postcard #23. The Carceral Model

Chiayi Prison Museum, Taiwan
December 2015

Chiayi is a small city about 1 ¾ hours by High Speed Rail from Taipei. The prison dates from Japanese colonial rule and was in operation from 1922 until 1994. It opened as a museum in 2011. It is a relatively small prison compared to places like Abashiri in Hokkaido so there is less of a sense of the space constituting a whole infrastructure and community. Few objects relating to the prison have been conserved and so far objects on display are found in glass cabinets rather than used to ‘reconstruct’ scenes from prison life.


Everything except the toilet and no smoking signs is in Mandarin only which makes it hard for non-Mandarin speakers to form any real sense of the types of narratives being presented either by the tour guide or the information panels. What this does mean, at least for me, is that this offers an opportunity to experience the space of the prison and think about the organization of objects in themselves rather than framed by the information and anecdotes provided by a guide or by information placards. It also gave me the chance to think some more about the dynamics of the tour itself.


The compact size of the prison and its architecture (based on a radial prison model with a central control station) – low ceilings and small reception rooms (which must have originally functioned as offices and processing rooms) – meant that a guided tour seems crowded and precludes any possibility of spending time looking and thinking about what’s on display. Ultimately, we decided to explore the rooms once the tour had moved on but were hurried out of the prison once the tour had ended so they could close. Elsewhere, such exploration is not possible due to security measures or the arrival of the next tour group. Unlike many of the prison museums we’ve visited, entrance to the museum and the tour was free. There was also no souvenir shop. However, tours take place at specific times and you can only access the prison for the tour.

In opting to leave the tour behind (or in front) there is always a risk that despite being free to explore the space independent of the guide’s narrative, such exploration will depend instead on personal preconceptions and the desire to see certain things. This is no less true of an academic visiting a prison museum than it is of any visitor and calls to mind Michelle’s Browns assertion in The Culture of Punishment (2009) of the need for rigorous auto-critique when analyzing the role of cultural representations of incarceration on public perceptions of criminality and punishment.

The first rooms we visited as dictated by both the architecture of the prison and structure of the tour, focused on the prison administration and the officials involved in preserving and reopening the site thus emphasizing the relationship between the prison as social institution and the prison as cultural institution in the form of museum via extensive photo displays of past and recent dignitaries alongside those of prison wardens and officials. Such displays leave no doubt as to the overriding ideology of the museum as a commemoration of the state justice system.



The central control station and the three corridors of prison cells based on a radial model, are completely absent of prisoner narratives. Prison uniforms for both guards and innmates are displayed on dressmaker’s dummies rather than mannequins precluding even the crudest possibility for human identification.

A range of weapons, shackles and even a crucifix-like device are on display but there is little in the way of artifacts which attest to the daily running of the prison such as cooking and eating utensils which feature extensively in other museums especially Abashiri and also the Jing-mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park in Taipei.

The prison cells are all empty except for a Western-style toilet which takes up over a quarter of the space but, interestingly, a framed photograph has been attached to many of the doors. These photographs are old images of the prison architecture, mainly taken from outside the prison.


The link between social and cultural institution continues later on in the tour through extensive displays, in glass cabinets, of prisoner art and objects produced by inmates. A large portion of the prison is taken up with three halls which were once factory buildings where inmate labour took place.


The first hall was taken up with large sculptures often made from papier mâché and preserved behind large glass cabinets. The second hall featured smaller models and ceramics alongside agricultural artefacts and old forms of technology either preserved from the prison or produced by inmate labour. At the back of the second hall were two more recent installations – artist interpretations of prison cells confusing the more straightforward presentation of art and production as rehabilitation and repayment of social debt.


The third hall featured approximately twenty scale models of Taiwan’s prisons and detention centres. Where some were based on the celebrated radial model, others take a form similar to military barracks or hospital. The divergence of the models attests therefore to the prison not as a homogeneous structure based on a single model or ideology but, rather, as an institution perpetually at the centre of contemporary urban planning and public consciousness even when its material existence has been pushed beyond the outskirts of towns and cities. While I am usually wary of appropriating Michel Foucault’s comment that ‘Quoi d’étonnant si la prison ressemble aux usines, aux écoles, aux casernes, aux hôpitaux, qui tous ressemblent aux prisons?’ which referred specifically to 19th century forms of institutional architecture and power, here, it seems particularly pertinent precisely because of its multiple and diffuse forms.

Such models with their painstaking attention to detail, it transpires, were made by inmates which pushes the question of the role of inmate art and labour. What is at stake in recreating in miniature the very space and structure which confines you? Does this exacerbate the claustrophobia as the space literally gets smaller producing a mise-en-abîme which denies any possibility of escaping. Or does it shift the perspective outwards and upwards, providing the chance to see the prison from outside and above, offering a control over this space? There is no way of knowing since such displays are devoid of any narrative from the inmates that produced the models. The finished object stands as a double affirmation of the success of the Taiwanese prison system as it adopts different architectural models and co-opts its inmates in their museification whilst subsuming and indeed effacing the voice and identity of those incarcerated.


Likewise, around the edges of the hall were relics of old pieces of prison architecture such as coving affirming the way in which a history of architecture is privileged above a history of punishment and is often used to legitimize the preservation and restoration of carceral spaces both as museums and for other commercial purposes such as hotels. The small gardens in the Chiayi museum are neatly landscaped and seem designed to reflect key aspects of the radial prison model via circular hedges juxtaposed with narrow lanes of hedgerows.


The unnerving jump from official photo displays to anonymous offender art via empty prison cells and weaponry raises important questions about the art on display at Chiayi. What are the schemes in operation? Where is the art displayed originally and which inmates are selected and encouraged to produce it? Some interesting comparisons might be made with offender art programmes elsewhere such as the Koestler awards which I’ve commented on in previous posts.

