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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.