good Thing. It is squeezed into the frontage, fitting – just – in amongst the anti-terrorist defences that have been installed. Out of the window I glimpse smokers, hanging around the huge strategically-placed planters on the pavement outside; more situational crime control in action. I hope that I’m collected soon; the longer I wait the more liable I am to have my bag searched by the security guards who inhabit the reception area. It would only take a moment, but it’s aggravating. My interviewee arrives.

Small talk, as we walk from reception, through the security ‘pods’ (think Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap) and to our meeting room. We walk past the signage for ‘independent’ bodies who are in fact physically based in the Ministry of Justice’s flagship building. This is normally coupled with a quip by the person I am meeting with. At the time this passes as polite chit-chat. But on reflection its importance strikes me more clearly: they mention it – and are primed to mention it – because they feel the problem. Every time they walk someone past it. Every single day.

A more recent experience involves the act of actually finding a space to meet. One interviewee had told me in advance that we might need to sit in the atrium as meeting rooms were hard to come by. It happens again. And again! And then, it became difficult even to find a table in the café. “Look forward to seeing you at 12. I’ll work in the café from mid-morning, before all the tables are taken.” What is going on?

Once I’m attuned to this situation, it can become hard not to be distracted by it. I notice people walking across my eyeline, like animals prowling the savannah looking for their prey. A free table! And they’re down, out of sight. I have also found myself, more than once, in a glass-boxed meeting room designed, I can only assume, for two-thirds of a small adult human. Being packt like sardines in a crushd tin box does not make for the best interview, it must be said.

These sometimes rather farcical experiences tell the tale, in their own way, of the crushing grip of austerity on the Ministry of Justice. Personal desks are being taken away; hot-desking is in. Partial home-working is another scheme, intended to reduce the need for office space. Different parts of government, and semi-independent bodies overseen by the MoJ, are moved in (and out), re-organisations to try to squeeze some more value (in a certain sense) out of this central London prime real estate. To the extent that this evokes the senses, it is a sense of impermanence and transience (there are always moving boxes somewhere, if you look for them), coupled with a low-level friction (people have been doing ‘more with less’, for a decade now).

My concluding observation is one that perhaps I shouldn’t admit, as a purported expert in penal policy: the Ministry of Justice makes no sense. Job roles change all the time. If you’re lucky, you may find an organogram (imagine a family tree, but for job roles) that putatively tells you who-does-what. You will invariably find that it is out of date, or does not help much on the specific issue you are researching, or both. The policy/operations boundary and related organisational schematics wash in, and out, like the tide. The organisations within 102 Petty France are contingent social constructions; they are in a permanent state of near-becoming.

Put another way, HMPPS is very much not the MoJ, and the MoJ is very much not HMPPS (or NOMS, as it was previously). Talking to insiders about issues that required a precise understanding of the current MoJ-HMPPS (and related organisational) dynamics would sometimes remind me of my French exchange trips as a young boy, trying to follow the rapid-fire chatter of my French family.

The observation that organisations – just like cultures, historical events and so on – are inherently resistant to efforts at a single and coherent account (and perhaps become more so, the more one learns about them), is by no means novel. I have myself explored what the Ministry of Justice ‘is’ from an interpretive analytical perspective, examining the narratives and webs of belief relied upon by penal policy makers.

Here, I have reflected on my sensory experiences of conducting research interviews in the Ministry of Justice headquarters, 102 Petty France, over recent years. This will hopefully be of interest to some, and perhaps even helpful to others. At the same time, I have a hunch that there is much more to investigate, to learn, and to theorise, about the sensory experience of being in spaces devoted to the development and maintenance of criminal justice policy, in addition to the direct study of spaces of punishment and social control.

Note: This account is an amalgamation of numerous visits to 102 Petty France, in part to ensure the anonymity of research respondents. To the extent that it can be said to take place at a particular moment in time, it occurred in spring 2018. For those planning to conduct their own research on penal politics and policy making, I am told that the appendix to my book Dangerous Politics, ‘Studying Penal Policymaking: Access, Ethics, and Power Relations’ is helpful and am happy to share the text with anyone who cannot access the book.

