Spatial Security: Spatial Limits

Security is paramount to the entire process of prison: the three objectives of HM Prison Service, as detailed in its statement of purpose, are:

“To protect the public and provide what commissioners want to purchase by: [1]

  • • Holding prisoners securely
  • • Reducing the risk of prisoners re-offending
  • • Providing safe and well-ordered establishments in which we treat prisoners humanely, decently and lawfully.”
  • (HM Prison Service Statement of Purpose)

As such, the formal security of prisoners is officially acknowledged to be of fundamental importance, yet insecurity is key to the prison experience and the manner in which it is represented in the media and popular culture. Prisons are notoriously violent spaces, with such violence being observed by the majority of participants in one form or another—most were simply observers/audience, but some described their personal experiences as victims of theft, violence, or bullying, whilst others spoke of the part they played in committing violent acts towards staff and other prisoners, particularly at early points in long sentences. Many spoke of the presence of weapons, phones, drugs, and so on, which negatively influenced the security of the prisoners, in spite of the prison itself being seen by some to be more formally secure than many other category C prisons. Those who observed violence and harm to others often spoke of the way that it influenced, shocked, and changed them, wishing to avoid such a fate themselves:

Researcher: So what made you change to do that?

Bailey: Um probably when I was in [prison] my pal got stabbed up, um and he’s

in a, he’s in a wheelchair now and he got like hundred and ninety-seven stitches in his neck, face, back, all over but they’d doubled the razor, so they doubled the razor up so they couldn’t stitch it so he had months of.. .um, where he just had gauzes on him so they had to change them every day, plus where they’d been kicking him he couldn’t walk again so he was in a wheelchair as well, so that was over, phh a stupid bit of debt, do you know what I mean.. .after that I just calmed down a bit

Those serving long or indeterminate sentences in particular also spoke of their need to avoid such trouble due to the potential impact it could have upon their chances of release and outside expectations. Some participants spoke of the use of violence against themselves, others, or prison property as a means of achieving some form of physical security through segregation from others, and many participants spoke of the ways in which they had changed and adapted in order to avoid such violence. The majority described changing their performed masculine personas and becoming physically and emotionally hardened in order to avoid the risk of being seen to be weak or a potential victim, and to prove or obtain a tough reputation.

Thus, individuals’ performed identities, such as hardness, physical strength, violence, and dominance, became their security against oth- ers—it was more about how they made use of physical spaces than how those spaces made them secure:

William: You can’t be yourself completely in here, you can’t let your guard down sometimes, even with other inmates you have to, d’you know sometimes put on a bit of a different persona coz otherwise it can leave you open to attack and.. .yeah, that’s just prison in general though

The importance of security of identity and its links to spatial dimensions was also recognised. A number of participants spoke of the distinct sense of emotional security that they felt in therapeutic environments, highlighting the hidden emotional insecurity that they had to experience in the ‘normal’ prison environment where they had to police their behaviours—certain prison spaces were emotionally ‘safer’ than others, and this will have direct implications for the success (and failure) for many offending behaviour/therapeutic programmes that require any degree of emotional engagement, particularly in front of others.

Security was clearly visible in the prison in terms of locks, gates, fences, and staff observations—on a day-to-day basis I had to pass through many doors in front of many eyes and had to ensure that I preserved my own security, the security of my property, and the security of others. As Martin recognises:

Researchers may be trained to remember detailed information for their study, but they often forget they are under as much scrutiny as their subjects. Prisons are like goldfish bowls — everything that happens is seen and talked about by a large number of other people. (2000: 225)

Security was, as to be expected, particularly noticeable when I visited the segregation unit, where prisoners were kept separate for the protection of others (rather than the protection of themselves). Prisoners had restricted access to potential weapons such as nail clippers or chairs (the image of the chair for prisoners in the interview room on the segregation unit has remained with me for a long time—it was bolted to the floor). It is clear that the maintenance of physical and emotional security is of concern to prisoners, be that by proving themselves not to be victims, or by attempting to avoid trouble, in both cases avoiding negative gender identity labels. Trouble nevertheless pervades the prison experience through personal or vicarious victimisation and violence (both in the prison and experienced on the outside), and it has far-reaching consequences for the prison experience:

Bailey: ... but how you get brought up in life, if you see violence, you perpetuate

violence, you use it because that's all you know

  • [1] Referring to the segregation unit.
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