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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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Staying in touch

Natalie Booth

A number of claims have been made regarding the importance of prisoners staying in touch with their family through prison visits, firstly from a humanitarian perspective of enabling family members to see each other, but also regarding the impact of maintaining family ties for successful rehabilitation, reintegration into society and reduced re-offending (Dixey and Woodall, 2012: 29[i]).

There is now a wealth of literature suggesting that, where possible, people in custody should be encouraged and supported to ‘stay in touch’ with their relatives, friends and/or significant others. Yet, in the context of prison, the phrase ‘stay in touch’ cannot and should not be understood in the literal sense. Aside from a short embrace at the start (and perhaps at the end) of a prison visit, physical interaction – touch – between a prisoner and a loved one is not generally allowed. This is perhaps why Dixey and Woodall have suggested that staying in touch is more likely focussed on another of our senses – sight.

A recent trip to the visitor’s centre of a female prison left me thinking more about the sensory aspects of visiting. Initially, I was drawn to the look of the prison – the institutional ooze of the place – the lino floors that squelch with every step, and the generic, grey painted walls, the ‘fire retardant’ doors and those low squishy chairs with scratchy fabric that you get both in the doctor’s waiting area and our university offices. They’re normally a bland colour – brown, beige or, if you’re lucky, green!

There’s also a smell. Stuffiness underscored with bleach or other cleaning materials. The smell might take you to other institutional settings – a hospital or, in my case, roaming my school corridors after hours, after the cleaners had been. While I talk about a recent trip to the visitors centre, I know this isn’t the first time my senses have been enlivened by the visitors centre. There’s no doubt my memory has previously transported back to those school corridors. However, it was the first time I really considered touch.

Feel. Stroke. Press. Hold. Pat. Embrace. Cuddle. Hug. Lean. Snuggle. Touch.

Tactility and physicality were brought even more strongly into focus during my discussion with a visitor. This greying male visitor half-jokingly remarked that ‘the officers touch me more when I come here than my wife of 30 years!’ While at first we both chuckled at this comment, when our eyes connected, we both felt the sting of truth which underscored his observation of ‘the visit’.  Indeed, the pat down search from the officers – much like that which you might experience at an airport – is likely strong competition for the short embrace he was permitted with this wife when he first entered the visiting hall.

This competition was twofold. First, in its duration. Second, in the level of intimacy it involved.

I am referring to a ‘normal’, social visit at a prison which likely lasts around an hour and takes place fortnightly for sentenced prisoners. It is not my intention to consider what his statement signals about prison security. Instead, the discussion here focuses on a reflection on the interactions, connections, communications which are – and which are not – possible within this space. Recalling visits I have attended, I find myself questioning afresh some of the observed interactions…

How a young couple, used to living together, used to sleeping next to each other every night, copes with a 5 second embrace once every 14 days? How they navigate sitting across a table from one another for an hour when they’re accustomed to snuggling up on a sofa for whole evenings at a time? How a brief, brush of their hands out of view of the prison officer reminds them of the time when they could walk hand-in-hand?

What about a mother seeking to hold, to calm, soothe and help ameliorate the pain, the vulnerability, the worry their adult incarcerated child is displaying? What happens when a sob escapes? When tears trickle down a cheek waiting to be wiped away by Mum who, instead, cannot reach across the table to fulfil what she might feel is her intrinsic, maternal responsibility?

How must it feel to parent in prison? To be a parent who may be allowed to hold a young child on their knee while stationed at their designated table in the visits hall, but who cannot get up, chase, play, run, tumble or jump around with their young child in the children’s play area? Who cannot lift their child up and make noises and gestures which turn their child into an imaginary aeroplane? Or bounce them around to the tune of ‘the Grand old Duke of York’?

Visits contain intrinsically personal moments, feelings and experiences in a particularly stark, institutional and very public space. I am not suggesting that all physicality appropriate within the home or private spaces would be – or could be – directly replicated within the social visiting environment.  Yet, this does not mean that opportunities for tactility are not appropriate at any time or place within the prison.

To some degree or other there are existing opportunities for tactility in prisons. In prisons overseas some couples are permitted conjugal visits. Whereas, many prisons serving England and Wales offer extended visiting days, sometimes called ‘family days’, ‘lifer days’, or ‘children’s days’. Some prisons have overnight facilities for mothers and children[ii], while others have recently introduced family rooms[iii]. After the initial searching, security at these events is generally reduced meaning that movement and interaction is more readily available[iv]. This includes opportunities for appropriate (e.g. non-sexual) physical contact.

Importantly, we should not get into the habit of arguing that the availability of some extended visits in some prisons serving England and Wales provides exemption from questioning the significance of touch…or its absence. This is especially relevant when there are so many discussions in research and policy emphasising the benefits of ‘contact’ for individuals experiencing a period of enforced separation by imprisonment[v]. We are talking about husbands, wives, partners, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters and friends who, in the prison, may be trying to continue performing their roles and, in the future, may wish to resume previously held identities. How might increased tactility aid these ventures?

Beginning to engage in this kind of sensory questioning has – at least for me – raised more questions than it has answered. At an extreme, I am wondering whether it would be possible for people separated by imprisonment to stay in touch by actually staying in touch…


[i] Dixey, R., and Woodall, J., (2012) The significance of ‘the visit’ in an English category-B prison: views from prisoners, prisoners’ families and prison staff. Community, Work and Family, 15 (1), pp.29-47.

[ii] e.g. Acorn House at HMP Askham Grange.

[iii] e.g. recently created family rooms at HMP Oakwood.

[iv] See: Booth, N., (2018) Family Matters: A critical examination of family visits for imprisoned mothers and their children. Prison Service Journal, 238. Available: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/psj/prison-service-journal-238.

[v] e.g. Lord Farmer., (2019) The Importance of Strengthening Female Offenders’ Family and other Relationships to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime. London: Ministry of Justice.