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
Emotions Environment Green Criminology research sound space

Deep-Sea-Soul-Sensing : deindustrialisation and the energy transition environment – Aberdeen City

Janine Ewen

Acknowledgements

 I would like to start this blog by acknowledging the people in Aberdeen who are responsible for our street art and the visuals featured within this piece. These people have made it possible for me to start expanding my criminological and sociological imagination thanks to their creativity in our home; I hope that paying closer attention to “unlikely places” will mean that those unknowns will feel acknowledged and less alienated. I would also like to say thanks to Dr Colin Atkinson and Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh – two academics (and friends) who have been generously supportive of me in recent years, and who have inspired me to explore the power of visual and sensory methods in research. Many thanks also to Dr Kate Herrity for giving me the platform to write and discuss partial findings and interpretations of my fieldwork, and for having thoughtful conversations with me on sensory criminology.

Deep-Sea-Soul-Sensing

My first sensory experience of the sea comes from my childhood living in Larne, a seaport and industrial market town on the east coast of County Antrim, Northern Ireland. As a child, I loved to run over the grassy hill at the back of my house and listen to the boats’ horns, watching them glide in and out: I wanted to know what it would feel like to be on one. Little did I know that, one day these moments of curiosity would become a reality, and vital for my family’s safety. When I was eight-years old, I was on one of those boats, escaping, with my mother and brother, from my father’s domestic abuse. We travelled to Stranraer, a town in South West Scotland, and then caught the train up to Aberdeen, where a social worker was waiting to drive us to a women’s refuge in Aberdeenshire.

I will never forget the journey, leaving to start a new life in Scotland, with a mixture of feelings of overwhelming fear, excitement and sea sickness. Whenever my mother and I have reflected on the journey, she apologises that I became unwell. It acts as a trigger stemming from the guilt she still holds for staying with my father as long as she did, trying to change his abusive behaviour. Some mild nausea did not phase me, even as a child. I was on one of the boats I had watched with joy. But most of all, I felt a great sense that we were going to be safer. It is for this reason that I have a comforting, yet reflective, relationship with the sea; watching and listening to the movement of the waves is the ocean’s way of confirming to me that we got away.

When I meet people who are from Northern Ireland and they ask me where I am from, their facial expressions and body language give a lot away. This is not to convey any great love of Larne: “Christ almighty, you’re not really from that rough shithole, are you?” I shrug it off, as it is not as if I personally hold many treasured memories from my birth home, although our next door neighbour was a friend to my mother and a lifeline to us when my father was especially violent and we needed to get out of our house. However, it is the same stigmatised reaction that I get when I tell people I mainly grew up in the North East of Scotland, in Aberdeenshire and in Aberdeen City. That chilly, wet, mean, rich, oil-dominant place that is far away from everywhere else – ‘the Granite City’, as it is commonly known, because of the presiding urban city-scape of locally quarried grey granite.

Admittedly, I have had my own depressing thoughts of Aberdeen. This is not because I believe we live constantly under a hovering ‘Aber-doom’ cloud of grey in the complete absence of bright spells, but because it creates my own frustrations, witnessing and experiencing the impact that the oil and gas sectors’ volatile nature of production and price can have on people’s livelihoods and declining living environments. It denotes the historic discrimination and ongoing survival of working-class fishing communities and our stark social divisions, inequalities and crime. It cuts deeply amongst people living here that we endure great vulnerability as Europe’s oil capital. No area in Scotland is immune to poverty from a decade of UK Government austerity measures, but Aberdonians do ask the question, “Where has all the oil money gone?”

An Illuminating and important spotlight on Aberdeen’s poverty was televised last year, on ‘Darren McGarvey’s Scotland series. It was a relief for locals to witness, on screen that our social challenges were being given national attention, rather than them being drowned in a sea of oil and material wealth. My only criticism is that people living in the North-East barely have a voice to talk for themselves about these challenges at a national level in Scotland. This must now change as we go forward, experiencing another identity as an energy transition environment.

