power prison sensory smell Teaching

The Prison Mug: Perceptions of permission

Ross Little

I recently found a blue plastic prison issue mug in a brown cardboard box at home, sitting on top of a collection of classroom notes from a class I taught in prison. I was in the process of writing an article (Little and Warr, 2022) and thought I’d try to recall something of the sensory feel of that space. Instead, I was reminded that my handwriting is not always as clear as I had assumed it was. The ink had faded a little and the paper curled inwards at the edges, but otherwise was in good condition. However, it was the discovery of the mug that really transported me back to this former pedagogical space, one in which I co-facilitated an eight-week educational course. The course included students from De Montfort University and men serving long sentences at ‘HMP Lifer’. The mug might seem like an unlikely vehicle for such an evocative transportation, and yet to me it screams its institutional association.

To me, the mug is unmistakeably a prison mug. Its insipid light blue colour is distinctive. It might well be the sort of mug used in other institutional settings, but this is symbolically imbued with the essence of punishment. Its colour matches closely the faded light blue prison issue t-shirts worn by many of the men on the wings. It has a very plastic feel to it and is surprisingly lightweight, without substance, in contrast with the depth and weight of the sentences hanging over the prison learners in the classroom. It smells of plastic too, infused with a slight whiff of instant coffee, perhaps because it hasn’t had a very good wash yet, even after several years. Its authenticity has been preserved, like a relic from a bygone era found intact. The tasting notes of the coffee it contained promise that it “…makes a solid morning cup. It’s rich, bold, and robust…”. Just like me, I chortle inaccurately to myself.

I feel the need to clarify fairly early on that the mug was taken from one of our weekly sessions, hastily gathered up as we sought to depart the prison on time. The mug was taken accidentally, packed up in a box containing papers and stickers, photocopied readings and feedback sheets. This defence may not hold up in a court of law, but I know you trust my account.

The prison is not that far away, geographically speaking, from where I’m writing this now, at home. In other ways, however, it’s another world: where I am now there is the freedom to descend to the kitchen, fill up on coffee or snack on toast. I can choose something fresh and zesty or something warm and comforting, a new combination or something familiar. These are items that I’ve chosen, that create some sense of familiarity, curated for the moment. If the space has a smell, it is one that has been cultivated over time by its inhabitants, my family. It does not have that distinctive institutional smell of disinfectant mixed with blood, sweat and fear that a prison has. Or at least visitors have been too polite to mention it.

At the time of writing, I haven’t been back into the prison for a while, a period elongated by the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns. It feels like a long time since I was in the prison, and I miss the classroom space. It wasn’t an easy experience, because planning and organizing it from beyond the prison boundary can be stressful and tiring. As can the facilitation itself. Going through notes and interviews with participants helped transport me back to moments and sensations experienced in the prison classroom. The classroom itself generally felt like a convivial space, a chatty place where people engaged in conversation easily despite the constrained circumstances. This was a zone where people were able to express something of their real selves, exhibit different thoughts and feelings to the ones they typically felt able to show openly in their institution they ‘belonged’ to. It felt like an honest space, a space rendered sufficiently trustworthy for the people there to engage in conversation despite their deeply contrasting experiences of day-to-day life.

University students spoke about seeing the men as humans, as individuals they could relate to; with perspectives and experiences they could learn from. I remember clearly a university student explaining to me about how this experience had also helped to humanize myself and my colleague, university lecturers. Compared with a lecture theatre environment, she was more able to see us as individual people with real thoughts, views, emotions, a sense of humour and a life beyond university. I was slightly surprised, but it made sense, and I was pleased she felt able to say this. Some months later, I was lecturing during the pandemic lockdown and I was confronted with the realization that the experience of prattling away to my laptop alone in a room at home was likely further reducing my pedagogical humanity in the eyes of students.

Back in the prison classroom, and some of the thoughts, feelings and life experiences expressed weighed heavily on me and I took some of this away with me, without even realizing it at first. Finding the mug took me back to the session it came from, and then a previous session when we were taking a break.

At break-time, everyone mingled as a group. The second week was the first time during the course we were able to take in refreshments for the group. The prison had agreed to this and to provide the hot water in flasks, but nothing more. This contrasts with the experience of the very first course, in 2016, when we were eventually able to have lunch together from the restaurant. The food had been provided by the on-site restaurant and one of the prison students proudly showed off his baking skills. Now, the prison would not, or could not, provide refreshments because the restaurant had long since ‘temporarily’ closed, and has been ever since.  We were now allowed to take certain – limited – items in. We took in some biscuits, fruit, juice, teas and coffee. I was pleased with this, as I recognized from a previous course that break time is important in setting some sort of tone, in communicating something of the course essence. Commensality tends to be more limited in our society these days, especially in prisoner society. It can helpfully echo the social nature of learning and helps humanize the space. It helps put people more at ease and communicates something of the pedagogical equity we’re aiming for during the sessions. Of course, there were considerable differences between the living circumstances of the people in the room. However, for these moments, social interaction was enabled and normalized, and subsequent conversations suggested it was a very welcome part of the overall setting. Just being able to converse with ‘normal’ people from beyond the prison boundary, who had no power or interest in impeding their paths to official rehabilitation, was experienced as worthwhile and valuable. Paired with new, fresh, products from the outside world, the effect was a sensory delight.

