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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.

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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.

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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.

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A sense of home in prison?

Annie Bunce

When I sat down to write about my sensory experience in prison I hesitated. I have a lot of rich data from my participants describing their sensory experiences, which have greatly enhanced my knowledge and understanding of the prison environment. But my sensory experience? Having not spent extended periods of time in prison, I wasn’t sure I had a right to claim any significant sensory experience. During my first and most significant experience of prisons research, I spent approximately one year going in and out of four UK prisons interviewing prisoners who were participating in a rehabilitation programme, BrightHorizons, which was the focus of both my PhD and a wider evaluation study. Throughout these interviews I focused closely on what my participants said to me, and I have always considered the stories I heard to be the main source of my own knowledge and understanding. However, when I looked over my fieldnotes and data and reflected on my experience, I was hit with an avalanche of sensory memories. I realised that the sounds and tactile experiences that I had been surrounded by whilst in the prisons had hugely influenced my interpretation and understanding of my participant’s accounts of their experiences of prison and the programme.

BrightHorizons was a dual-purpose initiative that brought groups of at-risk young people into the prison estate and trained teams of prisoners to deliver interventions to them, with the aim of diverting young people away from the criminal justice system and supporting prisoners’ rehabilitation. The programme was delivered in four Cat C/training prisons in South-East England (three men’s, one women’s), with a designated space for the programme to run within each prison. This consisted of the main programme room where all the action happened, a kitchen area and/or office, and a toilet. Two prisons had their own separate portacabin, whilst the other two had designated areas within the main prison. I interviewed prisoners in either the kitchen or office, with the door shut and a view through a small window into the main room.

I was struck by how the sensory experience in the privacy of the interview space was sharply juxtaposed with that in the adjoining room, where the rest of the team were training. The presence and absence of sound and touch was particularly profound and are the focus of this blog post.  

Sound and its absence

I always arrived at BrightHorizons to a cocktail of sounds. There were usually between seven and ten men or women in the room, but it sounded like a far bigger group. There was layer upon layer of different sounds, which got invariably louder as each of the participants clamoured to be heard. Somebody would tell a joke and the room would rumble with laughter, there was a constant stream of what was popularly referred to as “banter”, hands slapped together in high fives and every now and again somebody would break into song or start rapping.If I closed my eyes I could have been standing in a school at playtime, or amongst a group of friends at a festival. I suppose such a lot of noise from a group of near strangers in an unfamiliar environment could have been intimidating, but instead all of these sounds bubbling over one another put me at ease.

Inside the interview room, however, it was the absence of sound that made the most noise. Participants spoke softly and slowly and there were regular, long silences as they considered their answers. The tone of the interviews was mixed- words dripped with sadness and regret, sighs were heaved and voices wobbled and cracked as participants spoke about their past. And then the tone would lighten, become animated and eager, and laughter would be shared as they regaled stories of their families, their time spent on BrightHorizons, and their hopes and dreams for the future. At times the tone was more serious- words carefully chosen, measured (other than the odd expletive!) and laced with frustration, as they reflected on the dark side of being in prison and the less positive aspects of the programme. Throughout the dynamic tones and relative quietness of the interviews, the constant muffled sound of laughter and banter could be heard from the main room- which felt like a reminder of the relief that the group atmosphere provided in the context of such complex individual life stories (Collica, 2010; Marshall and Burton, 2010).

Touch and its absence

Touch is one of the most essential elements of human development, a profound method of communication… and a powerful healing force.” (Bowlby, 1952)

Something that struck me straight away when spending time at BrightHorizons was the centrality of touch in prisoner’s interactions. Stereotypical depictions of the prison centre on iron bars, high razor-topped fences and heavy metal doors, which connote a physical separation, isolation and coldness antithetical to tactility. Touch in prison can be a ‘taboo’ (Houston, 2009). The BrightHorizons space was filled with high fives, back slaps, hugs, fist bumps and handshakes. Touch was obviously a vital aspect of participant’s interactions, and it strikes me as I write this how deeply people in prison must be missing such sensory experience during the current Covid-19 lockdown (Douglas et al., 2020). But it wasn’t just about touching and being touched by others. One warm and sunny day when I was interviewing at the women’s prison, I sat outside the portacabin with the women on the surrounding field at lunchtime, feeling the grass between our toes and the sun on our faces. This felt quite significant for me, as I felt a little bit less of an outsider. From my fieldnotes:

“M popped in while I was writing and said they were sitting in the sun for a bit and I was welcome to join them nice to be involved as can feel a bit awkward when just hanging around not sure where to plonk myself.”

If I closed my eyes I could have been in a garden or park. None of the men’s prisons had green outside space, and this example highlights the differences in sensory experience depending on the specific prison environment the men and women were in. When I asked Anthony what he was most looking forward to upon release he said:

                 “Four and a half years behind a door, just get a bit freedom, even just to do a walk, like I don’t know, walk on some grass or something (laughter).”

