Life behind bars: can prison be better than this?

Anastasia Chamberlen is Assistant Professor in Sociology at the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick and is researching in the fields of prison sociology, feminist criminology and criminal justice.

English and Welsh prisons are undergoing one of their most challenging periods in decades. As I’m writing this piece, news emerges of yet another outbreak of violence in an English prison. This time, it’s the high security HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire, a prison described by the Ministry of Justice as ‘well-staffed’, which saw 81 prisoners take over a wing, raising once again concerns about safety and order in English carceral institutions.

Numbers in self-harm incidents and suicides among prisoners have recently spiked, while disorder, riots, assaults on prisoners and staff have also increased. The prison population is comprised of the most vulnerable and socially disadvantaged, and currently an ongoing mental health crisis in prisons remains largely unaddressed.

My research focuses on the experiences of imprisonment and considers how harmful coping strategies like self-injury become normalised in prisons. After completing a study on the bodily aspects of women’s imprisonment (how women adopt to prison and cope through practices like medical care, eating, drug use, self-injury, clothing and grooming), I went on to look at how we might understand the emotional desire to pursue punishment at such levels that now the number of prisoners in England and Wales is at another record high, and represents the highest per capita prisoner population in western Europe. I looked at these issues because I believe that the urge to punish in society is reinforced by the maintenance of an emotional separation between those inside bars and those outside.

Since 2016, I have started thinking more concretely about how to bridge this gap in order to address the current prison crisis, and through an ESRC Impact Acceleration grant at the University of Warwick I sought to organise events that would raise public awareness not only about the prison system but also about the experiences of prisoners and former prisoners, and of those who work with and support them.

In May I hosted a public engagement event in central London titled ‘Beyond Bars: Stories from Former Prisoners’. This was a day-long arts festival which highlighted, through various art forms, current problems in prison as well as imprisonment’s ongoing detrimental effects. I collaborated with a range of organisations working with current and former prisoners. It was a popular and lively event that gave the general public the chance to reflect on and empathise with the experience of imprisonment. It also gave the opportunity to former prisoners and their supporters to directly express and share stories that often remain unheard.

Prison-cell MF2

I am now planning a second event along with Safe Ground and the Howard League, due to take place in January 2018, titled ‘Chaos and Crisis: Can prison be better than this?’. This workshop seeks to bring together former prisoners, prison and court staff, governors, activists and NGOs, researchers and journalists who will discuss the causes of current and persistent problems inside prisons, and will collectively consider viable ways to address these issues. We are delighted that the Chief Inspector of Prisons will join us for a keynote address, and hope that with this opportunity to bring together such a range of speakers we will be able to identify common ground upon which to base a set of recommendations for future practice.

The critical exposure that prisons have recently received may warrant a rare opportunity for academics and activists to prompt politicians and the public to comprehensively rethink their reliance on incarceration. I hope that this project will make one small contribution in that direction.

You can follow Anastasia on Twitter @a_chamberlen

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