[CW: suicide, violence, drug use, profanity]
The role of prisoner writing
During the Covid-19 pandemic, comparisons have often been drawn between lockdown measures and prison, yet people with lived experience of prison have countered that such domestic confinement bears little resemblance to the pains of imprisonment. These different viewpoints suggest that the general public has little understanding of what happens behind prison walls. This blogpost considers how prisoner writing can describe prison to the non-prisoner reader (i.e. a reader who does not have lived experience of prison), bearing witness to the carceral experience.
Drawing on examples of short stories about prison, written by current or former prisoners, I examine how these writers recreate sensory aspects of prison in their writing. Carceral texts commonly recount the sights, sounds, touches, tastes and smells of prison; but, in my experience of reading and analysing prisoner writing, it is the depiction of prison sound that is most powerful and affecting. In this blogpost, I examine how prisoner-writers translate the speech and sounds of prison into written form, to convey the carceral experience to those outside prison walls.
Recreating the carceral soundscape
Descriptions of the prison often focus on its noisiness (Wener, 2012), with sounds such as jangling keys, banging doors and gates, and voices of prisoners and staff contributing to the carceral “soundscape” (Herrity, 2019; 2020). Prison culture is overwhelmingly oral, privileging spoken communication methods such as the “grapevine”, and prison language is typified by extensive slang, as a predominantly verbal form of expression. Key properties of the prison environment are therefore its orality, demonstrated by the pervasiveness of oral communication, and its aurality, typified by harsh, high-volume sounds.
While literature may appear to be at odds with prison’s oral culture, spoken and written communication can more accurately be conceptualised as extremes of a continuum. Accordingly, Koch and Oesterreicher replace the labels “oral” and “literary” with the terms “language of proximity” (describing characteristics associated with face-to-face, spoken communication, such as cooperation and shared knowledge) and “language of distance” (describing features of formal, written communication, like unfamiliarity and detachment) (1986/2012, pp.446-448).
Crucially, an utterance may exhibit aspects of both proximity and distance. A literary text may therefore incorporate elements typically associated with orality, such as simple sentence structures, non-standard grammar, interjections, colloquialisms, figures of speech, and slang, jargon and profanity (Chaume, 2012, pp.89-91). My analysis of carceral texts shows that prisoner-writers use the language of proximity to translate the speech and sounds of prison into written form, recreating the prison soundscape for the reader.
The carceral language of proximity
Prisoner-writers incorporate the language of proximity into their writing in several ways. It is common for carceral texts to employ first-person narration, a narrative position that arguably allows the writer to “speak” to the reader. Many carceral texts use reported or direct speech, or employ a conversational narrative voice that represents the narrator’s internal monologue. All of these techniques allow authors to quote the utterances of prison in their writing.
The language of proximity plays a crucial role in bringing these reproductions of oral prison discourse to life, as can be seen in the comparison between the following two extracts:
“You are being rude again.”
“Yes, I suppose if you find the truth rude. And, I suppose at times it is. You asked me what happened and I told you.”
Stranger Than Fiction (14K1600, 2014, p.6)
“Try and deal me a good hand this time Jason, eh? You’ve been giving me rubbish all night! I can’t remember the last time I had a face card or a pocket pair,” joked Mike.
“A good craftsman doesn’t blame his tools, Mikeyboy. You could always try bluffing it,” Sam replied. “Anyway,” added Sam, “You’re just annoyed that I keep beating you. You’re a sore loser. Sour grapes. Throwing your toys out of the pram.”
“Aye, in your dreams boyo. I’m coming for you.” Mike replied, laughing.
Through the Glass (17K0686, 2017, p.1)
Stranger Than Fiction uses full sentences and the words “you are”, rather than the contraction “you’re”, which are typical of the written language of distance. In contrast, Through the Glass uses the language of proximity, including contractions like “can’t”, incomplete or elliptical sentences (such as “Sour grapes.”), the interjection “eh”, the slang “boyo”, the discourse marker “Anyway”, and figures of speech (such as “Throwing your toys out of the pram”). Other texts include elements such as slang, profanity, dialect, or graphological transcriptions of regional accents, to further accentuate the oral nature of prison life. Through these techniques, the language of proximity permeates prisoner writing, replicating carceral orality for the reader.