Within the realm of the interview touch was far less salient. I sat opposite participants, with a table where the audio recorder was placed physically separating us. Generally, this physical space felt appropriate and comfortable, and did not appear to impede rapport or interview depth. Male participants, particularly, appeared conscious of maintaining boundaries, and were outwardly apologetic and embarrassed if they felt these had been crossed. For example, from one interview:

I:               Okay, that’s interesting, thank you.  So, a little bit about the future now, so you said your parole’s pretty soon –

R:             Sorry –

I:               – that’s okay (laughter).

R:             – I’m playing footsie with you under the table (laughter).  Sorry (laughter).

I:               That’s okay, that’s alright.  So, parole is due relatively soon did you say?

When interviewing female participants the absence of touch felt more palpable. Perhaps due to the shared experience of being female and increased relatedness and empathy associated with this. The interviews with the women were generally of a more emotional nature and I often felt the need to physically comfort them. I felt torn between maintaining professional and ethical boundaries, which made me feel that it would be inappropriate to hug my participants, and responding with care, which made me feel guilty for not huggingthem, as this felt like the most intuitive response to a human being in distress (Dickson-Swift et al., 2007; Cowburn, 2010). I did my best to communicate care, compassion and empathy through my voice and eyes. From fieldnotes:

 “Most harrowing interview yet- she cried at one point and I very nearly did on a few occasions. When she cried I didn’t quite know what to do as was the first time it had happened- she carried on talking and seemed like she wanted to finish what she was saying so I got up and got her some tissues but didn’t interrupt what she was saying and then she kind of pulled herself through it. I wanted to hug her at the end and tell her how amazing she is but I knew that would be inappropriate, so I complimented her on her English (which she was clearly self-conscious about) and wished her all the best instead.”

Concluding thoughts

Tuning into the senses helped me to understand the importance of the programme space in terms of providing sensory and physical stimulation that my participants did not generally experience anywhere else in the prison. This contributed to one of my most dominant findings, that BrightHorizons provided participants with a sense of home. BrightHorizons appeared to function as a sort of sensory bubble. Having somewhere to go where they knew they could relax and unwind gave them the space to recover from general tiredness induced by the prison environment, detracted from the stresses of daily prison life, and made it easier to deal with the rest of the prison (see also Stevens, 2012; Frank et al., 2015):

“it was very like a home, not a home but it’s like a home within prison if you understand what I mean, a go to place to escape sometimes”. (Keira)

Having a space perceived as ‘theirs’ and access to a few ‘home comforts’ seemed to have provided prisoners’ with a community of their own (Stevens, 2014; see also Lloyd et al., 2017), away from the “absolute chaos” (Jonathan) of the rest of the prison:

“To tell you the truth, since I’ve come to BrightHorizons I don’t even think about the rest of the prison.” (Marvin)

But it also occurred to me that there is an element of a sort of sensory time/space trap. Due to the highly structured nature of BrightHorizons and predictability of the prison rules and regimes that programmes are bound by, these sorts of sensory experiences seem likely to lose their significance eventually, as they risk becoming as monotonous as the rest of the prison. This was reflected in my finding that participants who had spent some time on BrightHorizons had found themselves less stimulated and were pursuing other experiences alongside it. Yet they all carried on participating, because groups of youngsters and professionals visiting every week added a much-appreciated element of spontaneity and meant no two weeks were identical. This underscores the importance of people in prison being able to interact with a diverse group of people- including staff, family and friends on the outside, and fellow prisoner- and participate in various creative activities to provide ongoing growth and learning via sensory experience (Houston, 2009; McNeill et al., 2011).

Bowlby, J. (1952) Maternal Care and Mental Health: A report on behalf of the World Health Organisation. Geneva: World Health Organisation.

Collica, K. (2010) ‘Surviving incarceration: two prison-based peer programs build communities of support for female offenders’, Deviant Behavior, 31(4), pp. 314–347. doi: 10.1080/01639620903004812.

Cowburn, M. (2010) ‘Principles, virtues and care: ethical dilemmas in research with male sex offenders’, Psychology, Crime & Law, 16(1–2), pp. 65–74. doi: 10.1080/10683160802621974.

Dickson-Swift, V. et al. (2007) ‘Doing sensitive research: what challenges do qualitative researchers face?’, Qualitative Research, 7(3), pp. 327–353. doi: 10.1177/1468794107078515.

Douglas, M. et al. (2020) ‘Mitigating the wider health effects of covid-19 pandemic response’, BMJ, p. m1557. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m1557.

Frank, V. A. et al. (2015) ‘Inmates’ perspectives on prison drug treatment: A qualitative study from three prisons in Denmark’, Probation Journal, 62(2), pp. 156–171. doi: 10.1177/0264550515571394.

Houston, S. (2009) ‘The touch “taboo” and the art of contact: an exploration of Contact Improvisation for prisoners’, Research in Dance Education, 10(2), pp. 97–113. doi: 10.1080/14647890903019432.

Lloyd, C. et al. (2017) ‘A short ride on the penal merry-go-round: relationships between prison officers and prisoners within UK Drug Recovery Wings’, Prison Service Journal, 230, pp. 3–14.