In particular, we might ask how such art which, whether self-reflexive or not, is often commended as giving inmates both skills and a voice as well as providing a form of therapy, risks deferring any discussions about the wider implications and conditions of incarceration.

Where the inmate is reduced to his or her artistic object within the space of Chiayi, elsewhere such art (when attached to seemingly humanizing discourses) is also a way to individualize the prison experience and produce all-too-easy distinctions between those who use their time ‘productively’ and other inmates. Thus, despite appearing to privilege personal narratives of inmates running counter to the pathologization of certain prisoners (see Michelle Brown again here) which are often a highlight of UK and US prison tours with their focus on celebrity inmates, gangsters and mass murderers, offender art is also framed within a discourse which legitimizes the current carceral system and its extension.

At the same time, how do we juxtapose endorsed forms of offender self-expression with unauthorized, prohibited forms such as political writings, coded communications between gang members (kites), reading material associated with gang and activist activity, photography and footage taken with smuggled mobile phones etc? How do we avoid fetishizing such forms of self-expression and self-representation and co-opting these within a voyeuristic penal consumerism in order to insist on the power of such objects to tell different stories and produce counter-narratives on the function of incarceration in late capitalism?

Further information about the restoration of Chiayi Prison and, in particular, the capturing and simulation of images of the prison’s architecture and structure as part of the The marks of a Century of history-Chiayi Prison Digital Archives project can be found here:

While the article talks a lot about restoring the ‘spirit’ of the building, it is important to note the way this again remains limited to the material structure of the prison and not the embodied experience of those incarcerated there.



postcard #13. CCTV

The Galleries of Justice, Nottingham
March 2015

‘But, in this scene of terror, the role of the people was an ambiguous one. People were summoned as spectators: they were assembled to observe public exhibitions and amendes honorable; pillories, gallows and scaffolds were erected in public squares or by the roadside; sometimes the corpses of the executed persons were displayed for several days near the scenes of their crimes.’ (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1977 [1975])

This is the first of what I anticipate to be a series of posts on the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham.

I’ve started to try and identify a single image or object which provides a key to understanding a particular carceral site or prison museum. This is often quite tricky since I want to highlight a certain penal ‘aesthetic’ appearing in all or many of the sites but also pick out things which legitimise the role of incarceration within a particular time and place. It is even harder in extensive museums like the Galleries of Justice. The labyrinthine layout of the galleries with its multiple levels and exhibitions allows for an archeology of the British penal system which draws on the spectacle of dungeon and torture (cf. the Clink) via the local folklore of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham alongside more contemporary debates on crime and punishment. The effect is overwhelming and the main impression with which one exits the galleries is that prison is ubiquitous.

There was nevertheless one image amongst the multiple narratives and layers of history which seemed to encapsulate a important aspect of penal tourism.


Writing of the panopticon model in Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault comments on the role and identity of those called in to observe the inmate:

‘[…]it does not matter what motive animates him: the curiosity of the indiscreet, the malice of a child, the thirst for knowledge of a philosopher who wishes to visit this museum of human nature, or the perversity of those who take pleasure in spying and punishing. The more numerous those anonymous and temporary observers are, the greater the risk of the inmate of being surprised and the greater his anxious awareness of being observed.’

Where Foucault charts the shift from forms of punishment based on spectacle to those organised around constant surveillance a complex reversal seems to have taken place which invites the museum visitor to participate once again in the theatrics of torture and execution. At the same time, the visitor becomes the object of surveillance not only via the cctv which monitors unmanned exhibition rooms but through surveys, questionnaires, gift aid donations and gift shop purchasing choices.


postcard #3. Your Own Private Prison Part I.

PRISON ARCHITECT by game developer Introversion,
January 2014

Writing of Foucault’s late work on the self, philosopher Todd May suggested that all that really happens with Foucault’s shift from a focus on the subject to the self is that we get to choose our own private prison.

‘For Foucault, freedom is not a metaphysical condition. It does not lie in the nature of being human, nor is it a warping, an atomic swerve, in the web of causal relations in which we find ourselves. To seek our freedom in a space apart from our encrustation in the world is not so much to liberate ourselves from its influence as to build our own private prison.’ Todd May, ‘To Change the World, to Celebrate Life: Foucault and Merleau-Ponty on the Body’, Philosophy & Social Criticism 31:5-6 (2005).

In the future, all prisons will be privately owned with one half of the population hired as mercenaries to protect the other half from one another. Or perhaps the design and running of prisons will be crowdsourced, funded through kickstarter with contributors getting leftovers from the prison canteen for $50, confiscated shanks for $150, or the opportunity to spend a night in a cell with Mark Chapman for $1000.

For now our Benthamite fantasies remain limited to the virtual world.

Forget designing and running your own virtual rollercoaster theme park or hotel – what could be more exciting and rewarding than working out how to construct and manage a maximum security prison?

As a (incredibly successful) crowdfunded project – you can also cast yourself as master criminal or prison warden (this option costing a hefty $6000 has already sold out).

While I will be purchasing the ‘Physical Pleasures’ option – comprising a series of pre-souvenirs to consolidate my gaming experience in tangible, material form (not to mention serious academic research), I was most taken with the description (and the creepy photo) of the next ‘tier’ option:

Digital-Immorto-Criminalise Your Face ($250)

prison architect 2

‘Close your eyes and imagine how cool it would be to have a prisoner in the game that looks just like you. Send us a picture of your face and we’ll have our artist draw custom imagery for the in-game prisoner sprite. Truly, this is the best way to see yourself in a maximum security prison. Click on the icon on the left to see an example of how awesome it looks. You also get every prior tier, so you’ll be able to name and write the bio for the little guy too. Everyone who ever plays PA will know your face and high-five you in the street.’

