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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!