Marshall, W. L. and Burton, D. L. (2010) ‘The importance of group processes in offender treatment’, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(2), pp. 141–149. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2009.08.008.

McNeill, F. et al. (2011) ‘Inspiring desistance? Arts projects and ‘what works?’’, Justitiele Verkenningen, 37(5), pp. 80–101.

Stevens, A. (2012) ‘“I am the person now I was always meant to be”: Identity reconstruction and narrative reframing in therapeutic community prisons’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 12(5), pp. 527–547. doi: 10.1177/1748895811432958.

Stevens, A. (2014) ‘“Difference” and desistance in prison-based therapeutic communities’, Prison Service Journal, (213), pp. 2–9.

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TALKING ABOUT NOT TALKING: THE SENSES AND THE VICTORIAN PRISON

Richard W. Ireland

I write this as the COVID-19 pandemic still dominates everyday life and where in Wales, from which I write, restrictions on movement and association are still much stricter than in other parts of the UK. The changes that lockdown has made have often been remarked upon in terms of sensory experience; roads are quieter, birdsong more noticeable, air purer etc. The observation that sensory experience is both (inter alia) historically and geographically variable is banal, and will come as no surprise to those interested in this site. But it is the experience of sudden change which I want to pursue here and I will do that in relation to the impact of imprisonment in the nineteenth century. The examples which I will cite here come, unless I indicate otherwise, from my  researches into the daily workings of a particular County Gaol, that of Carmarthen in South-West Wales, between c.1840 and c.1877, but many will find echoes down the corridors of other Victorian prisons.

For those who may be unacquainted with the momentous changes in the criminal justice system in the nineteenth century a few words of introduction may help. In the hundred years between Howard’s State of the Prisons in 1777 and the nationalisation of the prison system in 1877 massive changes took place within state punishment. The punishments of the stocks, pillory and transportation had been abolished and whipping and capital punishment had both been much restricted in their use and brought inside the walls of the prison. Imprisonment had become the focus of the response to crime. Elements of the carceral experience which we now consider axiomatic, such as the cell and the uniform, become generally employed only at this time. The regime to be used in prison, and the aims to be pursued, became a matter of vigorous debate and experimentation.in the period covered by this piece.  The “Separate System”, which had seen its highpoint in the opening of Pentonville in 1842, promoted religious reform through isolation of prisoners in solitary confinement, while the rival “Silent System” allowed association, but forbad any talking between inmates. Both, it can be seen, were defined by limitations of sensory experience. We will have cause to consider both in due course, but I will use consideration of different senses as the framework of my discussion, although it will be clear that there is considerable and unavoidable overlap at times.

Sight

I want to begin here, not with the walls and the cell, but with the transformation of the prisoner within the Victorian gaol. Such immediate marks of individuality as might be conveyed by the visual indicators of clothing and hair were removed, this latter only in the case of male prisoners. The haircut was a source of some controversy, particularly as the end of a sentence approached, for it could serve as a badge of criminality even after discharge. In Carmarthen in 1846-7 there were significant disputes, including the invocation by the prisoners of the authority of the Home Secretary, led by inmates James Hunt and James Hargrave and which centred on the haircut. Institutions where the separate system was rigidly enforced even the face itself was concealed: males wore “Pentonville peaks”, caps the peaks of which were pulled over the face, leaving only holes for vision. Even so, if prisoners met outside the cell whilst being moved one had to turn to the wall as another passed. Women prisoners wore a thick black veil, through which their features were indistinguishable. What was visible under such a regime was not a person, but a symbol of controlled criminality.

Prisoners who were in any way visually impaired could provide particular problems for the prison routine. John Wilson, a tea dealer “blind in both eyes” was sentenced to twelve months with hard labour in 1846 was unable to be employed within the prison and his conduct during his sentence was described as “very bad”. Twenty-five years earlier a 74-year-old debtor, James Davies, whose eyesight was so bad that he collided with the prison walls, won a bet that he could run 420 yards before another debtor could eat two muffins. Others could be subjected to abuse, David Jones was punished by Governor Westlake in 1845, whose spelling is here typically erratic,  “for neglecting to work on the wheel in is turn and calling George Gilbert a blind eye has he had lost a eye”.

There was another visual problem, of immense theoretical importance, inherent in the penological transition of the nineteenth century. If prison was intended to deter (an aim which ebbed and flowed reciprocally with reformation during the century) then how could suffering be conveyed to those outside the walls? The crowds who witnessed the pains and shame of physical punishment, the public whippings and executions, had the moral drama played out in full sight. Prison had to employ a different strategy, the architecture of the building supplanting the body of the criminal as the site, and the sight, of deterrence. Architecture tended towards the massy and powerful, prisons often in highly visible positions within towns and cities. Carmarthen’s gaol, on the site of the old castle, dominated the townscape. It was built by the celebrated John Nash, the carved chains on the gatehouse recalling Newgate. It also had, at one point, a unique (as far as I know) yet symbolically perfect substitute for the suffering body hidden within. When the treadwheel was in operation a painted, life-size pewter model of a prisoner revolved on a pole above the walls. It may have been this, or perhaps the sails and regulators which were visible indicators of the wheel in other prisons, which was pointed out to the “thimble gentry” arrested at a fair in the town in 1833.