Imagine Charcot doing a selfie.

postcard #6. Clink

The Clink Prison Museum,
London, July 2014

The Clink prison (named after the sounds of clinking chains) was open between 1144 and 1780. It’s museum is open 7 days a week and boasts that it is ‘real history’ – most likely a desperate claim made in response to the themepark history of the heavily promoted London tombs experience (formerly the London Dungeons) nearby.


Inside, the focus is, unsurprisingly, on the particularly gruesome nature of incarceration in medieval London. Of note here, is the ‘oubliette’, the name given to solitary confinement, a hole which regularly flooded leaving prisoners immersed in raw sewage. Elsewhere, the concerted attempt to ‘engage’ visitors, especially children, in the exhibition makes them read as a 101 in ‘how to incarcerate’.


There are step-by-step instructions on how to forge manacles, a list of ways in which money could be made from prisoners and, as part of the little rodents trail aimed at younger visitors, a ‘how far would you go’? quiz on the acceptability of torture during the Spanish inquisition. Worryingly, the implication here is that torture is always acceptable in certain circumstances.

What the museum shows most forcibly is the relationship between suffering and debt that prison continues to embody and which attests to its continued status as mode of punishment par excellence within contemporary society. Prison was intended to cause physical suffering in the form of associated violence inflicted upon the imprisoned body. The healing of wounds was considered to provide evidence of the ‘moral’ healing of the prisoner. As Wacquant points out in Punishing the Poor, today’s prisons cannot only be described in terms of industrial-complexes aimed at turning a profit. At stake, is the same form of public moral indignation which demands a series of suffering be inscribed onto the bodies of those incarcerated. They cannot simply be put to work until their ‘debt’ to society is paid off. Their bodies must be permanently marked with no possibility of healing. Marked by rape, beatings, gang tattoos, poor diet, sensory deprivation, lack of exercise but also marked onto registers which deprive them of welfare on release, access to public housing, employment and, in the case of sex offenders, ensure they are hunted and vilified for the rest of their lives.

Today, with debt once more being held up as the worse form of crime, we are not seeing a return to medieval attitudes towards poverty but rather, the persistence of a strategy of punishing the weaker members of society through public spectacles of pain and suffering.


postcard #26. Stock Images

BBC News special report ‘Inside Wandsworth Prison’
May 2016

[Featured Image is a screenshot taken from the BBC site, 12 seconds into the report.]

Although most of my posts are about prisons, prison museums, exhibitions and other carceral sites that I’ve visited personally, I’m also interested in prison tours more generally and the ways in which these are choreographed by prison authorities. The Groupe d’Information sur les prisons (GIP) take off the media prison visit in one of their ‘Intolérable’ pamphlet dedicated to France’s ‘model’ prison Fleury-Mérogis built at the end of the 1960s. Such visits and tours demonstrate the complicity of mainstream media with prison and government authorities and their respective agendas towards prisons whether this be the promotion of an effective penal system or the call for widespread reforms due to poor conditions. As Michel Foucault suggested in Discipline and Punish, the failure of the prison system is inherent to its very existence as mode of punishment par excellence.

Last night’s News at Ten on the BBC included a special report on HMP Wandsworth where the BBC had gained exclusive access for a week of filming. (See the report here: The report was shown on the same day that the Queen, in her annual parliamentary address, announced government plans for the widest prison reform since the Victorian era. If the BBC report is anything to go by, such reforms will have little to do with improving the conditions of those doing time both during and after their sentences. Rather, the choice of images taken from a week’s worth of footage together with editing techniques resembled those found in popular U.S. prison documentaries especially those looking at prison gangs. Here, the emphasis is on depicting the prison population as caged animals often complicit in their own framing as such.

Most of the footage shown in the report involved the camera crew crammed alongside officers on the narrow walkways outside upper level cells. It was also from this position that an inmate was filmed climbing on protective mesh like a monkey at a zoo. A young female guard was interviewed just metres away from a group of inmates openly smoking weed in response to which she asked the camera crew what exactly she was to do about it the implication being that allowing drugs inside prison made life easier for everyone. Inmates and guards faces were often blanked out yet such individuals often remained easily identifiable via clothing, tattoos and facial hair. There was standard footage of inmate’s feet as they walked through the prison alongside those belonging to the reporter, Ed Thomas. Aerial shots of the prison yard claimed to show rival gangs fighting over drugs with little substantiation of this. Although the report was just over 5 minutes long, it also employed the same repetition technique found in hour-long U.S. documentaries which allows for excessive commercial breaks and ensures a single, basic message is hammered home to viewers. In the short BBC report which had no real need for this, we saw the same clip of a prison guard stating he was the most stressed he’d been in 24 years on the job 3 times.