So, for me the mug is associated with a break, and yet a continuation of the values in the space, with informal dialogue privileged to facilitate interaction and the exchange of information, ideas and stories. The mug provided people with a vehicle for activity, or inactivity: something to do (make a drink), a catalyst for conversation, or a way to remove oneself from interaction for a short while. But the mug was never the main event, nor could it be, especially when drinks would have tasted so much better from something designed with a little more sensory pleasure in mind.  The main event for me was the biscuits and these are good for generating abstract conversation (Little and Warr, 2022). There were some plainer classics (your ‘Nice’ biscuits – how do you pronounce that word?), some popular favourites (Jaffa Cakes are not cakes), through to some more luxurious chocolate coated options. These offerings were popular amongst some but the group was careful not to demolish them too quickly. There was no stashing of the goodies in socks, trackies and sleeves I had witnessed when running a similar (shorter) course in a local ‘resettlement’ prison. The most noteworthy observation, in fact, was a palpable initial reticence amongst the prison students to touch or consume the biscuits. ‘Are you sure we’re allowed these?’ I was asked by more than one prison learner. It took what felt like quite a while for one of the students to take a biscuit, despite there being some interest. It’s unusual for a group to resist the allure of such sugary treats. It’s also impossible to eat only one; fact. Based on my autoethnographic research replicated over many years.

Being genuinely asked by a grown man if they could eat a biscuit that had clearly been brought in partly for their benefit came as something of a shock to me. The reason became clear shortly afterwards when one of the prisoners explained that they had recently been explicitly told they should not eat the biscuits. It may even have been included in the prison’s pre-course information briefing session. They were led to believe from prior experience that indulging in biscuits could lead to a ‘nicking’ and they did not want to risk unnecessary aggro for the sake of a custard cream. Whatever the precise reason, it was clearly a shared understanding amongst the group and it took a surprisingly long time to encourage them that it would be ok, and without disciplinary consequence. It was in this moment I belatedly realized that at least some people in the room sensed that I had some power in proceedings, or responsibility, or both. I had been relatively oblivious to this until that point, and now it was being made explicit. Whilst this was ‘only’ about biscuits, the biscuits had become symbolic of these other currents related to power and permission. By the end of the session we were informed clearly not to bring in any shit biscuits again. By which was meant, none from a ‘basics’ range or that might be confused with something that might be easily available institutionally.

Whilst the biscuits, and the responses to them, were significant, they were not quite as big a hit as expected. They were definitely appreciated, but there were quite a few left. By the end of the break, this seemed less about perceptions of permission, and more about personal choice. For even more popular than the biscuits was the fruit that had been brought in; there were grapes and kiwis. I recall thinking that our inclusion of kiwis was a bit of a random touch. This was not the view of one of the prisoners. The unfamiliar fresh citrussy smells cut through the heavy, warm air like nothing else. The bright, natural fruity colours hypnotised their consumers for a few moments: ‘Woah, a kiwi; I haven’t had one of them in eight years’. Cue a conversation about the last time he had a kiwi and how the quality and quantity of fruit generally available in the prison was so limited, and poor. Likewise, the (decent, not from concentrate) fruit juice went down a storm. It reminded me of how important fresh fruit and vegetables are, especially in (island) communities when access is so restricted. It also reminded me that perceptions of what is valuable, are also highly contingent upon personal circumstances. 

So, the tea, biscuits and fruit were popular, appreciated and came to symbolise break time. They were a good way of bringing people together for a chat, enhancing the comfort in the classroom space and helped people feel more at ease with each other. A sign that break times were ‘working’ well further occurred when men ‘doing time’ brought in their own tea to share with the group. This human desire to engage in exchange provided a nice touch and validated our sense that this had become a convivial space in which to teach and to learn. We had several more breaktimes like this over the following weeks. And then they changed.

During a later session, perhaps the fifth, the biscuits were stopped. Whilst exiting the prison the previous week we were told not to bring in any more fruit or biscuits for the sessions. This was disappointing but we complied with the request, which was made by a member of the education department staff. Curious to know the reason, the only explanation we received was a concern about ‘conditioning’. Conditioning seemed to be a new buzzword that was being lobbed around by certain staff to explain or justify any new restriction or cutback that further impoverished the regime. This is not to deny the existence of manipulation between people in prison and people employed to hold them there. Indeed, in recent years, there has been an increase in instances of drugs, mobile phones and sim cards being found in prisons. In the year prior to our course, it was reported in the national press that a lack of experienced prison officers had been blamed, in part, for these challenges (The Guardian, 2018). This played a part in the sensitivity towards some items being brought into the prison, such as grapes, kiwis and custard creams. Meanwhile, a prison mug escaped undetected.


Little, R., & Warr, J. (2022). Abstraction, belonging and comfort in the prison classroom. Incarceration3(3).

The Guardian (2018) More than 2,500 prison officers disciplined in five years, MoJ figures show [accessed November 2022]

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.