Touch

One of the most important rituals of the experienced criminal starting a sentence in some cellular Victorian prisons was entirely tactile. He or she would run their fingers along the ledge beneath the ventilator over the door of the cell. I do the same whenever I enter a preserved gaol now. They were feeling for a nail which might have been left there by the previous occupant. Nails could be a great help in picking the daily allocation of oakum, one of the tasks assigned as hard labour. Oakum was old ships’ rope which had to be pulled apart into its constituent fibres; a dirty and unpleasant task. That it could damage the fingers to the extent of hindering completion of the task seems evident from the records. It need hardly be added that the susceptibility to injury would to an extent depend on the variable sensitivity of the hands into which the uniform lump of rope was delivered: the miner and the clerk would not necessarily experience the punishment in the same way. Other hard labour tasks could also result in painful injury. One of the many prisoners’ names for the treadwheel  was the “shinscraper”, the desire to use bodyweight as well as muscle power to drive the revolving treads prompting, I think, a desire to move further forward on the step, risking contact with the one above as it descended.

If such tactile encounters were unwelcome, one benefit of incarceration may have been that prisoners may have scratched themselves rather less than they had been used to. A large number of those admitted to Carmarthen Gaol (in one quarterly report from 1870 more than one third of them) were suffering from scabies, which meant that they would begin their remand or sentence by entering a liminal space with an undeniably sensory title: the “Itch Ward”.

I have read many accounts of the transition from the open “wards” of the pre-reform prison to the cellular Victorian version, made compulsory after 1865, which stress the intention of preventing “contamination” both moral and physical between prisoners, and the disruption of the inmate subculture, but few which actually consider how strange it would have seemed to those subjected to it. To sleep in a room without anyone else in it, even in the bed itself, would have been unprecedented for many adult offenders, and not only those with spouses and children, but also to those who slept in overcrowded lodging houses, servants’ quarters or miners’ barracks. It is unclear whether that nocturnal solitude, without the warmth and opportunity for conversation which a shared bed brought, would have been welcomed, but the supposition is certainly not unreasonable. In the year 1856-7 there were five beds for women prisoners in Carmarthen gaol and at one point they were occupied by no fewer than thirteen adults and two children at the same time. When the womens’ prison was rebuilt thereafter to allow greater segregation it was still condemned by the Prison Inspector, the separationist J.G. Perry as not entirely excluding association.

Hearing

As has been indicated earlier, the prison regime of the nineteenth century was predicated on silence, whether it depended on solitary confinement or association. Yet this was easier to propose than to enforce, particularly in local gaols which had not been built to a particular pattern, as had, for example, Pentonville. In that “penitentiary” the Separate System was enforced to such an extent that prison officers wore felt slippers to muffle the sound of their perambulations. But the construction of individual cells in older local gaols, financed by ratepayers, was expensive in terms of construction, whilst the alternative Silent System needed an increase in staff to be effectively enforced. In fact the 1835 Select Committee heard that within Wales only Cardiganshire claimed to enforce silence, a prisoner on the Discovery hulk stating that the cursing swearing and obscene stories he had been exposed to in Carmarthen were “enough to ruin any young man”. Even after the system had been officially improved within the gaol the Governor admitted, in an unguarded comment in his Journal, that it could not be fully enforced.

To the reasons for such failure to control communication we will return shortly. Suffice it to say that even in prisons where it was strictly enforced the ban on communication might simply promote a change of sensory register: the sign language used within the silent system (tapping the nose for tobacco, hence “snout” in prison slang”), or the banging on pipes connecting separate cells. I want to pause here though to consider the language which was used within prisons when the opportunity did arise. The county which Carmarthen Gaol served was a predominantly Welsh speaking one, and our best estimate suggests that around one third of the population spoke no English, whilst the proficiency of others in English may have been limited. Yet the official language of the prison was English as was the language of the courtroom, in which offenders were tried, even on capital charges, in a language they did not understand. But it is not this question of understanding that I want to address here, but simply the sound of the language of official penality, quite different from that to which the Welsh speakers (and indeed Irish speakers who were also confined there) were accustomed. We have seen that visual signs of the transition to an alien environment (the uniform, the haircut) marked the significant fracture from previous experience. Here was an aural one.

As Katy Roscoe’s blog at this site has admirably demonstrated, despite the theoretical insistence on, and optimistic reporting of, the regime of silence, such a rule could not, as we have mentioned earlier, be fully enforced. Nor was such noise as there was always contained within the walls. One Sunday in August 1846 Mary Ann Awberry, a frequent prisoner who often showed contempt for the rule of silence, was confined to the punishment cell where she continued to sing loud enough to be heard in the two main streets around the gaol.