Interestingly, the prison governor Ian Bickers was filmed away from the backdrop of the prison, giving his interview as a talking head in a darkened studio setting. This, it seems, was intended to establish a distance between the governor and his staff, whom the BBC depicted as both corrupt, incompetent and under enormous mental pressure. Away from such scenes of overcrowding and violent confrontation, the governor was, conversely, able to appear calm and collected, a worthy recipient of the newfound autonomy the government is about to bestow upon him when Wandsworth becomes one of six prisons to ‘pilot’ a decentralized prison service. What this actually means is autonomy over the prison’s budget. While this was framed by the report as allowing those with better insight into the prison and its inmates to put government money to better use in the management and rehabilitation of offenders via drug rehabilitation and work programmes (the report also featured an interview with Michael Gove calling for day release programmes which put offenders ‘to work’), all notions of prison as rehabilitation were completely undermined by the depiction of inmates as dangerous, out-of-control animals unable, as one inmate interviewed suggested, to exit the ‘cycle of violence’ they found themselves in. It was telling that the same inmate who had earlier been restrained by 8 officers was now willing to be filmed (anonymously) articulately affirming his status as violent offender. Juxtaposing such images and statements (the written report on the filming published on the BBC website describes the prison population of Wandsworth as follows: ‘Dangerous men are held inside, some are murderers and rapists, others include pickpockets, drug dealers and fraudsters.’) which contain no nuance or sensitivity towards different individuals being held within Wandsworth, against calls for work programmes and the use of ankle bracelets quite deliberately assures public resistance towards such programmes in favour of more oppressive warehousing techniques found within the U.S. prison industrial complex. Michael Gove’s claim that the public should not fear the release of such inmates to participate in work programmes is an act of bad faith intended to produce public animosity towards such schemes whilst maintaining the pretence that inmate labour should be redirected away from criminal networks towards acceptable forms of production and consumption. Yet, such productivity will no doubt come in the form of the possibilities opened up to private sector contractors providing services to UK prisons. The BBC also seems to be paving the way for the development of UK prisons’ cultural capital (again following the U.S.) in the form of documentaries which demand a different form of ‘labour’ as inmates perform their criminality on cue to the cameras now given increased access to the carceral space. The irony of such dehumanising sensationalism at a time when the BBC is threatened by cuts and privatisation should not be lost here.

On a final note, the report by the BBC came just a month after the Channel Four news report on ‘Dads behind bars’. The 13-minute report looked at the ‘Fathers Inside’ scheme introduced at HMP Parc to ensure fathers in prison had greater involvement with their children whilst serving time through homework clubs and sessions on parenting and responsibility. Channel Four’s more positive approach to issues of fatherhood and rehabilitation in its presentation of the work currently being done by UK prisons to ensure contact between inmates and their families might be held up in contrast to the BBC’s sensationalist yet clichéd depiction of Wandsworth and its inmates. The longer report in which many of the inmates interviewed are clearly identified along with their children and partners is clearly aimed at humanising those featured. At the same time, it is clear that the programme is only reserved for a select few within the UK’s largest prison. While inmates involved in the scheme were serving sentences for a variety of offences, the report focused primarily on Jonathan Gilbert, serving a 12-year sentence for fraud. A charismatic, amiable figure, easily identifiable as a father, Gilbert was able to clearly articulate his shame for his crime of mortgage fraud and his subsequent failure as a father. As such the report plays into class prejudices which see television audiences sympathise with those committing white collar crimes whilst allowing the BBC’s depiction of Wandsworth’s inmates as ‘dangerous men’ to co-exist alongside it without pushing more difficult questions around incarceration.

Postcard #12. Locked Up Dreams

Catching Dreams, Koestler Trust Awards Exhibition
Spirit Level, Southbank, 2014

BREAK OUT OF ART, Kieron, HMP Whatton (On display at Catching Dreams)

When I visited the Koestler Trust’s annual exhibition, The Strength and Vulnerability Bunker, in Autumn 2013, it was the first time I had thought seriously about offender art and its role in narratives of rehabilitation as well as wider questions of creative and prison labour. The 2014 exhibition also at Southbank left me with an overwhelming feeling of sadness – this was largely due to the incongruity between the two dominant narratives expressed by the artwork. On the one hand, there was a sharp political commentary present in many of the works and the juxtaposition of these brought to the foreground an awareness of the impact of Tory policies on those incarcerated or in secure units.

The use of old prison library books in the work ‘Author’ by Stephen, HMP Peterborough seemed a particularly timely response to Chris Grayling’s decision to ban the delivery of books (along with other packages) to inmates in November 2013 (I wrote about this and the failure of mainstream media to pick up on the ban until Spring 2014 here and on Philip Davies’ subsequent claim in September 2014 that ‘prisons have better libraries than the public’ here).


The pixelated portrait of Thatcher, ‘Iron Lady’ by Andrew, HMP Blantyre House provided a sobering follow up to his 2013 submission, ‘Sorrow’ featuring the grayscale, pixelated figure of man bent in prayer. Despite the title, ‘Sorrow’ seemed to me to provide a powerful response to the alienation produced by multiple forms of fragmentation commensurate with both a digital and carceral age. Conversely, the image of Thatcher rendered for a digital age, seemed to suggest a far bleaker world in which her legacy lives on in a more sinister, fragmented and, as a result of such fragmentation, pervasive manner.

On the other hand, there were a number of portraits of famous stars notably Marilyn Monroe and Amy Winehouse. Given the theme of ‘Catching Dreams’, these seemed to contribute to a narrative, at odds with the biting political critique of other works, that of living vicariously through others but others whose fame and success was itself cut short by tragedy. Regardless of the personal motivations behind such portraits, or indeed the limited photographic images no doubt available to inmates as inspiration, framed within the exhibition’s theme, the representation of figures like Winehouse exuded an atmosphere of resignation, of thwarted dreams and a sense of futility. It was as if even the stars with whom the artists identified or took inspiration from, were destined to fail. In this respect, the message of the exhibition was one of ‘failed’ dreams rather than the possibilities opened up by the ability to dream. Which invites the larger question as to the role of the exhibition – does such resignation also attach itself to those viewing the artwork as it definitely did in my case? Does it reveal the cynicism with which offender art is touted as therapeutic, rehabilitative and ultimately emancipatory? Perhaps dreams need to be caught in order to keep them from taking on a life and meaning of their own. Caught and locked up before they can be realised. The ‘Break Out of Art’ picture by Kieron, HMP Whatton might be the key here, suggesting, intentionally or not, that art might be part of the problem in its framing and containment of individuals and public responses to the problems and difficulties of those being contained.

Postcard #4. Freedom through the gift shop

Old Melbourne Gaol
December 2013


To exit Old Melbourne Jail one must walk past the charity donation box and through the gift shop.


