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Inside view: prison crisis will continue until we hear inmates’ stories

Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy’s report about racial bias in the criminal justice system has just hit the newsstands – and yes, it’s both shocking and true that black men are imprisoned more disproportionately in the UK than is even the case in the US.

Sadly this comes as no surprise to me. For the past few months, I have spent much of my time inside prisons, working directly with inmates and hearing their stories. I am privileged to share in their hopes and dreams, fears and loves, their trials and tribulations - quite literally. I have been able to access spaces – both architectural and emotional – that most of us just don’t see. Black and ethnic minority prisoners are vastly over-represented behind bars, but that’s only one aspect of what has become known as the UK’s prison crisis.

Plan of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon penitentiary, 1791. Wikimedia Commons

It is 40 years since Michel Foucault’s landmark work, Discipline and Punish, was first published in English. It appeared in French two years earlier, in 1975, bearing the title Surveiller et Punir; the differential emphasis being on surveillance, rather than discipline. Famously, at least for anyone who has ever taken an undergrad module on cultural and critical theory in the past 30 years, Foucault is known for his theories around panopticism, based on 18th-century social reformer Jeremy Bentham’s idea that prisoners could be controlled and reformed by creating the illusion that they were at all times under surveillance. An emphasis on transparency and visibility was intended to promote order and good conduct. Representing a marked shift from the unlit dungeons of previous generations, 19th-century prison design experimented with panopticism.

London’s HMP Wandsworth, constructed in 1852, boasts not one but two glass-walled panopticons, filtering distant light into vast hexagonal atriums. When I tell prisoners what the panopticon actually is they stare at me with a mute commingle of interest, amusement and weary cynicism. Who would believe that, despite Foucault’s best efforts, the actual purpose of the imposing glass tower is typically known to neither inmates nor staff?

They assume – if they think of it at all – it’s just a baroque architectural feature, along with the honeycomb-styled floor grilles that allow you to see right through the floor – all the way down to the star-patterned chamber at the base of the atrium and all the way up to the glass-filled top. What the stars and honeycombs are intended to represent is ripe for speculation; bee colonies and the Star Chamber spring to mind.

A cell block in Wandsworth Prison, London, built in 1851. PA Archive

A bitter irony is that the prison population, far from being the most surveilled, is probably the most invisible population of all. Headlines about the UK’s prison crisis appear almost daily, and yet when do we hear from the prisoners themselves? Leaked photographs of cell-bound debauchery might find their way to the tabloid press and BBC’s Panorama, yet most of us have absolutely no idea what really happens behind the gates. In a horrible parody of the Vegas slogan: what happens in prison stays in prison.

American stories

Things haven’t necessarily always been like this. In America, there have been patchy but regular efforts to make prisoners’ voices heard. In the 1920s, journalist John L Spivak managed to access prison farms in the southern States, producing shocking evidence that later featured both in his own book, Georgia Nigger (later retitled Hard Times on a Southern Chain Gang). Spivak’s evidence also, crucially, featured at the trial of Robert Elliott Burns, whose own first-hand account – I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang – landed him a movie deal.

Some of the most extraordinary prison recordings were those made by folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who toured prisons in the mid-20th century recording songs and oral histories that were preserved in the strangely dislocated and isolated prison communities. These were composed predominantly of African American males whose lives and bodies were recycled into neo-slavery by an industrialised penal system.

In the 1960s and 70s, a swathe of searing writing emerged from American jails, written by men such as George Jackson and Eldridge Cleaver, both associated with the Black Power movement; Angela Davis, too, was famously interviewed from her jail cell, at a time when media access to prisoners was being debated in the courts as a matter of press freedom.

British silence

But if prisoners’ voices have been sporadic and contested in the US, in the UK – ballad-writing Oscar Wilde aside – they have barely been acknowledged at all. In the 19th century, Henry Mayhew produced encyclopedic tomes devoted to the documentation of London’s urban poor, including The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life. Published in 1862, this book details daily life at Pentonville, Brixton, and Wandsworth. Almost unbelievably, these are still in operation, while the prison hulks at Woolwich have been replaced by a modern trifecta – HMPs Belmarsh, Thameside and the curiously-titled HMYOI Isis – all three occupying a barbed wire sprawl in London’s SE18.

Aerial view of Belmarsh Prison. Tony Harris/PA Archive/PA Images

Yet, in the UK, prisoners’ voices are not heard. One cannot see where they live and, for the most part, people don’t care. Indeed, people prefer not to see them at all, which is why they are buried behind high walls and information lock-downs. Media access to prisons and prisoners is highly restricted – and to a large extent the media has itself to blame for this. A focus on lurid headlines rather than genuine transparency has created an impasse where those who work within the creaking prison system feel under constant pressure of secret cameras and public outrage. The result is a faintly paranoiac culture of censorship and suppression.

But what is needed is more transparency, not less. The general public needs to understand what happens inside prisons – the good, the bad and the ugly – and to open a genuine dialogue around why, for the most part, prisons don’t work and, in many respects, represent the very antithesis of blind justice. Meanwhile, those inside prison need to know that they are not unspeakable, unacceptable or unseeable. They are real people, with feelings and voices and hopes and dreams, stuck in a pseudo-Victorian merry-go-round that is equal parts prison, madhouse and workhouse.

The Lammy Review gives us yet more reason to express tight-lipped dismay at the lack of rhyme and reason in Britain’s desperate prisons. But when will we be ready to listen to those inside?

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