I want to pause here however to consider an element of Victorian imprisonment which inevitably compromised the supposed requirement of silence, namely the presence of babies and toddlers in the prison. This was not by any means an isolated occurrence. Women gave birth in prison or brought in young children who would otherwise have nowhere to go, and cries and talk would have been unavoidable. In Beaumaris Gaol (Ynys Môn/Anglesey) an attempt to distance mothers from children in separate rooms involved an extension of the tactile, as a rope passed through a hole in the workroom ceiling to rock the cradle positioned in the room above.

Taste

Much has been written, and more should be, on the Victorian prison diet, but the discussion has largely been confined to the nature and the adequacy of the meals provided, rather than their taste. Yet this is not quite as inaccessible to the modern commentator: I have myself on many occasions made, eaten and served to others (sometimes large numbers in lectures) food prepared in accordance with approved prison dietaries. Such experiments can actually reveal more than might be expected. Asked to make a short film on prison food a while ago for Archives Awareness Week (available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rs2uexvfKc8 ) I learned something interesting about that staple of prison food, gruel. I had to drive for a couple of hours from my home to Ruthin Gaol for an early start to filming, so made the gruel the night before. What was usually a warm thin liquid porridge had congealed when cold into a viscous lump, as it might have done in a large cold prison. Of course I do not know exactly what it would have tasted like to a Victorian prisoner, but I suspect that it would, like so many aspects of life which we have considered above, have been at the very least very alien. Whilst local prisons could, whilst under local control, permit local taste to be catered for (Ruthin at one time served “lobscouse”) other ingredients such as “Indian meal” (i.e. maize) were not, as far as I know, to be found regularly in the kitchens of West Wales.

We know that there were complaints from prisoners, not only about the quantity of food but also its quality. Indeed, as one of their few recognised entitlements food became a frequent battle between staff and inmates. Soup and bread were often tasted, if complained of, by officers of the gaol, particularly the surgeon or by a magistrate, who would inevitably, in Carmarthen at any rate, rule against the prisoner. It was perhaps disingenuous of a local JP to declare in a case from 1849 that the bread (made with “seconds” flour and deliberately not served fresh to prevent prisoners pulping it into dough to claim it was uncooked and thereby gain more) was “nearly as good as that eaten in his own family”.

Such local issues pale into insignificance when set aside the experience of some elsewhere, who would eat such things as candle ends and used poultices to assuage their hunger. Prison candles were given a “highly offensive smell” to prevent them being eaten. An account of the stomach-turning material consumed by some inmates may be found in Philip Priestley’s excellent Victorian Prison Lives. The question of their taste would seem to have been as irrelevant to the desperate prisoner as they are unthinkable to the researcher.

Smell

After a recent minor relaxation of lockdown regulations, a friend was able to travel from her home in a small seaside town to the nearby uplands. “I’ve missed the difference in the air inland” she said, before pausing, “I think I mean the smell of sheep piss!”. It is, indeed, the unmistakeable aroma of parts of the countryside, particularly in summer. I mention this to make a point which is insufficiently appreciated by academics, most of whom live and work in towns or cities. Until 1851, according to figures recorded in the census, more people in Britain lived in rural than in urban environments, and many areas such as in Wales remained largely rural thereafter. Yet prisons, like universities, are and were largely to be found in towns. The ambient smell of the urban is not the same as that of the rural: not only the animals but the differences such as plant life or the smell of wood fires rather than coal ones. I am not being romantic here: it is simply true. (The same point could of course have been made in relation to ambient sound,  and not simply along the axis of volume, for a visiting city friend confessed that he had been unable to sleep due to the impressive levels of sound produced by a field full of ewes with lambs at foot.) The farm worker from hill country, moved to prison in even a small town like Carmarthen, which was a busy port at the time, would have smelled different things from outside the walls. Inside the smell of people confined and labouring hard would have been notable too. True, things were not as bad as when Howard had toured the unreformed gaols with his vinegared handkerchief to his nose. The miasma theory of disease had led to a concentration on the ventilation of new or rebuilt prisons which was, on occasion, elevated to remarkable levels. The most visible part of Ruthin gaol is a tower, built not as part of the chapel or for observation but to draw air through the building’s ventilation system. Control of contamination had been raised to the status of a public landmark.

Sense as privilege

I want to say a few words about prison punishment, in which deprivation of sensory experience featured strongly, as if it were a luxury to be forfeited for bad behaviour. Meals could be withdrawn and use made of “refractory”, “solitary”, “underground” or “dark” cells (these are not always synonyms in Carmarthen, which could have more than one differently-described punishment room at the same time; the exact relationship still eludes me). In 1851 the two “dark cells” were described by the Inspector as “dangerous to health, perhaps even to life”. Punishment cells were unheated and, I suspect unventilated. Certainly, the sensations experienced by prisoners might not be uniform. In that particular gaol a prisoner was “forgiven” by the Governor after a night in the cell in 1846, the weather being “so cold and freezing”, whilst later in the same year he complained that prisoners preferred to be sent to the refractory cell rather than to labour during a particularly hot spell.