In the gift shop it is possible to purchase:

A padlock and key

A stubby holder designed to resemble Ned Kelly’s armour (also on display in the jail)


and, a Ned Kelly snowglobe. At once the most inappropriate and therefore appropriate souvenir a carceral space has to offer.

As part of the entry ticket to the gaol, it is possible to visit the Watch House where you get locked in a dark cell for 2 minutes with a bunch of other snap happy tourists. Parents are warned that the tour might be traumatic for small children due to the shouty actor pretending to be the duty officer and the real life swears carved into the cell walls. I’ve seen more offensive graffiti in my junior school toilets.


There are also ghostly projections of criminals telling their stories too which, like the audio guides at Alcatraz, serve to exorcise the space of its ghosts (what Agamben describes as conjuring…) rather than legitimise such voices. The same is perhaps true of Ned Kelly’s death mask on display.


Kelly is brought back to life at various points in the tour – it is possible to take part in a dramatised version of his trial in the old magistrate’s court. To navigate between the three elements of the tour – gaol, holding cells and courtroom – require one to return briefly to the space of the city – crime and punishment woven into the urban fabric. Yet, in the cities of today such a space can now  exist only as visitor attraction, as guided tour, as part of the museification of the world and a celebration of the processes of gentrification which see both criminality and poverty removed from the urban landscape as anything but commodity fetish.

Kelly is reincarnated but in a display cabinet. And if a 5 year old happens to don the replica of his armour (to be worn only within the allocated area) before charging around the gaol, he must be stopped. Unauthorised reenactments risk unleashing the subversive, criminal spirit of Kelly himself.


Postcard #25. Ghosts

Last night I came home to find the 1980 TV Movie, Attica showing on TV so I thought I’d repost my original blog on my visit to Attica in 2012.

attica_morgan freeman

Attica Prison
New York State, March 2012

Some notes on Attica:

Foucault’s trip to Attica was the first time he set foot inside a prison. He visited Attica in early 1972, about a year after the riots in 1971. At that time, the GIP work was well underway. Yet, it is perhaps this trip that constitutes a major turning point in Foucault’s conception of power. In his 1971 lectures, Foucault still adheres to an understanding of power as essentially repressive. His expectation prior to visiting Attica was that the prison was an essentially exclusionary apparatus.

Today the prison still operates under the shadow of riots of 71 during which 39 people died – many of the prison guards were killed by state troopers storming the building. The disciplinary measures operating throughout the prison embody the idea not simply that where there is power, there is resistance but, rather, where there is resistance, there is power. Disciplinary measures emerge as a reaction to new strategies and tactics of resistance. The C.O’s are inculcated into the art of drug smuggling by the prisoners.

Attica houses some of the most dangerous prisoners in the U.S. Prisoners are sent to Attica from other prisons and were described by the C.O. showing us around as ‘bad’ and ‘incorrigible.’ Rehabilitation is not an objective it seems both in Attica and throughout the U.S. penal system. Which raises questions about the role and value of the various work and education programmes offered to the inmates. Excess bodies which must be managed.

The prison industry

There was something eerily Fordist about the whole establishment both in the work being done by the prisoners but also in the attitude of the guards. When asked what the most rewarding aspect of his job was, the C.O. told us, with no irony, that it was ‘getting to leave at 3 every afternoon’. The guards like the prisoners are caught up in the disciplinary space of the prison in which everyone has a place and everyone know it.

On arriving at Attica at 8am in the morning – the first thing that is striking is the number of cars parked outside. Visiting hours were not yet under way and the visitors parking area is relatively small compared to the huge number of SUVs and other vehicles, all of which belong to staff working in the prison. There are 2200 prisoners, 500 guards and about 300 other members of staff.

However, we were told by the C.O. that the prisoners do much of the work needed in the prison themselves. The prison was spotless, prisoners do all the gardening and cooking. There is a metal work shop which produces large metal cabinets mostly for use, I gather, in industrial and public institutions like hospitals and schools. The C.O. told us that due to union labour laws, many organisations refuse or are not allowed to buy items produced in prisons (prisoners get paid 60c a day to be in prison). To get round these laws, parts are sent out to be assembled elsewhere then sold. The C.O. was unapologetic about this – from his perspective, the prison needs to be financially viable and has been hit by the recession like all manufacturing. Yet, at the same time, how is it possible to justify what is essentially slave labour. The obvious answer would seem to be the experience and skills the prisoners are acquiring which should help them gain employment when they leave prison. But, here, we were told that rehabilitation is not the aim. Programmes in the prison whether education or work-based are seen as a means of keeping prisoners busy and situated in the complex system of privileges that can be taken away for any form of bad behaviour. Moreover, the sight of a manufacturing production line is something becoming increasingly rare throughout the U.S. so rehabilitation aside, it is unlikely that once outside, those working in the metalwork shop will find comparable employment.

The dismissal of any lasting value to the programmes offered in the prison by the C.O. also attests to a certain ideology running throughout U.S. society. Prisoners cannot be seen to be benefiting from their time in prison or using it to give themselves any sort of competitive advantage. The tax-paying public resent the idea of any form of assistance which might actually help people improve their situation because that would, in turn, threaten the privileged position of those ‘providing’ the assistance. So, while many universities offer degree programmes to prisoners, these are not something the universities promote or even mention. The fear is that the wealthy parents of their regular students, will object to paying for the children to obtain the same piece of paper as someone in prison – who gets it for free. In order to maintain these programmes they cannot be spoken even amongst faculty members which obviously prevents newer members of staff getting involved.

Knowledge is not always power

The layout of Attica is deliberately disorientating. There are no markings in the corridors between blocks and they are all decorated the same. This is so that a prisoner who somehow gets out of his block cannot easily find his way around – this is especially true in the case that chemical deterrents (probably tear gas) are released due to an incident.

