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The Power of Touch

Jason Warr

I stand there, powerless.

I feel the hands on me, rubbing along my arms, my collar, my chest.

Moving down my body. I grit my teeth.

The unwelcome hands continue their slow journey around my body, assured, strong, practised, down over my stomach, around the waist of my scratchy, well worn, aged and threadbare jeans, down my outer thighs, halting, returning, towards my groin.

I brace myself.

I feel vulnerable. Small.

I want to punch them in their face, to fight them, to take back some power … but I don’t. I acquiesce.

I let it happen.

Anger.

Shame.  

The hands stop.

He says: “Next”.

I amble on, hating myself.

Power. The prison is a manifestation of power. In its very fibre, in its practices, and in its purpose the prison is designed around the issue of power. That power is often encoded not just in the practices and ethos of the institution but also in the manner in which it subjects you to specific forms of sensory experience. Perhaps the most blatant of which is touch. As a prisoner you are forced to endure the touch of powerful others on a daily basis. There is little gentleness, no thoughtfulness, no comfort to these touches. In the texture of this touch is woven the matrices of penal power that you, as a prisoner, are now forced to endure. You are subjected to multiple bodily violations of person and privacy on a daily basis. Leaving the wing, leaving the workshop, gym, exercise yard, library, education department, medical wing, every breach of a portal means you are subject to a search, a rub down. More hands, unwanted hands, rubbing, pawing, at you.

It is not just in prison though that someone like me is subject to the hostile touch of powerful others. The vignette above is about prison but could, just as easily, have been any of the times it occurred on road. As a person of colour, a person of mixed ethnicity, it was a reality that shaped my growing up. A reality not shared by many of my friends. I was 8 years old when I suffered my first stop and search at the hands of police. I was walking home from school with one of best friends of the time, Mark. Mark was slight, light brown hair, blue eyed. Not me, I was what they used to call ‘swarthy’. A police car swerved and mounted the pavement next to us. The officer said I ‘looked’ like someone they were looking for. They sent Mark on, leaving me alone with them. I don’t remember the words but I remember the hands, the touch, the power. It was not the last time that I, a child of indiscernible ethnicity, would be subjected to the powered touch of a search. I never told my family about this, I was ashamed. It became a regularity throughout my childhood. As it does for so many of us, but so few of you.

For many of us there is a continuum here. Power is physically imposed upon us through unwanted touch. If you react to that touch negatively, you prove the threat that you are, and that just invites more hands, more unwanted touch, more powerful others imposing their will, and the power of the state, on you. They touch. You are powerless. There is no preventing it. How many videos do we now see on a daily basis of white police officers stopping young people of colour, touching, escalating? If you are lucky this intimate intrusion stops there, something that filters its way into the seething bank of shamed memories that shape your habitus. If you’re not lucky then it continues, out of sight, in the van, the station, the custody suite. The power increases, as does the intimacy of the touching and searching. However, sometimes it does not stop there. Sometimes it carries on, for decades …

I feel the hands on me

You never really come to terms with it. You do become inured and conditioned into the routine. Arms up, legs slightly apart, passive, waiting for the touching to commence. To cease. Move along. The person behind you undergoing the same routine humiliation of practised indifference. Power. Theirs. Your lack of it. In every touch is a reinforcement of your status, your position, your vulnerability, your lack of autonomy, the deprivation of your freedom. Your status is encoded within those touches. Day in, day out the touches come and tell you who you are, what you are, but more importantly, what you are not, who you are not.

In the 12 years I spent in prison I was subjected to more than 8,700 rub-down searches. That was 8,700 times that I was forced to endure the hands of someone else being placed, with power, on my body. 8,700 times I was forced into bodily acquiescence. That’s not even including strip searches. Its one of those prison tropes that you see replicated in the prurient prison films that litter our popular media, the reception process and the strip search. These are often inaccurate and played for the fetishistic and voyeuristic gaze of true crime connoisseurs. The reality is that people, persons, our fellow citizens, are those who are subjected to these searches. Not just in reception either. During my years in prison I was strip searched at least twice a week, 52 weeks a year, for 12 years. That is more than 1,000 times where I was forced to take my clothes off in front of two officers. Nearly every visit. Every piss test (that’s a whole different story of voyeuristic discomfort and sensory horror). Remove your clothes they say, you do. There is a routine, a ritual, that is designed to ‘preserve your dignity’ – it doesn’t. It doesn’t take away that your nakedness, physical, emotional, psychological, is being coerced, under threat of punitive action.

Nakedness, coerced. It is a strange sensory experience, the ritualised humiliation of handing over your clothes to be rummaged, of exposing your naked skin to the cold and fetid air and judgemental gaze. A gaze that takes on a securitised caress. You stand there, skin exposed, and can feel, physically feel, their gaze on you. Again, it is the imposition of power and rendering of powerlessness. It is always uncomfortable, awkward. The sensations come thick and fast and are, eventually, just as quickly dismissed, ignored. Ordinarily the sensory data you are subjected to, as an embodied entity passing through the corporeal world, inform your interaction with that world. However, in the midst of a strip-search the overwhelming sensory experience is one denied, ignored (as much as possible), best forgotten. Pushed to the back of your mind to lie, in the dark, festering away with all the other resentments the prison has inflicted upon you. There they conjoin with all those seething memories of imposed touch that were inflicted upon you on road, by the creeping, groping hands of different authorities.

Anger. Shame.

I have been lucky in my life to never have been physically or sexually abused as we commonly define those offences. So many who come into contact with our criminal justice system, from police to prison, have not been so lucky. So many have had lives blighted by prolonged and continual abuse of every physical description. How do they experience the coerced nakedness, the unwanted touch, the imposition of powerful hands? What consequence does inflicting this breach of bodily autonomy have, what long term effects on psyche and self? What does it do to those who do the searches? Does it desensitise them to the laying of hands on powerless others? Do they even recognise the powerlessness of the ‘other’? This is a sensory practice/experience that we, as a society, inflict on 10s of thousands of our citizens every single day – yet we have little understanding of what effect this may have. We perhaps need to think about that …