They are places of forgotten humanity and forgotten human beings, and I can see no position for them to exist in their current form, in any society that wishes to call itself civilised. Places filled with those who unwittingly and often indirectly bear the burdens and blame of a nations’ legacy of wars, cruelty and organised ignorance. The reasons for individual incarcerations are of course more complex than this, but they do raise awkward questions about how our society operates even when we just scratch the surface. Perhaps, in hiding those individuals that represent the flaws in our systems, we find them easier to forget and to ignore?
As we approached the old Victorian gaol and its sadly familiar ramparts (not just useful for keeping people out, but also for keeping them in it would seem) I wasn’t really sure how I felt, or even how I wanted to feel. Having just purchased several exciting second hand books, I was however in relatively good spirits going in, despite having felt a little queezy earlier in the day. I don’t know if this was in anticipation of the day or due to an iffy pint of Guiness the night before though in all honesty.
Negotiating a series of twists and turns disguised as corridors, collecting programs and checking large bags amongst smiling faces, open gates and punters aimlessly meandering, I couldn’t help noticing how far removed the atmosphere was from the reality of entering a working prison, of similar physical design. It was strange to see such a contrast in a space so similar to another I’ve worked in and I think this was the first disconcerting part - although I don’t know what I was expecting.
We moved towards the heart of the prison. As I looked around at a sea of faces and was immersed in the tinned but cheerful mutter of a shuffling, curious public I began to wonder just what their curiosity was for. I put this to one side for a moment as I observed the layout of the prison. Suspended on the 1st floor above me, a spider at the heart of a web, was the Govenor’s Office, commanding a good view of the 9 wings. Along with the narrow landings that we more like large shelves, “safety” nets and odd 60s or 70s style oblong shaped bars that provided multiple tiny live picture frames, were the thick walls, doors and other prison furnishings; things felt somewhat claustrophobic to say the least. My attention was drawn to the prison plans on display, indicating the position of various cells (and their current artistic occupants). Oscar Wilde’s cell was, as expected, clearly marked. The Govenor’s office (housing a “de profoundis” exhibit) and the landing outside was already crowded as people clambered around one another; for only a glimpse of some evidence of a once famous man’s fall from grace. I wondered what motives there were amongst this collective, and also what and how much variation there would be between them.
Along from the plans were some old drawings of the prison in its original state and format. They were partnered with texts explaining conditions of the time and the reasoning behind them. The conditions were harsher but some of the reasoning seemed eerily familiar in the modern context. I’m not saying we haven’t come a long way, but I’m not convinced it’s far enough yet. There were photographs of convicts on the day they left prison displayed in a case in close proximity, some of the pictures seemed like the characters from period tv series’, but several seemed strangely modern, a few of which had stares that seemed to defy time and come alive, glaring out from the page, imprisoned - this time - by glass. Eyes that were long since dead.
I had a tour of a prison recently. As I entered a block, before I’d even stepped into the wing I began to feel uneasy. The tension in the air was palpable already. Like walking into a room when somebody has been arguing - but exponentially stronger.
As we waited for the gate to be unlocked, the energy of the moment seemed to build, as the prisoners began to look over to see who was venturing across the threshold of the remand wing next. As we entered and the not so subtle peacocking began, or most likely continued, in an instant I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, my shoulders curl forward, my chin tuck in and my eyes go dark as I selected the biggest target; before catching myself as swiftly, with a quick reminder that I was leaving momentarily. None of this was visible to those I was with, my friends noticed only that I “was quiet”. I quickly regained my composure for the remainder of the tour although in truth I did find my mind drifting; what must exposure to such an atmosphere, over an extended period of time, do to a mind? The last time I had felt such a feeling and atmosphere had been in Iraq; a noxious brew of resentment, hatred and violence, all bottled up neatly in fear; a canister of poisonous fumes increasingly pressurised by repression. In that environment only one thing is certain: sooner or later it’s going to pop. I don’t mind admitting that when I reached the safety of my chair at home I lit a smoke and broke down in tears; they weren’t salty, streaming tears of upset, instead they were the heavy, dripping kind; the kind that burn with anger. I could not believe what I had just seen. That we as a nation, a nation I risked my life to protect the principals of, find it acceptable to put anybody in that kind of environment (although I will admit my motives for joining the army were more down to lack of a better option financially and a chance to fight than anything more noble initially). I thought on so many stories of unfortunate circumstance, and thought how easily their fate could have been mine had I not been fortunate enough to have people to help me, and the experiences of my life behind me.
I bring this up now as this was the point at which I had these thoughts during my exploration of the exhibition and they heavily coloured my view of it.
I went round the rest of the show, I looked at everything but took in very little. Between people bustling past and knocking into me, stopping to chat about their oh so interesting trip round the shops, in the middle of single file landings, and comments such as “They keep going on about overcrowding in prisons, they’ve got all the bits they need in here, they could just reopen this place” and parents to children “this is where they put all the bad people”, I found myself somewhat distracted and had to leave for a smoke a couple of times. My thoughts were with the men I’d worked with in the military setting, but at that moment more so with the veterans in prison. I felt betrayed once more not just for me but especially for them. This was a far cry from what we are all told (and told young I might add) that we were fighting for and what was waiting back at home - not just by the exhibition, but many of the people viewing it. Such wasted potential.
For obvious reasons there was no sign of the real atmosphere of prison (or even the little I’ve seen) at the exhibition, only a much sanitised view for a much sanitised population; a view of a very British prison indeed. In all fairness the exhibits did go someway in bridging the gap, and provoking thought to the plight of various individuals and more anonymous pieces offering potentially stirring moments in various mediums. I was in no frame of mind to appreciate them though and I saw little to remind or inform us of the current issues and their links to the past, but that is based largely on what I saw of the audience. I came for a look at an exhibition, and I got what I came for; but it wasn’t the exhibition I was expecting. It was a public performance of apathy, ignorance and a slightly sadistic voyeurism from so many, with but a few seeming genuinely interested in learning anything. What I got was a glimpse of some of the principals at the root of our prison systems and our society - and our apparent ease with them. Those we base on the current prioritising of punishment over rehabilitation, of assigning blame rather that fixing the problem, of making sure everything looks right on the outside, rather than making sure systems actually work properly for the people they’re supposed to work for. It’s easier to point our fingers at other people and point out their shortcomings because it distracts others, and often ourselves, from our own issues. As agitated as I was, I don’t believe people always realise or consider the implications of their attitudes, I know I’ve certainly struggled with such things myself and it’s probably why it bothers me so much to see it.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, but if we wish and expect people to change, then surely a more effective method of achieving this than further wounding wounded men, would be to give them reason to, in the form of genuine hope for an alternative lifestyle.
Bottom line; if we really want to make our homes, families and country happier, safer and just, then we could perhaps start simply, and consider helping those who fall, get up, instead of kicking them when they are down.
Join us on 6 April for To Serve, an artist discussion and screening event exploring the spaces between military, custody and civilian life. Book your tickets here.