The only point where one can get an overview of the prison is by ascending the watchtower immediately above Times Square (the central point in the prison and the only way to get from one block to another, everything has to go via Times Square). The view from the bridge at the top looks out onto all 4 yard areas. All the yards are marked with a series of numbers. The first indicates the cell numbers so if anything gets passed out of windows, it is easy to identify which cell they have come from. Around all the walls are stone tables with numbers on the sides and top so they can be seen from different watch towers. If anything suspicious is going down, the guards can use the table numbers as point of reference.

However, there are no surveillance cameras overlooking the yard and limited CCTV throughout the prison (if at all) – the C.O. told us that this was a good thing since CCTV footage was only ever used to incriminate guards.

He also acknowledged the different systems of knowledge circulating in Attica. When a new prisoner arrived – within hours, all the other prisoners would be aware of this and know exactly why he was there. If something kicked off in one block, prisoners in every block would know why. Yet, they are forbidden from talking in the hallways and everywhere we went was eerily quiet. The guards deliberately deny rather than try to harness such knowledge so it cannot be used as a bargaining tool. They also do not want to know why a prisoner is there – this makes dealing with all prisoners equally much easier.

The shadow of the riots

The whole system at Attica is intended to produce docile bodies. We passed numerous prisoners in the hallway who not only didn’t speak but also didn’t make any form of eye contact since they can get written up for this. There were a series of yellow lines marked in the hallways but also in communal areas like the workshop – prisoners would stop and wait behind these until instructed to do otherwise as if obeying a complex traffic system.

Today, if a prisoner kicks off it is usually a response to some immediate deprivation like no ketchup. The C.O. lamented the days when prisoners would think more strategically, even organise their resistance. In the 80s, prisoners would freak out the guards by eating in silence in the mess hall. Now, there is no organisation, no solidarity, no long-term strategy either for resistance or improved conditions. The C.O. both blamed and thanked crack for this. His job is easier but he seems to respect the prisoners (and perhaps as a consequence his role in managing them) less.

Special Housing Unit

The Special Housing Unit (SHU) is a variation on the supermax. It was the only part of the prison we weren’t shown. Apparently, there are some issues with shit slinging. The C.O. deemed this an example of the loss of all humanity – I wondered how individuals got to the point where this was the only option – the only possibility of having some sort of agency or impact on their environment. Prisoners in SHU spend about 23 hours a day locked up with no contact with anyone, bar the  absolute minimum needed to serve them meals etc. They spend about an hour a day in individual exercise pens. We were shown some of these for the less problematic prisoners who nevertheless couldnt be trusted to be in the yard with everyone else. The fences of these enclosures had been topped off with barbed wire to prevent cage fights.

John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, is also housed in SHU – not for disciplinary reasons but because this is the only place he is safe – not even the protective unit (for snitches and bitches) is deemed secure enough. Apparently, he is in charge of the law library.

Postcard #2. Debunking

Spirit Level, Southbank, November 2013

Framing Incarceration

There is a need for a more sustained, radical critique of the way different myths are produced about incarceration which preclude the possibility of challenging imprisonment as the dominant form of regulation and control of criminality in today’s society. The rehabilitation myth is becoming increasingly aligned with the notion of the cultural or creative industry. Prisoner artwork has its own, very specific form of cultural capital which, we might argue, actually precludes the very myth of rehabilitation since the art itself is interesting because of where it was produced.

Get me Out of Here. HMP Inverness

There is a need for a more sustained, radical critique of the way different myths are produced about incarceration which preclude the possibility of challenging imprisonment as the dominant form of regulation and control of criminality in today’s society. The rehabilitation myth is becoming increasingly aligned with the notion of the cultural or creative industry. Prisoner artwork has its own, very specific form of cultural capital which, we might argue, actually precludes the very myth of rehabilitation since the art itself is interesting because of where it was produced.

One of the foyer spaces in the Royal Festival Hall has been given over to an exhibition of artwork produced by those in incarceration, detention or secure units. Foyer Space as what Marc Augé might call a non-place turned into interior/exterior/other space. This is part of the Koestler Trust’s Offender Artwork awards. The decision to show artwork by all those in some form of detention is not unproblematic and perhaps requires further debate. However, it is also perhaps a well-intended (if not deeply condescending) attempt to remove the different types of judgment and stigma associated with the different reasons for locking people up and the value of their artwork as related to these reasons. Art as therapy, art as rehabilitation, art as resistance etc.

The exhibition was curated by Speech Debelle for no apparent reason other than that she is a cool, edgy rapper – as the video of her selection process demonstrated, the logic and choices as to how to set out the exhibition were arbitrary at best. As it also turns out, those who produced the artwork did so prior to the Koestler Trust’s decision as to the theme of the awards which was ‘forgiveness’. There seems something deeply infantalising about entering artwork into a competition without giving artists any indication as to what the stakes of the competition are. I also wonder whether all the artists entered were even asked if they wanted to take part.

The exhibition also provided inmates with the opportunity to act as guides and attendants. It is unclear whether they were paid for this or if this signifies further extension of the culture industry into the space of the prison via the unpaid internship involving little interesting or valuable experience.

The exhibition also included a comments book. This was largely taken up with platitudes about how ‘inspiring’ the work was along with praise for the Royal Festival Hall for putting on free stuff like this. One comment grabbed my attention as being starkly at odds with the others. The comment was made anonymously by someone who had taught in prisons for 10 years. I quote it here as it seems that the person who made it was hoping for more debate and discussion than the exhibition itself seemed to encourage (a series of events was organised around it which no doubt did produce more critical discussion despite being largely aimed at further celebrating prison writing and artwork):

‘I think it is an insult to the prisoners and other entrants to the Koestler that they had no idea of the theme of the exhibition. What about all the excellent work with nothing to do with the cliche of strength and vulnerability that is not given a chance to be exhibited? Where is all the pottery, the soft furnishings, the woodwork, matchstick work that prisoners spend so long doing?