Oral and aural pains of imprisonment
While such literary reproductions of oral discourse are highly effective in replicating the carceral soundscape, a number of stories go further, placing the speech and sounds of prison at the centre of their narrative.
The story Inside Out opens with a soldier on active duty. The narrator’s internal monologue incorporates speech, military jargon and slang, interspersed with the sounds of battle, “THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP” and “CRACKBANG!!”, which the narrator is able to read as “the tell tale thumps in the near distance of shells” and “a bullet” respectively (PRT18/6, 2018, p.1).
The narrative shifts to a drunken fight, followed by snapshots of the narrator’s arrest and sentencing, before his arrival in prison, all relayed through sounds and speech. The prison environment is described via the same confused narration as the battlefield sequence:
The noise…. So much noise… No noise like it I’ve ever heard!! Chaotic, screaming, the noise… so much noise!! I know, I know… I’m used to battle noise, well I’ve experienced it… Never get used to it, but this… It’s different. Cries of pain, Co dees shouting to each other, but standing face to face… Why are you shouting? A young lad in the stairs, talking gobbledeegoop, he’s gone over, BANGTHUDTHUMPCRASH down the stairs… Blood everywhere all out on the floor, the screws shout to get inside our cells. Spice apparently? I don’t know what that is!! The noise doesn’t bang with munitions in the air… This noise has a deadly, yet silent violence to it… An unknown enemy!!
Inside Out (PRT18/6, 2018, p.2)
The cacophony of prison is emphasised by the repetition of the word “noise” and the direct comparison by the former soldier narrator with the sounds of combat. Military jargon and slang and the sounds of battle have been replaced by unfamiliar prisoner slang and the utterances and sounds of prison.
Crucially, where the narrator could make sense of the sounds of warfare, he cannot read prison noise, and is overwhelmed. He turns to the synthetic cannabinoid “spice” to help him cope, gets into debt, and is attacked by another prisoner, which is again presented in terms of sound:
“Oi you WHACK…. You owe me 4 ounces burn WHACK WHACK WHACK…. What dya mean ya can’t fucking pay me?”
“double next week……. CUNT”.
Inside Out (PRT18/6, 2018, p.2)
The WHACK and THUMP recalls the CRACK and THUMP of the deadly weapons in the battlefield scene, in an aural embodiment of the violence of prison, enacted on human flesh. In this scenario, the language of proximity conveys the forced, unwanted physical proximity of prison life. Ultimately, the narrator’s inability to decode the prison soundscape leaves him unable to adapt to prison life, and the story ends with his suicide.
Inside Out foregrounds the carceral soundscape, presenting the oral and aural pains of imprisonment as central to both the story and the carceral experience. This technique disrupts the literary language of distance and requires the reader to interpret these unfamiliar sounds and utterances, within a disorientating narrative, thereby exposing them to the dizzying effects of prison orality and aurality.
Reading the prison soundscape
The sounds and speech of prison are similarly foregrounded in Block Busters, which focuses on the ability to read the prison soundscape. The story opens at night, with the prisoners Chips and Joe awakened by screams from the cell of the prisoner known as “T”:
“Arrghh,” an ungodly scream bounced from wall to wall and floor to ceiling as it rang out through the linier corridors of HMP Havoc, eventually being swallowed up by the blackness of the unlit prison wing.
The sounds of wood attacking metal and stone proceeded the painful cries, waking those who slept soundly in the peace and serenity of their caged solitude.
“Yo, that sounds like ‘T’!”
“Na, he’s not gonna be smashing his cell up bro.”