I have tried here to give a glimpse (or echo or feel or taste or sniff: see how easily the sensory permeates even the written document?) of life in the Victorian prison. I have concentrated on the institutions within Wales not only because I know them best but also because the experience of the rural offender in general, and the Welsh one in particular, has been so frequently overlooked. Nonetheless much of what has been considered here is applicable, mutandis mutatis, to other environments. I hope that I have demonstrated that for the Victorian prisoner, and in particular the prison novice, what was lost was not simply liberty, but familiarity. That familiarity is built up by sensory experience and its loss is not an insignificant one.

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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!

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Singing, Sex and Silence on a Victorian prison island

Katy Roscoe

Mrs Macpherson, ‘Cockatoo Island, Sydney’ (1856-7), courtesy of State Library of NSW.

CW: homophobia, sexual abuse.

In 1857, Reverend Charles Roberts, writing under a pseudonym, wrote into a local newspaper, The Empire, complaining that the shouting and singing of inmates from Cockatoo Island Prison was drifting over the harbour to the Sydney suburbs. Worse, it was interrupting his families’ prayers on the Sabbath,

He wrote:

Disorder on Cockatoo Island

“On Sunday last myself and my family were at a distance of nearly a quarter of a mile, we were disturbed by a frightful yelling and hallooing”

He went on to complain that “on calm evenings, I hear most distinctly singing and chorusses until a late hour”. (Empire, 26 Sept. 1857)

Philip Doyne Vigors, ‘Convicts Letter writing at Cockatoo Island: Canary Birds! NSW’ (1849), courtesy of the State Library of NSW.

By this time in the nineteenth century, silence had become foundational to ‘proper’ prison discipline. In 1820s New York ‘the silent system’ was introduced at Auburn prison, enforcing complete silence 24 hours a day. Prisoners were only allowed to listen to the gospel in weekly-services or during visits from the Chaplain. This was supposed to protect them from ‘moral contamination’ by fraternising with other criminals.

Cockatoo Island was far from a silent prison. The inmates’ days were marked by the clanging of pickaxes on sandstone, the blasts of explosives felling cliffs, and the sloshing of water against their legs as they finished building a dry dock for repairing ships (which opened in September 1857).

However, it was the noise of prisoners in their barracks at night that most worried the Victorian public. Another witness “G.W.H” wrote directly to the Empire’s editor Henry Parkes, complaining that the young lads were mixing with hardened ‘old lags’ and that ‘touch, pitch and defilement’ (Ecclesiastes 13:1) was bound to follow.

G.W.H. described a fictional 18-year old prisoner being sent to Cockatoo Island:

‘[He is] compelled to co-mingle with villains… compelled to the disgusting recital of their deeds of darkness… and sleep is banished from his sorrowful eyes by the wild chorus of vulgar, ribald and licentious songs’. (Board of Inquiry into the Management of Cockatoo Island, 1858)

Here, again, noisy singing drifts across space, crossing boundaries between prisoners’ bunks and between the prison island and the city. For Victorians, unwilling to name directly the ‘unspeakable’ crime of homosexuality, bawdy songs become a metaphor for illicit, sexual acts that took place in darkened barracks. Yet, the censure of male-on-male sex full stop renders the question of consent – was he “compelled”? – unknowable.

This speaking without saying persisted in an Select Committee into Cockatoo Island prison in 1861, which was chaired by Henry Parkes (the newspaper editor who had kicked off these inquiries). Prisoners testified that homosexual acts took place, but insisted that they had heard rumours, rather than having witnessed them directly. They described the prison slang for effeminate boys (‘sailor boys’ ‘sprigs of fashion’, or pejoratively ‘bleeding nuns’). But they displaced themselves from the room, by having heard rather than seen or touched anyone. Their testimony is silenced by the enforced morality of the board of inquiry.

As a historian, it can be frustrating to be confronted with all this “silence” at the heart of all this noise. What songs were sung, stories told and tender words shared by these Victorian prisoners is sadly lost to time.

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‘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

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The Power of Touch

Jason Warr

I stand there, powerless.

I feel the hands on me, rubbing along my arms, my collar, my chest.

Moving down my body. I grit my teeth.

The unwelcome hands continue their slow journey around my body, assured, strong, practised, down over my stomach, around the waist of my scratchy, well worn, aged and threadbare jeans, down my outer thighs, halting, returning, towards my groin.

I brace myself.

I feel vulnerable. Small.

I want to punch them in their face, to fight them, to take back some power … but I don’t. I acquiesce.

I let it happen.

Anger.

Shame.  

The hands stop.

He says: “Next”.

I amble on, hating myself.

