Finding strength inside

Dr Emily Glorney on 'Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison'.

Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison is a participatory, multi-modal art experience inside HM Prison Reading, centred on the theme of imprisonment. Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis, a letter to his male lover, whilst imprisoned at Reading and it is this that provides a focus of the exhibition.

The visitor is reminded that when HMP Reading opened in 1844 sexual acts between men were illegal, and some of the art explores rights and sexuality. A sexually explicit work by Nan Goldin engages with the notion of sexuality and beauty as power in relationships, making parallels with Wilde’s relationship with his lover. In addition to changes over time in conceptualisations of criminal behaviour, the exhibition also draws attention to the influence of politics on imprisonment, as reflected in work by Rita Donagh and Richard Hamilton and themed around the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

An installation by Steve McQueen seemed to me to be a nod to the popular references to the ‘luxury’ of prison life; over a white-painted metal bunkbed was draped a gold-plated mosquito net, reminiscent of photos of luxury holiday resorts in which mosquito nets are placed artistically over wooden four poster beds. Listening to the conversations of other visitors, any previous views of ‘prison as luxury’ had been abandoned. People were interested in what prison was like and seemed to be on their best behaviour, probably intimidated by the severity of the physical environment and wanting to avoid any possibility of ending up there themselves.

The exhibition offered a space where people could talk and share experiences about the physical and psychological effects of imprisonment. For example, I heard a group ask one of their party whether the beds (the regular, narrow single metal beds, not the Steve McQueen bed) were the same when they were in prison. In another conversation, a sense of incredulity was expressed about the mid-19th century regime of almost complete separation of inmates so that they did not learn criminal behaviours or adopt antisocial ideas from others. This conversation reflected the broader narrative of the design of Reading prison (and, no doubt, others in the Victorian era) that overcrowding was a hotbed for learning criminal behaviour. Therefore, prison dormitories were designed out and single occupancy cells were introduced. A visitor could begin to imagine the psychological distress experienced by prisoners whose only (and very limited) contact was with staff. This typical experience of Victorian imprisonment in Reading was visibly contrasted with those more recent. When a visitor stood in a single occupancy cell and imagined being one of two or three young men in bunkbeds living in that cell as recently as 2013 when Reading closed they commented “you’d go mad”.

Throughout the exhibition I was struck by themes of disappearance, anonymity and nothingness. The work of Robert Gober suggested an experience of imprisonment as having hit rock bottom, of not being visible to other people, a sense that inside there was a part of the self still living but also dying. Perhaps these are experiences that we as psychologists should attend to explicitly with our clients.

A series of letters of separation from loved ones, inspired by real or imagined confinement and authored by contemporary writers, were scattered on rigid plastic and metal dining benches screwed in to the floors of cells. Letters were framed by etchings and daubings of graffiti, evidence of the life of occupants of each cell over the years. Joe Dunthorne’s letter, written using just one vowel, evokes a sense of the determination of the writer to achieve a goal within the constraints of available resources. Extrapolating this experience to people who are confined offers an appreciation of the depths to which someone must reach to embark on a committed process of recovery or rehabilitation, to produce something wonderful against the odds. In articulating a sense of empathy for the intended recipient of the letter, a loved one who experiences distress as a consequence of his imprisonment, the role of fantasy in escaping the reality of imprisonment is explicit. This and other Letters from Inside are available to listen to on the BBC Radio 4 iPlayer for a limited time. 

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the exhibition was a photo gallery of some of the people who left Reading prison during Victorian times who were ‘most likely to commit further crimes’. This was strongly reminiscent of Lombroso’s theory of atavism and criminality and was a clear exposition of Victorian theory in action, but also progress made since then in psychological thinking about crime, behaviour and risk.

I expect that the opportunity to visit a prison (which is conceptualised as art in this exhibition) was as much of a draw to some people as the art or Oscar Wilde was to others. The exhibition offers a unique opportunity to explore aspects of human experience and psychological strength as they interact with the environment.

Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison is showing until 30th October 2016.

-  Emily Glorney is a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, a Forensic Psychologist, and a member of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Forensic Psychology Committee.

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