A new appetite for multi-sensory exploration

In thinking about the potential for criminology/sociology research in the North-East, back in July, I attended an arts-based socially-distanced ‘sensory sea-sound walk’ to explore the acoustic environment (facilitated by researcher Maja Zećo and supported by the ‘Look Again Aberdeen’ organisation). The walk started off at the South Bank of the River Dee, going past Torry and in and around part of Aberdeen harbour

To give a brief context, Torry, which sits opposite the harbour and within Aberdeen city, is an area and community historically based around fishing and boat building, although over the years it has become more of a hub for the oil and gas giants. For better or for worse, Torry is always firmly on the table for discussion due to the area’s deprivation and social stigma that live beside the undeniably diverse and rich community spirit. The industrialised harbour site, once host to the largest fish market in Europe, is acknowledged by some as an urban gift, due to its inner city presence and accessibility, including a claim to fame in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest existing business in the UK. However, the harbour site can be viewed with more nuanced local realities; for example, it is an industrial space where onlookers can watch boats pass by against the backdrop of towering oil tanks whilst eating a bag of chips. However, be sure to prepare for battle with the criminally-aggressive and renowned oversized Aberdeen seagulls about to flock around you.

The focus of the walk was to savour the aesthetic pleasures of listening by examining sounds which we do not normally pay attention to, as well as different volumes and textures, and the relationship between quiet, industrial, and residential zones. Although genuinely curious and keen to participate in the walk, carrying my notebook, pen, fully-charged phone and wearing my face mask, I didn’t expect to experience as many visual, sensory and therapeutic stimuli as I did. This forced me to confront my own problematic relationship with the physical environment, which has led to a level of disengagement. In other words, it became apparent to me that I had neglected to fully register what was so close and right in front of me. The walk gave me a bitter sweet taste; on the one hand, I became revitalised after setting aside my inner frustrations of structural struggle and oppression, but equally I felt guilty because I thought I was making a considerable effort to ensure I was witnessing and acknowledging it – it being the good, the bad and the damn right beautiful and ugly. It is true that the usual urban and industrial suspects were out in force that day: the gulls shrieking alongside the stretch of constant traffic through the city centre, as if they were in competition with one another to make the most noise. Also present were the inescapable odours of fish and other pollutant pongs as a reminder of the atmospheric harm and dominance that comes with the territory of living in such an industrial environment. The group came together at the end to discuss how our personal identities contribute to our experience of listening to places, including the need for multisensory engagement, incorporating histories and memories situated in place.

What was an hour and half’s worth of walking evolved into several weeks of my own independent fieldwork, revisiting the area, looking at the visuals on the streets and abandoned buildings with an appetite to feel, see and listen more. I was also able to visualise the expansion of the urban trail through Torry, with the end point being the site for the new £350 million Aberdeen South expansion project, which will accommodate larger vessels being used in a range of industries, including cruises, as part of addressing the downturn of the oil. Directly opposite the area will also lie a soon-to-be-constructed new multi-million-pound clean energy park (Energy Transition Zone). A campaign group is now in battle with the oil elites to prevent them from taking away the last green space in Torry – St Fittick’s Park. Is history repeating itself again? In an opinion piece I wrote for a national newspaper, entitled ‘Brexit, coronavirus, oil, and the struggles of Scotland’s North-East’, I urged that any current and future developments to address deindustrialisation and economic renewal in the form of a speedier transition from oil and gas to a sustainable renewable energy future could only be deemed ‘just’ if they were driven by a humane agenda. Indeed, we must reflect and learn from our past mistakes, which are rooted in greed and sit beside unforgiveable misfortune, otherwise we have missed the point entirely. There should be no fast flowing free pass to claim success and the future title of “Energy Capital of Europe”. Any risk of harm caused by the unjust exercising of elite power in the pursuit of creating an “energy pot of gold” which exacerbates or causes the persistence of social inequality and environmental harm must be monitored and scrutinised, but also documented. It is for this reason that expanding the criminological and sociological lens in the North-East (green criminology for environmental concern and crime, as one example) would be timely, as it would restore the critical eye in the hope that people’s voices will be strengthened and human lived experiences will become conceptualised over the transition. Such an expansion would also fill a major geographical gap in Scotland in a region which is part of the global phenomenon of deindustrialisation politics – that, for me, is the transition gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s time to swap the ‘shithole’ insults for sensory ethnographic methods to inspire inclusive, therapeutic and collaborative conversations for researching home, belonging and atmosphere

Fieldwork Findings and Interpretations

‘Stuck’: Humorous stickers but hazardous industries

Situated directly opposite the harbour, the imposing cartoon smiley sticker is funny, playful, but it also feels sinister. The smile of the emoji, popular for evoking positivity of the human experience, is trying its best not to be distracted by the toxic eye, representing the hazardous nuclear waste dripping down—but how long?  Do we need to keep just smiling despite the harm?

