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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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Close, closer

Kate Herrity

It is a prisoner who informs staff that Stevie has cut himself: “He’s pouring blood. It’s all over his cell floor. Someone needs to go see him”. He informs several members of staff, talking to all and no one in particular. Catching my eye. His own arms criss-crossed with self-inflicted cuts. Shallow but plentiful. We discuss this at another point, comparing scars and patterned welts on limbs offered up for scrutiny. Puckered scar tissue re-opened. “Why?” asks an officer. “I don’t know, I feel strange” he says. He makes his wound talk for me, squeezing his separated flesh together to form oozing lips. “Hello” he says in a high-pitched voice, laughing, whether at my discomfort or his own macabre delight I can’t tell. I tell him to remove his grubby blood-coated fingers from the undressed wound. When he’s moved to the observation cell his hand appears between glass and wall waving, calling me for attention. I realise, painfully, I can’t respond to it… I tell him I can’t. “come talk to me..”. I can’t. (fieldnotes)

The discomforting collapse between public and private spheres of life within the total institution is a familiar theme in prison sociology. Goffman devotes significant passages of asylums[1] to describing the sensory experience of being at such enforced close quarters with other human beings in evocative and discomforting detail. Dwelling on the emotional labour of navigating the traumatic and intimate spaces of prison alongside those who live and work there runs the risk of lapsing in to self-indulgence. What these embodied aspects of social experience have to tell us about life in carceral spaces, however, warrants further exploration.

Davey – battling his own demons in this regard – expresses irritation about the imposition on me. Characterising self-harm as largely a bid for attention, his implication is that forcing me to bear witness to their injuries is both ill-mannered and manipulative. A macabre display designed to shock and upset. It is uncomfortable being subject to this grotesque power play, with all the meagre opportunities for exercising autonomy and control it extends to those engaging in it. Leaning in to my discomfort and assuming the role of emotional mark[2], is instructive in a multiplicity of ways. I do not mean to imply a cold cynicism on the part of those in distress and self-harming, but rather to indicate the complexity and nuance of meanings assigned to behaviour in this most particular of spaces. There is a brutal, enforced intimacy to bearing witness as someone deliberately cuts their flesh. Usual divisions between public and private do not apply in these spaces shaped by intrusive echoes, unsanitary smells and sharp, cold, grubby edges.

There is a paradox too, between this unbidden, searing intimacy and the necessary suppression of my impulse to tend to his wounds, to offer physical comfort. In the absence of gloves and, frequently, trained nursing staff wounds are not dressed or cleaned by anyone. Rules meant to safeguard health and safety impose a jarring distance. Added to this, as an outsider and a woman I cannot touch the men. The unspoken veto on physical contact of the most fleeting and friendly variety makes me keenly aware of my tactility as well as the perceived riskiness of my femaleness. In order to observe the rules and rituals of this place I must subvert my own ethical impulses and stew in the haunting helplessness this imposes. This is where the potency of my powerlessness rests. I must see and feel but cannot act or aid. Proximity takes on additional force here too, and when I spend a night here, I feel the loss of companionship of everyone behind the door.

A prisoner has hurt himself, bleeding profusely. He is moved to a neighbouring cell where he continues to harm himself. His blood spatters the observation hatch and breaches its barrier, dripping down the outside. Abandoned belongings, soiled and bloody lie piled on the spartan floor of the ruined cell which awaits the sluggish attentions of tomorrow’s orderlies. “You might as well see it all if this is what you’re here for”, says an officer, inviting me to join. He retreats along the spur and re-emerges zipping up a shocking white hazmat suit. Staff retch as the smell of blood, warmed by the summer heat, reaches their noses. He refuses care and remains conscious. A trip to hospital would leave two remaining staff. Not taking him anyway will mean additional anxiety for the familiar ritual of the morning count. To much relief he accepts a sugary cup of tea, a breakfast pack having been sought out and fetched in an effort to replace some fluids. He settles, and our footsteps withdraw from their clustering around his cell. Customary routines are resumed (fieldnotes).

Sudden, visceral violent confrontation was ameliorated with cups of tea. The female senior officer and I laughed at the officer donning a hazmat suit, as much for the inadequate barriers against such brutally infectious despair offered by its flimsy material as for the unintended statement of excessive cautiousness it represented. My laughter though, was doing more work than I acknowledged at the time. He too was asking for my discomfort, just as Stevie had done, in challenging me to “see it all”. My greater reluctance to assume the mark for him, rooted in the asymmetry of power between officer and prisoner, amplified the distinction between my perspective of his position and his own. He too, wanted me to bear witness. These instances were not isolated but rather part of a broader range of interactions in which I was invited to hear, see, smell, touch, feel and in so doing transport these visceral impressions with me to breach the walls. There is something in these fleeting and uncomfortable encounters which tells us about the social relations between the closed spaces of the total institution and the outer community from which its realities are largely concealed. Our rigid, creeping, ethical practices reinforce the assumption we outside observers occupy positions of power. Our utility and effectiveness may conversely lie in our willingness to shed it.



[1] Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. St Ives: Penguin

[2] Goffman, E. (1952) “on Cooling the mark out: some aspects of adaptation to failure” Psychiatry Vol.15, no.4 pp451-463. This is not to suggest a ‘fraud’ is being perpetrated, but rather to draw some similarities between this emotional power play and the conditions on which a successful confidence trick rely, namely emotional investment.