Power. The prison is a manifestation of power. In its very fibre, in its practices, and in its purpose the prison is designed around the issue of power. That power is often encoded not just in the practices and ethos of the institution but also in the manner in which it subjects you to specific forms of sensory experience. Perhaps the most blatant of which is touch. As a prisoner you are forced to endure the touch of powerful others on a daily basis. There is little gentleness, no thoughtfulness, no comfort to these touches. In the texture of this touch is woven the matrices of penal power that you, as a prisoner, are now forced to endure. You are subjected to multiple bodily violations of person and privacy on a daily basis. Leaving the wing, leaving the workshop, gym, exercise yard, library, education department, medical wing, every breach of a portal means you are subject to a search, a rub down. More hands, unwanted hands, rubbing, pawing, at you.

It is not just in prison though that someone like me is subject to the hostile touch of powerful others. The vignette above is about prison but could, just as easily, have been any of the times it occurred on road. As a person of colour, a person of mixed ethnicity, it was a reality that shaped my growing up. A reality not shared by many of my friends. I was 8 years old when I suffered my first stop and search at the hands of police. I was walking home from school with one of best friends of the time, Mark. Mark was slight, light brown hair, blue eyed. Not me, I was what they used to call ‘swarthy’. A police car swerved and mounted the pavement next to us. The officer said I ‘looked’ like someone they were looking for. They sent Mark on, leaving me alone with them. I don’t remember the words but I remember the hands, the touch, the power. It was not the last time that I, a child of indiscernible ethnicity, would be subjected to the powered touch of a search. I never told my family about this, I was ashamed. It became a regularity throughout my childhood. As it does for so many of us, but so few of you.

For many of us there is a continuum here. Power is physically imposed upon us through unwanted touch. If you react to that touch negatively, you prove the threat that you are, and that just invites more hands, more unwanted touch, more powerful others imposing their will, and the power of the state, on you. They touch. You are powerless. There is no preventing it. How many videos do we now see on a daily basis of white police officers stopping young people of colour, touching, escalating? If you are lucky this intimate intrusion stops there, something that filters its way into the seething bank of shamed memories that shape your habitus. If you’re not lucky then it continues, out of sight, in the van, the station, the custody suite. The power increases, as does the intimacy of the touching and searching. However, sometimes it does not stop there. Sometimes it carries on, for decades …

I feel the hands on me

You never really come to terms with it. You do become inured and conditioned into the routine. Arms up, legs slightly apart, passive, waiting for the touching to commence. To cease. Move along. The person behind you undergoing the same routine humiliation of practised indifference. Power. Theirs. Your lack of it. In every touch is a reinforcement of your status, your position, your vulnerability, your lack of autonomy, the deprivation of your freedom. Your status is encoded within those touches. Day in, day out the touches come and tell you who you are, what you are, but more importantly, what you are not, who you are not.

In the 12 years I spent in prison I was subjected to more than 8,700 rub-down searches. That was 8,700 times that I was forced to endure the hands of someone else being placed, with power, on my body. 8,700 times I was forced into bodily acquiescence. That’s not even including strip searches. Its one of those prison tropes that you see replicated in the prurient prison films that litter our popular media, the reception process and the strip search. These are often inaccurate and played for the fetishistic and voyeuristic gaze of true crime connoisseurs. The reality is that people, persons, our fellow citizens, are those who are subjected to these searches. Not just in reception either. During my years in prison I was strip searched at least twice a week, 52 weeks a year, for 12 years. That is more than 1,000 times where I was forced to take my clothes off in front of two officers. Nearly every visit. Every piss test (that’s a whole different story of voyeuristic discomfort and sensory horror). Remove your clothes they say, you do. There is a routine, a ritual, that is designed to ‘preserve your dignity’ – it doesn’t. It doesn’t take away that your nakedness, physical, emotional, psychological, is being coerced, under threat of punitive action.

Nakedness, coerced. It is a strange sensory experience, the ritualised humiliation of handing over your clothes to be rummaged, of exposing your naked skin to the cold and fetid air and judgemental gaze. A gaze that takes on a securitised caress. You stand there, skin exposed, and can feel, physically feel, their gaze on you. Again, it is the imposition of power and rendering of powerlessness. It is always uncomfortable, awkward. The sensations come thick and fast and are, eventually, just as quickly dismissed, ignored. Ordinarily the sensory data you are subjected to, as an embodied entity passing through the corporeal world, inform your interaction with that world. However, in the midst of a strip-search the overwhelming sensory experience is one denied, ignored (as much as possible), best forgotten. Pushed to the back of your mind to lie, in the dark, festering away with all the other resentments the prison has inflicted upon you. There they conjoin with all those seething memories of imposed touch that were inflicted upon you on road, by the creeping, groping hands of different authorities.

Anger. Shame.