Close to harbour boats and in the midst of intense noise construction (hammering and drills), this pirate skull sticker armed with crossed swords, gave me an immediate sharp focus for thinking about the dangers associated with our major industries of fishing and oil in the North East, the more unfortunate realities for people working on the sea—rough working conditions and risks to health and life. The sticker gave me a clear message of deadly troubled waters

Separate but linked: ‘Go Fuck yourself; it’s Scotland’s oil!’—the politics of Scottish independence

There is a strong sense of political support depicted through a large number of ‘YES’ for independence stickers on the streets all around Torry and the harbour, next to the North Sea oil. This provided me with moments of reflection, some of which evoked worries, doubts and insecurities about our future, our homes, how we feel living here and our contribution to the debate on Scottish independence. Aberdonians feel tension on this subject, particularly in relation to their industries, economic policies and Brexit. Although one sticker exhibits a fresh and bold-looking sense of freedom, the profanity sticker below, even though distinct, provides a connection and an example of local discussion on the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and the UK government, for instance, the issue related to where the oil money is being distributed. The sticker suggests uprising, frustration and a possible message ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’, which was a political slogan used by the SNP in the ‘70s to build its economic case for an independent Scotland. Both stickers inspire an honest change.

Sweet smell of surprise: a rebellious weed!

This weed took my sense of smell to another direction while I was walking down Sinclair Road. Through the harsh stench of fish and industrial smoke, at either side of me, it offered me a powerful sweet fragrance as if it was trying to be noticed and offering a few moments of relief from the background of strong competing smells. The weed is high enough to cover the background of tall tanks, so I could catch a glimpse of the natural world tangling through hard and tough industrial fencing. It is a rebellious weed that is making a bold statement by climbing high. Because it really wants to be seen, it provides me an inner comfort as well as a feeling of confirmation that exploring the area was an important and necessary experience—we should always have a closer look at the most unlikely places and look out for nature —for inspiration.

Words of accuracy: tanks labelled ‘slops’

When I saw the word ‘slops’ on these tanks, it felt accurate as it depicted my own images of liquid: overflowing, spillage and other industrial harms, including the harm from oil. In my research, I had found that ‘slop oil’ needs careful management since it contains water, oil and a mixture of waste products. Slop oil can cause dangerous environmental hazards and costly storage problems. It is a serious burden not only for oil companies and governments but also for communities. Moreover, it is a reminder of the burden Torry has been ‘gifted’ by the oil industry. Yet, the liquid is stored in front of the community waiting to be dealt with.

The sun still shines on fishes: community strength in Torry

Although Torry has largely been cleared to make way for the oil boom, there are still some small fishing businesses left. Although most of the fishing sector now operates from Fraserburgh and Peterhead. This mural on a fish factory that sits directly across the River Dee gave me the perception of the community—keeping oneself above the dark shadows. The sun still shines on fishes, giving them a needed spotlight. Although vulnerability has made deep inroads, some strength has still survived, preventing from falling into dark shadows beneath and pushing to move on.  It depicts a sense of closeness, resilience and hope. Torry has a long-standing social stigma attached to its deprivation, poverty and crime, particularly drug-related crime. It shows why dark spots of Torry’s history should not be swept aside, along with its social challenges.

Abandoned, but with character intact: double-handed peace amid neglect

When walking back from the new harbour expansion site to the centre of Torry, I walked past this abandoned warehouse which bore several graffiti writings. What brought an instant smile on my face was a double peace sign and cheeky hat on the corner wall of this unoccupied building. To me, the double hand gesture symbolising peace is not there to represent victory but a higher form of resistance against being abandoned, sitting on a skateboard representing activity and movement. The top hat symbolises an upstanding presence. So, perhaps the place is empty but not completely abandoned.