Does the exhibition work for the public, for the prisoners or for who? What is the point of the bunker? Why do you need a ‘celebrity’ to choose and curate it? How are the visitor numbers compared to other years?’

A Shadow Over the City, Neil, HMP Whatton

The most interesting artwork in the exhibition had less to do with forgiveness and other sentimentalising and more to do with the possibilities of a self-representation which reproduced the alienation of incarceration itself, setting oneself at a distance whether this be fantasy, humour, material and so on. If such work reproduced certain cliches – this is not a failing but a statement in itself as to the power of certain images and aesthetics of incarceration and the impossibility not to engage and identify with these. Alienation as belonging.

Sorrow, Andrew, HMP Blantyre House


Postcard #7. Hulk

Prison Hulks Exhibition, Guildhall Museum
Rochester, Kent, July 2014


The Guildhall Museum in Rochester has a section dedicated to the prison hulks which were in operation during the Napoleonic wars and were used to house predominantly French and American prisoners of war. The exhibition is structured like a prison hulk and ranges over three floors, upper deck where the guards quarters were found, the lower deck and the orlop deck where the prisoners slept.


The themes of the exhibition are also divided nicely into three – firstly, the bone and straw work produced by inmates which, like, all good British prison exhibits serves to demonstrate the abilities and work ethic of those incarcerated (when they put their minds to it and weren’t busy breaking the law or fighting against the English), thus reminding us that prison is all about rehabilitation and, obviously, the production of saleable goods.


Second, we have the emphasis on the inhumanity of the hulks (the black hole – solitary – has been faithfully recreated and it is possible to buy ‘hulk’ rats in the gift shop). As the audio commentary tells us, there were those who would have rather seen their children dead before they went on board a prison hulk. The irony of such exhibits is they are intended to reassure school children that life has become so much better and people so much kinder. A more honest appraisal might have involved the juxtaposition of images of today’s prison ships. See Loic Wacquant’s account of ‘The Saga of the New York Penal Barges’ in Punishing the Poor (2009), p.124-5

‘In March 1997, one of these barges, the Bibby Resolution, completed a 3,000 kilometre journey to dock at Portland Harbor, near Weymouth in Cornwall, where it was promptly rebaptized Her Majesty’s Prison Weare: the former British troop transport vessel had been purchased back by the UK prison service to serve as a floating dormitory for 500 “low-security” inmates, in spite of protests by the representatives and inhabitants of its new port of call. This is because, having acceded to the rank of showpiece and pilot of the “Americanisation” of penal policy in Europe, England was experiencing unprecedented carceral hyperinflation – its confined population had leaped 50 percent in just four years to reach 62,000 that year – and it no longer knew where to store its convicts. The return of the Bibby Resolution to its original homeland was a boon to the European shipping company that had bought it from New York City for less than one million dollars and resold it to the British government for eight million. But the real turkey of this maritime-cum-penal farce was the City of New York, which had acquired and outfitted the barge for a total exceeding $41 million.’

Finally, we have the technical details of life on a ship, the construction and fitting-out of prison hulks, paintings of the hulks viewed from the shore and so on.

detail from ‘A night view of the Prison Ships lying in Gillingham near Chatham. With a view of prisoners endevoring to escape from the Sampson’ by Francis St.Jean, a French prisoner on the hulk prison ship ‘Canada’

All this has less to do with the specific function of the ships and more an affirmation of the romanticism of life at sea, all life at sea, and the imperialism which legitimised the use of prison hulks within its fleet. How might we compare this to the justification of spaces like Guantanamo which lie outside the official territory of a nation or state, spaces which by dint of their para-juridical status endorse all manner of atrocities deemed impossible or, at the very least, problematic within the physical and legal borders of such territories?

Postcard #1. Dungeons and Dragons

PRISONS OF WAR exhibition
Edinburgh Castle, October 2013

Like all good castles, Edinburgh Castle was also a prison, its vaults housing over 1000 prisoners most notably French prisoners during the Seven Years War.

Edinburgh Castle 1

A sensory re-enactment of prison life for French captives which features sights, sounds and smells (although clearly these have been toned down considerably to resemble a faint whiff of straw and manure similar to those piped in at The Canterbury Tales tour rather than the overpowering stench of stale sweat, urine, faeces and diseased rotting flesh that would have more likely pervaded the vaults). No doubt the hoards of American tourists usually visiting the castle were intended to provide an equivalent sense of overcrowding, claustrophobia and perpetual menace. It was raining when I visited and the tourists were mostly elsewhere making the exhibition seem more like a re-enactment of a 1990s backpacker hostel.

Edinburgh Castle 2
Timetables are quite important in prisons

Writing on Doors

An analysis of some of the more cryptic graffiti carved into prison doors.

Obviously carving into wood is easier than carving into stone but I wonder if there is a different logic at work in the messages and statements carved into doors to those carved into walls. Doors representing the possibility of the outside, walls symbolising imprisonment itself.

A selection of graffiti highlighted and then given a basic analysis:

Edinburgh Castle 5

Alternative economies

The complex issue of prison labour – both deemed necessary to the economy and a threat to it. This took the form of a series of hand carved items, made from bone and other materials easily obtained within the prison. A few such trinkets were on display in order that visitors could marvel in the intricate detail of such craftsmanship in a similar way to how contemporary prisoner artwork is viewed. At the same time, such constructive use of a prisoners time is balanced by the moralising tone of the display as it recounts how such work was eventually banned due to protests by local craftspeople that this was denying them their livelihood. Prison labour presented, as it continues to be, as a privilege not a right yet the same time, often providing the only means of survival within the carceral space.