I have been lucky in my life to never have been physically or sexually abused as we commonly define those offences. So many who come into contact with our criminal justice system, from police to prison, have not been so lucky. So many have had lives blighted by prolonged and continual abuse of every physical description. How do they experience the coerced nakedness, the unwanted touch, the imposition of powerful hands? What consequence does inflicting this breach of bodily autonomy have, what long term effects on psyche and self? What does it do to those who do the searches? Does it desensitise them to the laying of hands on powerless others? Do they even recognise the powerlessness of the ‘other’? This is a sensory practice/experience that we, as a society, inflict on 10s of thousands of our citizens every single day – yet we have little understanding of what effect this may have. We perhaps need to think about that …    

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A rich sort of quietness: Experiencing Iceland’s open prisons as a researcher

Francis Pakes

It’s night. But it’s light. I need to go to the toilet. I get up, leave my room, leave the door slightly ajar and make my way to the toilets. It’s so quiet. So quiet, even, that flushing the toilet somehow feels as if I’m creating a racket! I’m wearing shorts, flip flops and a T-shirt and I’m thinking, “well, in prison I’m a researcher 24-7” so I pop in to see the sole officer in charge overnight. I say ‘hi’, and he says ‘hæ’. Friendly but short. No conversation ensues. I trundle back into my room and fall asleep again. The next thing I notice is noise in the corridor. It is 7.30am. Breakfast time. I had slept very well.

Let’s rewind.  I’m in the middle of doing fieldwork in a remote open prison in Iceland. It is basically a sheep farm with less than 20 prisoners who are in the latter stages of their sentence. Upon arrival I was given a room, the key (like everyone else) and I, as much as possible, lived the daily routine of the prisoners. This project was quite some time in the making. I am forever grateful to the Iceland prison authorities who allowed me to do this, both prison governors and, more than anybody, the many prisoners who shared their views, some of their emotions, their frustrations and also some laughs with me.

Whilst I had been excited about this project for some time, on the scenic drive from Keflavík Airport to the prison, my nerves started to jangle. Once over half way, the landscape becomes desolate with very few buildings or people. There are vistas of fields, rocks, waterfalls and streams. But I’m no longer seeing it. My mind is racing and I’m driving ever more slowly. My emotions are basically shutting down my senses.

And then, suddenly, I’m very very near. The prison is situated across a bay. If you know where to look, it suddenly comes into view, as a tiny set of white-ish buildings across the water. I stop the car and get out. It’s windy. I’m looking across the bay and realise that the prison is maybe 5 or 6 kilometres away. I’ll be there in about 15 minutes. I’m very nervous now.

How does a prison researcher walk in on day one? With hindsight, I don’t think I thought about this moment quite enough. It is early evening. And in this (very) open prison, you can simply walk in as it lacks even the most basic of security features. I take my shoes off and am welcomed by a prisoner, a guy who I have met before on a previous visit. Turns out he was given the task of looking after me. He shows me to my room, gives me a towel, and talks incessantly. It is weird. Someone is actually trying to make me feel at home. We played a game of snooker later that week in the basement room (yes, this prison has a fully equipped snooker table). I won. I don’t know if I should, but I feel a bit bad for it.

Prisons frequently are an assault on the senses. This was emphatically described by prison reformer John Howard in the 18th century and it still applies today. Prisons often sadly continue to be loud and stinking places. And at the same time they can be sensory-depriving too: it’s often a case of either too much or too little. But here in Iceland in this open prison there is a rich sort of quietness, at least at night. At night it’s quiet and light, as it hardly gets dark in Iceland in June. It is kinder to the senses.

It seems selfish to say that this project was a rare opportunity. But it was. I knew that in terms of prison ethnography, my role of quasi-prisoner, with a room, who did the same daily routine as prisoners was going to be interesting. To also stay overnight (full board, as it were) was quite special. And I wanted to make it count. I wanted to ‘get’ these prisons as best I could and experience every minute intensely. I wanted to understand the prisoners and their perspectives on this place, and the staff too, as deeply as possible.

I had thought of the night time in advance. Beforehand, I had planned to somehow stay ‘alert’, for any overnight happenings, ready for some nocturnal ethnography. I had assumed that I would not sleep well, and that my subconscious ear would always be listening out. But it just didn’t happen. If anything occurred, I slept right through it. That is what I mean with a rich sort of quietness: it was more than the absence of noise. It allowed me to sleep.

The bedtime silence frequently came after a phase of noise: of men playing on their playstations with the doors often left open. The corridor sounded like an arcade. Loud, but leisurely loud. And then, from some time between 10 and 11pm: silence. Bedtime silence. Thick silence.

The richest silence I felt in the week I was at this prison was in a communal place: the toilets. One early evening I was about to step into the toilets. But I sensed immediately I was interrupting something. One prisoner was cutting another’s hair. It was silent. It was serious. It was also, in a way, intimate, between the two men. A silence in such an intimate setting is different. I felt an intruder. Some silences are meant to shut you out. I got the hint and left.

But sleep well, I did.

But maybe that was just me. However peaceful this place was to the senses, there was, I sensed, a lot of worry. Many prisoners worried about returning to society post-sentence. Foreign nationals talked about possible deportation. Many prisoners engaged in impression management while they were in prison, so that, for instance, small children would not find out about their whereabouts. Any prisoner, anywhere, in whatever prison, has a lot to worry about. While the quietness may be conducive to sleep, worry certainly isn’t. There is plenty that keeps prisoners awake at night, and this prison, so different from most prisons that I have seen, in that respect, may not be all that different from elsewhere.