Crashing waves of construction: the comforting sea but the unknown future

This picture represents the first visit to the new Aberdeen Harbour Expansion site. The sea has always been of comfort to me in several ways—particularly for the fact that it has helped to bring me and my family to safety. I will always want to be as close as I can to the sea in the future. However, the experience of watching the developments at the new Harbour Expansion site is disturbing. It is miserable to listen to the crashing sound of the waves in a bleak background and the noises of the machine bringing along the worries of the unknown. The known is what will be physically present here from the expansion, but the unknown is how this will impact people and their living environments—who will benefit? My own experience of moving to the North-East is interconnected with my concern for people and the environment in the North-East. Although it is more fearful and strongly reflective experience to confront the construction atmosphere, it needs to be faced. We cannot allow the decisions about our future and industrial decline to be made by a small number of wealthy men at the top. The time is now to take ownership.

Categories
Emotions police power sound

The knock

Jason Warr

The other day I was lain abed, taking advantage of the snooze alarm, dozy with the warm snuggled hug of the memory foam topper keeping me from the day. Parched, gritty eyed, in comforting dark when I was torn from my state by Bang … BANG, BANG!

I was immediately alert, up, on edge, worried, looking for the fresh Adidas, thrown back, awaiting the later crash as the door succumbed to uniformed baton and boot. The sounds of the banging immediately transported me back to a former time and a “6 in the Morning …”[1] moment that I was not, until this moment, aware had been haunting me. Fortunately, this time it was not the police. It was just an impatient delivery driver bringing some novelty to the door (unlike some advisory others we’re adhering to lockdown rules) and had ignored the doorbell and had just slammed fist to door. However, it got me to thinking about the police and The Knock.

Thus far many of the blog posts that have been presented here have focused on the sensorial nature of the prison and conducting research therein. This is understandable as the admins are all currently prison researchers and thus many of our connections are in the same field. However, the aim here has always been to expand our work and thinking beyond the realm of prisons and our book on Sensory Penalities into the wider realm of a sensory criminology. Here I aim to discuss one element of that: namely, the symbolism enmeshed within the police actions of knocking on a door.

Kate Herrity[2] notes that sounds such as banging (in one section of her thesis she discusses banging on cell doors) are symbolically communicative. The rhythm, timbre, volume, pitch, and tone of the ‘bang’ convey a range of messages and information. From calls for attention, to dissatisfaction, to alarm and panic, to anger – all can be contained within those sounds. She also argues that in order to understand the sound environment, the soundscape, of the prison (and thus in order to understand the prison), we need to become attuned to those sounds in order to be able to interpret and discuss their relevance and meaning within the social ecology of that environment. I contend here that we can extend such thinking to explore the relevance and meaning of police behaviours – here specifically the Knock.

Knocking is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself. There are whole articles and essays based on this.[3] The interpretations of ‘knocks’ is a complex neuro-social interaction which comprises varying neuro-functions conjoined with forms of social cognition[4]. There is the identification of both the action itself (becoming aware of the sound) and the form (discerning location and component of the sound) and then a process of contextual interpretation – what does the sound/knock mean? Ordinarily, and evidently, a knock represents an external person’s expressed desire and intention to gain some access into the space from which a door currently blocks their progress. The knock, therefore represents an intent[5]. However, there is a complex relationship of cultural expectation, mores, and manners involved in the act of a knock. Evidenced by the fact that some ‘knocks’ on a door can be considered rude – you will know what I mean by that. Think about that, you will have some recognition already that some forms of ‘knock’ are inappropriate. BANGBANGBANG when bringing a cup of tea to someone on a conference call for instance. Yet, though we have some recognition of this when asked to contemplate it, it is nevertheless one of those simplistic acts in our quotidian lives that is much more complex than we ever really bother to consider.