Block Busters (17K1032, 2017, p.1)
The story again foregrounds orality and aurality, combining dialogue with written representations of T’s shouts and screams, and descriptions of the accompanying sounds.
As in Inside Out, this text emphasises the need for prisoners and prison officers to read the soundscape (Herrity, 2019, p.156; p.158; 2020, p.251). This skill is central to the story’s plot, as Chips and Joe interpret the sounds of T’s distress and ring their cell bell, summoning the unsympathetic officer, Mr Shaw. Shaw refuses to interpret the sounds around him and ignores T’s screams, ordering Chips and Joe to go back to sleep.
Come morning, Chips, Joe and the other prisoners again read the soundscape, deducing that T has committed suicide:
The sounds of screws rushing around with their keys rattling like angry snakes, shouting from protesting prisoners wanting to be unlocked in order to partake in their daily routines and incomprehensible radio messages fading in and out as officers ran by. Increasingly interested prisoners peering through slightly open observation panels started to holler at others answering the choir of questions being asked.
“They’re all at T’s door, think he’s dead,” one inmate yelled as the wing once again retreated into silence.
“He’s cutting man down,” another barked.
Chips and Joe immediately rushed to their door and put their ears to the gap desperately trying to make out what was being said.
Block Busters (17K1032, 2017, p.2)
This tragic outcome highlights the power dynamics of speaking and listening in a prison setting; Chips and Joe hear T’s distress but are powerless to help him, while Mr Shaw refuses to read the prison soundscape, resulting in T’s death. The harsh noises generated by the prison officers, such as their “incomprehensible” radios and their keys “rattling like angry snakes”, are emblematic of the power of the prison system over prisoners (Herrity, 2019, p.24). Block Busters uses the language of proximity to translate the carceral soundscape into written form, but also demonstrates to the non-prisoner reader how to translate the speech and sounds of prison life.
Sensing proximity and distance
This brief discussion has shown how prisoner-writers replicate the speech and sounds of prison in their writing, replacing the literary language of distance with the oral language of proximity. Crucially, though, this approach does more than simply recreate prison’s speech and sounds; it creates an active, participatory, sensory reading experience. The reader must adopt an active, hermeneutic role, sounding out literary facsimiles of prison orality and aurality, and learning how to read carceral sounds, in order to interpret the story. In short, the reader is required both to sense and to make sense of the carceral soundscape. This participatory approach allows the writer to bring a sense of the unfamiliar prison experience to the reader, but also moves the reader closer to the unfamiliar prison world. By replacing the literary language of distance with the spoken language of immediacy, prisoner writing in turn collapses the distance between the prison and non-prison worlds, creating a new sense of proximity between the imprisoned writer and the non-prisoner reader.
14K1600 (2014) Stranger Than Fiction. London: Koestler Arts archive.
17K0686 (2017) Through the glass. London: Koestler Arts archive.
17K1032 (2017) Block Busters. London: Koestler Arts archive.
PRT18/6 (2018) Inside Out. London: Prison Reform Trust archive.
Chaume, Frederic. (2012) Audiovisual translation: Dubbing. Manchester: St. Jerome.
Herrity, K. (2020) ‘Hearing Behind the Door: The Cell as a Portal to Prison Life’, in Turner, J. & Knight, V. (eds.) The Prison Cell: Embodied and Everyday Spaces of Incarceration. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.239-259.
Herrity, K.Z. (2019) Rhythms and Routines: sounding order in a local men’s prison through aural ethnography. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Leicester.
Koch, P. & Oesterreicher, W. (1986/2012) ‘Language of Immediacy – Language of Distance: Orality and Literacy from the Perspective of Language Theory and Linguistic History’, in Lange, C., Weber, B. & Wolf, G. (eds.) Communicative Spaces: Variation, Contact, and Change: Papers in Honour of Ursula Schaefer. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, pp.441-473.
Wener, R. (2012) The Environmental Psychology of Prisons and Jails: Creating Humane Spaces in Secure Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.