Ministry Of Justice power research sound space

Experiencing Research Interviews at the Ministry of Justice

Harry Annison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History prison research


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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 ) 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.


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.