When it comes to the police, and their knocking on your door, this is complicated by the function of their knocking. Or in deed not knocking. In the US policing literature, there is a wide range of critical explorations on the controversial policy and practice of the ‘No-Knock’ warrant – whereby the police can gain access to a property without the ordinary provision of having to ‘knock’ on the door[6]. When it comes to police practice there is a great deal of symbolic communication layered into the sounds of their knocking or decisions not to knock. Due to the delivery drivers rude awakening of my imagination it made me realise that I have been subjected to varying forms of the ‘the knock’ by the police. There is no singular knock here, instead there is a multitude of aural communications, being proffered by differing forms of the knock. Here I explore three.

tap … tap, Tap

When I was 17 a friend of mine died. The police who attended the scene asked me to accompany them to the family’s home in order to break the news to my friend’s mum. It was the first and only time I ever got into a police car willingly. Fuck knows I did not want to go but … what do you do? I remember so vividly how nervous the two officers, one older male, the other a younger woman, were on the way there. It was the first time I had ever seen people who I associated with power, hostility, and ill-treatment seem vulnerable. The ride there was filled with pained silence. They had seen the devastation wrought on the child of the person we were on our way to see. The closer we got the more nervous we all got. As we reached the house, I felt sick with dread. The officers approached the door and gave the door a tentative tap, followed by a brief pause, and then two more taps. The last of which seemed more assertive – tap … tap, Tap.

Tap, Tap … Tap, Tap

Sat in my flat in East London, minding my own business, watching tv, there came a Tap, Tap … Tap Tap at my front door. There was a weird, proprietary air to the knock on the door. As I disentangled myself from the cushions on the sofa in order to answer the door there came a further Tap, Tap … Tap, Tap. It was, as most knocks are a call for attention, but interlaced into this knocking was something of authority, confidence, and impatience. It made me hesitate. Nervous. Alert. Ready for a confrontation, violence if needs be. When I opened the door there were police officers, a number, strategically placed at the portal, eying the locked security gate with suspicion. Nerves, fight or flight instincts began to kick in, until I noticed another set of officers at the door opposite. “Sorry to bother you sir, but there was an incident outside last night, and we’re just checking to see if you saw or heard anything”.

Routine. Breathe …

BANG, BANGBANGBANG, BANGBANGBANG

Crash. Splinter. Baton and boot.

“6 in the morning, police at my door, Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor, Out my back window I make an escape …”[7]

Except I didn’t escape from the flat. I barely made it out of bed before hands and boots were on me. Blurs of black and white. Pain, sharp, intense. Shouts ringing loud but incoherent. I had no idea why they were there but … that was nothing new. It was the last time though. There is nuance to the communicative, and symbolically communicative, actions of the knock. Here, by exploring just three forms of knock employed by police officers we can begin to see how the act of knocking on a door, with differing intents, can be discerned. We tend not to think about the sensory element of actions of, or performances by, those who wield power. Yet they are there. If we are to have a greater understanding of the interactivity of that power with the public then we need to begin to start taking these sensory elements more seriously. There are questions to explore and to be answered. This is what sensory criminology aims to do, revisit much of our criminological understanding and see if there are facets that we have, hitherto missed.


[1] Ice-T (1986) “6 ‘N the Morning”, Rhyme Pays, Techno Hop Records, Warner Bros, Los Angeles: California.

[2] Herrity, K. (2019). Rhythms and Routines: Sounding Order in a Local Men’s Prison Through Aural Ethnography., Doctoral Thesis., University of Leicester., Leicester https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.794058

[3] For instance, von Wright, G. (1988). An essay on door-knocking. Rechtstheorie, 19(3), 275-288.

[4] Lemaitre, G. Pyles, J. A. Halpern, A. R. Navolio, N. Lehet, M. and Heller,L. M. (2018). Who’s that Knocking at My Door? Neural Bases of Sound Source Identification, Cerebral Cortex, Vol. 28(3): 805–818.

[5] See 3.

[6] See: Dolan, B. (2019). To knock or not to knock: No-knock warrants and confrontational policing. St. John’s Law Review, 93(1), 201-232.

Goddard, J. M. (1995). The destruction of evidence exception to the knock and announce rule: call for protection of fourth amendment rights. Boston University Law Review, 75(2), 449-476.

[7] See 1.

Categories
probation research sound space

Soundscapes of Probation

Jake Phillips

Many of the posts on this site have explored the sensorial experiences of punishment in novel and exciting ways. Most of them focus on the sights, sounds and smells of the prison as a site of punishment and these posts have got me thinking about how I might better understand probation and community sanctions (my own area of interest) if I take a more sensorial approach.

