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On the sensory discomfort and voyeurism of a “prison tour”

Janani Umamaheswar

A few years ago, I took a group of students in a penology undergraduate course to visit a maximum-security men’s prison in the U.S. I believed that this experience was particularly important for my undergraduate students, many of whom unquestioningly accepted American punitive sentiment, and few of whom had any first-hand contact with the penal system. These were students who infrequently expressed compassion toward incarcerated persons and who felt that people in prison deserved whatever deprivations they encountered while incarcerated because they had broken the law. In arranging the visit to the prison, my hope was to encourage students to confront, however distantly, what it feels like to be in prison, and to thereby cultivate a sense of empathy and understanding among my students for those experiencing incarceration. For my students, the trip initially represented little more than an exciting adventure: After all, when again would they have the opportunity to step inside an actual, lived-in prison cell?

The mood in the bus as we traveled to the prison was cheerful and lively, and the students inquisitively took in their surroundings as we pulled up outside the prison. (We were not allowed to pull into the prison grounds themselves for security reasons.) Unlike the women’s prison that I had recently visited for my own research, there were no tree-lined driveways here, no well-manicured lawns, no quaint, cottage-like buildings that almost made you feel like you were on a college campus. Instead, there was a short driveway leading up to a single concrete building. As we disembarked, the students noticed the guards that were stationed high in a tower next to this building, guns in hand. My students immediately became nervous, especially as it became clear that nobody was quite sure where we were supposed to go next. I tentatively led the group toward the main building as the students anxiously watched the guards, who in turn cautiously watched us. As soon as we entered the main prison building, all of us became even more tense. The lobby was dimly lit and there was a great deal of background noise as doors were buzzed open and banged shut. The students watched uneasily as visitors walked through a metal detector and were frisked before being granted entry into the prison wings. I had received a list of strict instructions from the prison regarding permissible clothing, and I hoped that nobody had (knowingly or unknowingly) violated any of the facility’s rules, of which there were so many that I had lost count: No sleeveless clothes, no midriff-baring shirts, no short skirts, no shorts, no shirts with writing on them, no khaki-colored clothes, no orange-colored clothes, no hoodies, no bras with underwires…the list went on. Each student passed uncertainly through the metal detector, hoping not to hear the jarring beep that meant that they would have to repeat the process after identifying and removing whatever object set off the detector. Fortunately, all the students were permitted to enter the prison, and our “tour” of the facility began with our “guide,” a muscular, White, male correctional officer. Immediately, the students realized that being in prison meant that we could not simply walk through the facility as we wished, even if we were led by a correctional officer: A door needed to be buzzed open at the end of each hallway before we could enter the next one. We crammed into each narrow, dimly-lit passage and waited (increasingly impatiently) for a guard in a nearby monitoring room to buzz open the next door so we could escape the tight confines of one hallway only to enter another one. It felt like prison was little more than an endless maze of dim, suffocating, windowless hallways. The students’ excitement was already beginning to wane as they realized how much of our visit would involve simply standing and inhaling stale air in empty, dingy hallways.

Finally, we reached the point in the tour about which the students were most excited: We were about to visit a cell that was currently inhabited, but that had been evacuated for the purpose of our visit. We entered a particularly dark wing of the prison that had no natural light whatsoever. Bare bulbs illuminated the hallways just enough that we could see a row of metal bars on cell doors and nothing else. The men who were locked inside these cells stuck their arms out of the bars and used some sort of reflective material to see us at the front of the hallway. We were told that they were under strict orders not to talk to us, and a strange silence settled in the hallway as students uncomfortably watched the men in their cells quietly try to catch a glimpse of our group. As we observed the incarcerated men’s efforts to see who we were, we were suddenly deeply unsettled by our own freedom to move away and with the growing voyeuristic feel of the visit.

Our discomfort sharpened as we approached the prison cell that we were allowed to enter. At the beginning of yet another dark hallway, we turned toward the narrow opening that served as entry into the cell. Several students had to duck their heads to enter the cell, and as they stepped into it, they were startled by its small size.  How could two men fit in such a small space, they wondered aloud. The correctional officer then told them that even more than two men occupied this space at times. My students grew visibly upset as they contemplated the experience of sharing such a small space with so many other adults. Taller students quickly exited the cell when they realized that they were too large to fit inside comfortably. All of us noted with sadness the small but meaningful ways in which the residents of the cell had personalized their living space with a handful of mundane objects: A few photographs, a cereal box, a string with a small sheet that presumably represented the men’s futile attempts at preserving some semblance of privacy. We saw the toilet in the corner of the cell and could not bear to consider the prospect of using the toilet in the presence of multiple people. One by one, we exited, relieved to leave the confines of the tiny cell and to end what felt like a tremendous invasion of privacy. As we left, we were led through another series of hallways into an area that overlooked one of the prison’s outdoor spaces. This particular outdoor area was composed of small, fenced-in spaces that could not be described as anything other than cages. As we watched men pace in these fenced-in areas through a large window, I could see my students’ sense of uneasiness and awkwardness heighten even more. They tried to avert their gaze but could not help staring at the men restlessly pacing up and down by themselves in their tiny, fenced-in spaces. Some students would later recall, with a great deal of embarrassment, how inappropriate it felt to be watching these men as if they were animals at a zoo. Finally, we were led to another wing of the prison. Here, we were relieved finally to see some natural light, but in sharp contrast to the eerie darkness and silence of the previous wings, this wing was incredibly, disturbingly loud.  My students could not hear each other above the overlapping sounds of clanging cell doors, shouting, fighting, and singing that all contributed to a distressingly cacophonous setting. Over and over again, my students tried to envision what it would be like to live in such a noisy, chaotic environment. How could anybody sleep, or even think, with so much noise?

In our post-visit reflections, all of us described feeling like an immense weight was lifted the moment we stepped outside the prison. Although we had only been inside the facility for a short period, many students could not believe how good the warm sunshine felt when we exited. In fact, in essays and classroom discussions, many students described feeling claustrophobic in the prison, even though we were only there for an hour or two. As I reflected on my own decision to take my students to visit the prison, I was conflicted about whether it was a good idea in the end. On the one hand, the visit made my students understand the depths of the sensory pains of being in prison—its darkness, its noise, its loneliness, and its tediousness—and it forced all of us to confront the immense privilege we had in being able to leave the prison when we wanted to leave. On the other hand, the intense voyeurism of the visit left all of us feeling deeply unsettled. Ultimately, I was (and still am) uncomfortable with my own role in further eroding the tiny modicum of privacy that incarcerated men have by turning these men’s prison lives and living spaces into spectacles that were passively observed by outsiders who then seamlessly returned to their lives after the visit was over.

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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.