I came across sensory criminology fairly recently whilst browsing social media, completely distracted from what I should have been reading. I found it fascinating, not least because it helped me to identify and make sense of some of my experiences whilst conducting prison research. However, what I was not expecting was the power this perspective has given me to really consider and understand my own position – transporting me back to pain, revealing scars I didn’t realise existed and considering what this taught me about the prison.
To give some context then, between the ages of 12 and 15 I was in and out of police custody. I was never sent to secure (although almost ‘for my own protection’) but I regularly spent periods of confinement in cells, often for full weekends when they had nowhere else to send me. This was during the mid to late 90s so pre-YOT and the YJB and, as a female, the police would often tell me I was better off in a cell than on the streets anyway.
My life has changed significantly since then and in both work and voluntary roles I have revisited criminal justice sites and institutions with relative emotional ease. However, this was challenged during my time conducting research in a prison and it is these challenges that shall be the focus of my writing. In particular, I found there were three experiences that acutely activated and revealed what I feel are sensory scars – that is sites of old wounds revisited via: the smell, the cell, and leaving the prison.
I was, and still am, surprised that the smell of the cleaning fluid activated emotion. That chemical disinfectant, that I’m assuming must be standard for communal areas in cold, soulless institutions with hard blue and green floors. It took me straight back. This smell is only around at certain points in the day so conducting research, rather than visiting, meant more opportunities to connect with it. That cheap, sterile, cold smell – it reminded me so much of being escorted down the corridor often by men twice my size, just a body, chucked in a cell and kept until another place or person knew what to do with you. I suppose that was the message, the ‘we don’t know what to do with you’ smell – you’re an inconvenience to society, it doesn’t know what to do with you so we’ll contain you for a bit in this building, disinfecting human traces.
I was given a small office to work from during my research. It was an old cell, small with cream walls and no natural light. It was similar to the cells I had been held in when I was a child, but without the window made from thick square panes of glass and set with concrete. I didn’t hold keys during my research and I couldn’t leave this office unlocked. This meant that I had to, or felt like I had to, wait for a prison officer to relieve me. I was very appreciative of the space I’d been given and didn’t want to add to the workload of prison staff and so sometimes I could be waiting a while – it was this that revealed the second sensory scar. The sounds while waiting…footsteps walking down the corridor, keys jangling and that feeling of relief that someone is coming. You think it’s time for you to go…only for the sounds to tail off at someone else’s door. It’s not your turn so there’s that sinking feeling. Then, waiting longer, and again, the same process repeated. You’re enclosed and powerless with nothing to do, convinced you’ve been forgotten about. Life is buzzing onwards and you’re left, no one is coming and you don’t matter. You’re forgotten.
The act of leaving the prison each day reminded me of how it felt every time I left police custody. Switching from the dull, still, confined space, with stale air and limited natural light to a heightened awareness of the outside world and that feeling of being free. The crisp, clean fresh air hitting your face after feeling nothing but stillness, demanding some consciousness. Having to wait a few seconds while your eyes adjust to the brightness, waking you up from the dull artificial gloom. The sounds of cars, birds and people walking past on the pavement. It made me feel so grateful that I could leave behind the emptiness of confinement and this time, step towards life.
Reflecting upon these sensorial experiences has provided me with a source of insight and understanding around some of the experiences of prison and social control. This is particularly with regard to the dehumanising nature of these institutions and the act of confinement. Perhaps the most pertinent aspect of this is reflected in my reaction, when discussing this blog, to someone using the word child. That really hit me… the idea that I was a child. I’d never thought of myself as a child. I certainly didn’t feel like a child at the time and over 20 years on, I still needed to be reminded that I was one. That is probably a testament to the long term damage dehumanising spaces have on our bodies and sense of self and it is the etching sensory scars that lay dormant ready to be raised to remind you of that.
 “Secure” here refers to secure children’s homes (SCH’s) which offer full time residential care for children aged 10-17 (14 if referred for custody). 43% of placements were those commissioned by the Ministry of Justice in 2020 (80 children): https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/children-accommodated-in-secure-childrens-homes For more information see Howard League for Penal reform, (2016) Future insecure: secure children’s homes in England and Wales. Available here: https://howardleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Future-Insecure.pdf
There are three types of custody for children in England and Wales (who mysteriously become “young people” when criminalised): Secure children’s homes (SCH’s) – run by local councils for children 10-14, Secure Training Centres (STC’s) – for children up to 17, run privately by for-profit organisations, and Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) – for children and young people 15-21 (termed “people” on the government website), run by the prison service and private companies https://www.gov.uk/young-people-in-custody/what-custody-is-like-for-young-people).
England and Wales has the lowest age of criminal responsibility (10 years old) and the highest rates of child incarceration in Western Europe. Most children in custody are held in prison, (YOI’s). For some comparison, in December 20/21 60 were held in SCH’s, 94 in STC’s and 454 in YOI’s (figures taken from gov.uk: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/youth-custody-data).
 YOT refers to “Youth Offending Team”. Set up following the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, with an emphasis on “protecting the public” (and reducing reoffending as their principle aim) See HMIP (2017) “The work of youth offending teams to protect the public”: https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprobation/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/10/The-Work-of-Youth-Offending-Teams-to-Protect-the-Public_reportfinal.pdf
 YJB refers to the “Youth Justice Board”, also established in the wake of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, to monitor and promote good practice. In 2000 they assumed responsibility for commissioning custodial places (taken from www.beyondyouthcustody.net)