Probation has rarely been subjected to the kind of sensory analysis advocated by those who run and contribute to the Sensory Criminology project. The projects Picturing Probation and Supervisible (both undertaken as part of the COST funded project on Offender Supervision in Europe) sought to explore what probation looks like (as does the work by Rita Shah in the US). Yet probation offices are full of sounds and very few people seem to have explored them (as far as I know – please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!). And so, as requested by the editors of this blog I have returned to my fieldnotes from an ethnographic study of probation (conducted 2009-2010) and reflected on more recent research which has taken me around both Community Rehabilitation Company and National Probation Service offices across England and Wales to think about what probation sounds like. A somewhat brief analysis of these notes has led me to identify three distinct ‘sounds of probation’: the sound of the office; the sound of the building; and the sound of conversation.

The first ‘sound’ that I identified when I looked back through my notes and thought about what I hear when in a probation office (bearing in mind I tend to spend time watching and listening rather than doing) is that of ‘the office’, by which I mean the space where staff sit and to which clients rarely have access. I have previously called this the backstage of probation and, in many ways, it’s where much of what constitutes probation practice occurs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main sound in this space is the computer and other technologies upon which probation practice increasingly depends. As I noted during the first day of observations in a probation office during my PhD:

The office is large with about 11 banks of 6 desks. It is open plan with privacy screens between each desk. Each desk has a computer and a phone … Most people are typing or are on the phone- there’s a bit of general chat/banter as people come in but otherwise there isn’t much interaction going on between people. Each desk has a coffee jar/tea bags on as there is no communal tea fund – it seems that milk is the only thing shared. The air is alive with the tip-tap of keyboards and the ring-ring of unanswered telephones.

The sound of telephones ringing was a constant during those hours I spent listening, observing, and chatting to people about their work in probation. In addition to the sound of typing, a related and very common sound was that of someone announcing that ‘The computers are down… again’. The computers in one office would go down so frequently that it just seemed part and parcel of probation practice in the late 2000s. I hear the new IT equipment invested in by the National Probation Service in the last 18 months means things are much more stable – and so this particular sound might be understood as an indicator of how things have changed in recent years.

When the computers went down, the sound, and so the atmosphere, of the office would change. Some people would take the opportunity to get out of the office – either for a break or a much-neglected home visit. Others would resort to filing (yes, this was in the days when there were still paper files) while others would start chatting – about work, or about home. Others would be stressed – the computers going down was no excuse for not getting that OASys done by the end of the day. My point is that when the network went down, the office would suddenly fill with different noises. I have always been struck by how the computer directs probation work, but analysing this work through sound changes that understanding. It alerts us to what replaces ‘normal’ probation work when a key tool is out of action, and it accentuates the underlying stresses of the job.

The second sound is that of the building. Again, this is dominated by technology, but this time overlaid with the sounds of risk and security. The sound of the building is the sound of people asking to be let in via an intercom or the sound of a door being unlocked remotely or with a fob, allowing service users access to otherwise locked rooms and corridors. Occasionally it’s the sound of a panic alarm, more often than not set off accidentally by a curious child who’s attending probation with their parent.

These ‘building sounds’ convey something about what constitutes modern day probation. Through these sounds, probation becomes about security and risk: service users not being allowed access to officers’ spaces, panic alarms being situated around the building, buzzers and intercoms controlling peoples’ lives. It also highlights what it means to be a probation officer. Probation officers cannot be found by simply ringing their phone or walking to their desk: they need tannoying. There can be few other public buildings which still make use of tannoys quite like probation offices. It puts them in the same realm as train stations, doctor’s surgeries, supermarkets. It gives the impression of bureaucracy, importance, and busyness.

The third ‘sound’ of probation acts as a counterpoint to the previous two. During the many hours I’ve spent in probation offices the sound of conversation is a constant and, indeed, conversation is present in both the ‘sound of the office’ and the ‘sound of the building’. In spite of probation becoming increasingly reliant on technology, probation staff still overwhelmingly (in my experience) do the work because they want to help people. Moreover, they believe that the way to do this is through the officer-client relationship. Without conversation it is hard to create relationships and so we can see the sound of conversation as being at the heart of what many people would describe as ‘quality’ probation practice. Thus, the sound (or, conversely, lack of) of conversation (including both content and tone) between a client and member of staff tells us something about how probation functions.