More interestingly, perhaps, the same materials were also crafted into tools for producing forged coins and bank notes. The exhibition credits such forgeries with determining the look and make-up of today’s bank notes. After all, where there is resistance, there is power.

Postcard #14. Texts and Torture

Criminal Materials Department, Meiji University Museum
Tokyo, July 2015


The ‘Law and People, Crime and Punishment’ exhibition is a small selection of predominantly Japanese and European texts on law and punishment largely focused on the 17th – 19th centuries, juxtaposed with instruments used in the detention and torture of lawbreakers together with artworks representing the employment of such instruments within and outside the carceral space.

The exhibition is divided into 4 sections: A wall dedicated to ‘Japan’s Crime and Punishment’ featuring a chronology of Japan’s laws, aisles dedicated to ‘Culprits of the Edo Period’, ‘Torture and Tribunal’, ‘Execution and Correction’ and ‘ A Wealth of Criminal History’. Although the museum’s website claims the exhibition is based on the notion of ‘rights’ and ‘dignity’, the focus of the museum seems to be on affirming the different and multiple ways in which the state captured and punished offenders rather than on any narrative of rehabilitation or redemption.

Meiji ArrestbyLadders
Arresting by ladders – there is a certain irony in the use of an object usually used to ‘escape’ arrest or imprisonment as a means of capturing an offender.

I sketched out a rough map of the exhibition to remind me where everything was located. I thought I might start to make maps of all the prison museums and exhibitions I visited with a view of thinking more about the juxtaposition between different displays and the way tours are organised. But this is harder than it seems – partly due to time constraints – it is impossible to keep up with a tour and draw a map, it is hard enough to keep up with a tour as it is and partly due to the size and multiple levels of many prison museums.

Meiji Map
Layout of exhibition

In encompassing law, order, justice and retribution, the exhibition aims to provide a comprehensive view of Japan’s judicial and penal history. As a small exhibition located in between two others (The ‘Commodity Department – A Wealth of Traditional Designs’ and ‘The Archaeology Department – Humankind and History’) within the same university basement museum space, it was perhaps easier to identify an overall narrative (noting my language limitations here and relying solely on those panels and captions translated into English) than in a larger exhibition or former carceral space. Like the other two exhibitions, the emphasis was on the display and description of different ‘authentic’, material objects whose value as historical artefact was taken for granted and privileged over and above their complex function as instrument of state policing and torture.

The limeijitortureandjudgmentnk between torture and judgment is important. The exhibition focuses on torture above other methods of asserting guilt and obtaining information about a crime. This is important in relation to contemporary debates about torture but also current fascination with torture as a practice and its privileged place in both prison and atrocity museums (for a helpful distinction see Paul Williams’ Memorial Museums, Berg, 2007).

Thus, a number of important assumptions and relations frequently made in prison and penal museums and exhibits are made all the more stark in such a compact space due to the lack of personal narratives and focus on the ‘material’ objects and hierarchical structures underpinning and maintaining law and order.


Relationship between military and police

Various tools used by the police during the ‘Edo’ period, were, the exhibition tells us, developed from methods and tools (notably the ‘Goad’, ‘Military Fork’ and ‘Sleeve Entangler’) used by the military to capture enemies without inflicting harm. Given the overall focus on torture, the claim that such objects were not used to inflict pain seems somewhat disingenuous and is telling about contemporary unease with linking military and policing techniques. Obviously there is often a value in capturing enemy soldiers unharmed not least as hostages for barter and exchange but nevertheless the emphasis of the military as underpinning the more ‘humane’ methods of historical forms of policing and detention seems incongruous with the rest of the exhibition and highlights, I think, the complex and often underplayed relationship between military and police historically and in the present.

Use of ‘illegal institutions’ in policing

meiji police structure
Structure of Police during Edo Period

There is much emphasis in the exhibition on hierarchical structures and the way in which law-making and law enforcement work together cohesively through text and weapon. However, it is interesting to note that such cohesion relied upon what the exhibition refers to as ‘illegal institutions’ in operation during the Edo period – these were the Meakashi (or Okappiki) described as ‘minions of the police’ called upon to assist with ‘investigation.’ There is an interesting, unexplored connection to be made here between the extra-legal function of the Meakashi and the extra-legal methods used by various nations and states today notably the outsourcing of torture by the United States as part of their ‘war on terror’.


Role of representation

Accompanying the scrolls, catalogues and instruments are a number of artworks portraying various tools in action. These are the only means by which the ‘personal’ dimension of law and order is represented in the exhibition. The pictures raise an important question about the role of such artwork in the observation, documentation and presentation of punishment to a wider audience than those in attendance. The survival and preservation of such works also suggested they belonged to an official narrative of torture and punishment. Yet, they also raise a larger issue about ways in which methods of policing are represented and critiqued. Moreover, we might consider how to some extent all representation of policing and punishment no matter how apparently critical it purports to be remains open to reappropriation as affirmation of the ideology of punishment itself.


meiji front gate of prison
Scene at the Front Gate of the Former Prison of Tenma-Cho

The global phenomenon of punishment

The museum boasts of the inclusion of various European instruments of torture and death such as a guillotine and iron maiden – artefacts exclusive to the exhibition in Japan. On the one hand, the aura of such objects as museum artefacts bringing visitors closer to the spectacle of death needs greater critique in itself. On the other, the juxtaposition of objects such as the guillotine, easily recognised for its extensive role in capital punishment in France and elsewhere during the 18th and 19th centuries, with objects unique to Japan, situates Japanese judicial and penal histories within a larger global history of punishment, effectively evading focused critique on national ideology and specific methods of torture and execution.

Iron Maiden