But it’s the more casual, ad hoc conversations which I find particularly interesting. Many of these take place in the waiting room and all tell a story. Such conversations may take place between staff and former service users, such as in the following example, taken from my fieldnotes:

Accompanied Jim on a home visit. As we went through the waiting room he stopped and chatted to a former service user:

Jim: Oh no, you’re not back here are you?!

Former service user: No [laughing] – just here with me mate

Jim: Oh good – you did so well when you were here, good to see you again

Former service user: You too [they then had a brief catch up before departing with a shake of the hands]

In the car Jim told me about the service user, how he’d ‘properly turned his life around’ during and after his time no probation. He seemed genuinely pleased to have bumped into him.

But the waiting room is also home to conversations between service users, or between service users and their family members and they all tell us something about what probation is all about. I’ve heard conversations between old cell mates who haven’t seen each other since they were last in prison, or friends from school who, similarly, have not been in touch for many years. The probation office brings people who would otherwise have remained estranged together – perhaps only ephemerally, perhaps permanently: my snatched sounds are not enough to tell us any more than this. But I also hear people bemoaning the fact that they have to attend, complaining about the wait or asking for help with their bus fare home. For these people there is no doubt that probation is a hindrance. In a probation office, the sound of people worrying about being late for their appointment is also the sound of the power that probation officers hold over their clients. These are the sounds of liberty versus incarceration; a powerful reminder of how being under probation supervision can be experienced in painful ways.

The sound of these conversations – in the waiting room and in the office – suggest probation as a place where lives mingle – sometimes briefly, sometimes after a long period of absence and – in many cases – over a long period of time. And so, they are about how important the probation office can be in some people’s lives. The probation soundscape of probation can be the difference between freedom and incarceration, an aural manifestation of what Fergus McNeill calls the ‘malopticon’ but also, importantly, a place of human encounter.

A few years ago, I wrote about the architecture of probation offices, suggesting that the layout of an office and the way people use it reflects probation policy and shapes staff and service users’ experiences of probation. It is worth reflecting on what the sound of a probation office tells us about probation and how people may experience it. The noise of the office and the widespread use of technology seems to suggest – to me at least – an organisation which is predicated on efficiency and bureaucracy but which has encounter – both positive and negative – as an underpinning notion.

The ‘sound’ of probation, therefore, can represent both the good and the bad of how probation in England and Wales has developed in recent years. It reflects the bureaucratisation and technologisation of the service as well as the constraints it places on service users’ lives and relationships. But it also reminds us that at the heart of probation (for most of the staff and many of the service users who I have spoken to over the years) sits the relationship: that bond between people which is so important, whether engaged in the criminal justice system or not.

I write this in the middle of a global pandemic: probation offices will be sounding very different indeed at the moment. A few people are going into work, but most are working from home. What does the sound of probation at home tell us about community sanctions in a pandemic? Fewer chats and no incidental conversations will be limiting the connection that occurs within and through the probation office. But equally, there are no locked doors, intercoms, or tannoy announcements trying to find people who may be otherwise busy. People have talked to me about how they have been having more meaningful conversations with their service users, especially on socially distanced walks: in my mind, the sound of probation in these circumstances becomes the sound of cars, the weather and bird song rather than computers, tannoys and locked doors. Perhaps these are sounds which take us back to the days of ‘advise, assist and befriend’ where it was considered normal to meet a service user in a café or even, according to some of my more ‘old skool’ participants, the pub. As with many aspects of this pandemic, probation at home presents both opportunities and challenges – the key will be to hang on to the positives as things return to normal.

Above all, this brief reflection reinforces the point – already encapsulated by other posts on this blog – that analysing penality and penal institutions sensorially complements and augments existing knowledge about how that system of punishment functions. Paying attention to the ‘sound of probation’ has told me something about what probation is, how it functions and how people experience it and I hope that others respond to the editors of this blog by analysing probation and other forms of punishment in this way.

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