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Long-term prisoners’ perceptions of the outside world

Prisoner looking out her cell window
Research into long-term prisoners’ sensory perceptions of the outside world, in particular through hearing, seeing and smelling.

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Individual approaches to surviving incarceration

I was lucky enough this week to stumble over some fascinating new research into the experiences of being a long-term prisoner. New research by Irene Marti: Sensing freedom: Insights into long-term prisoners’ perceptions of the outside world explores long-term prisoners’ sensory perceptions of the outside world, in particular through hearing, seeing and smelling. The research is mainly based on “walk-alongs” with people serving indefinite prison sentences in Switzerland – essentially prisoners gave the researcher a guided tour of their prison, talking informally as they went. Ms Marti was also allowed to bring a camera for prisoners to take photos of things or places that were relevant to them. 

The difference a cell makes

Of course, the cells in any prison are generally all alike, but Marti found that the location of the cell and orientation of the window provide prisoners with different views as well as sounds, therefore potentially different sensory impressions and connections to the outside world. This strongly shapes the perceived ‘ambiance’  in the cell and  consequently how it feels to be in it, as well as the experience of imprisonment in general.

Some prisoners stated that they could hear birds chirping through the open window; others mentioned the sounds of dogs barking or people laughing. The concrete location of the cell influences whether the sun shines into it at the time they are locked inside. Moreover, a cell on the second floor may allow prisoners to look over the wall and obtain a glance of the ‘free world’ and – depending on the prison’s location and surroundings – see a forest or a village, cars moving, even people walking in the street.

Some prisoners described having access to the outside world as essential for their well-being. For some, this meant having the opportunity to see the blue sky or the green trees, to smell and feel the ‘fresh air’; others were able to glimpse houses and cars – to see that ‘normal life’ goes on. All of them mentioned to the researcher that sensory impressions of the outside world provided them with hope, made them feel less isolated and (still) connected them to the outside world.

However, while a glimpse of the outside world was important to some prisoners, others told Marti that they deliberately avoided such views because they were too painful reminders of what they were missing.

Marti discusses how perceptions of their cell and the outside world are inextricably linked with the passage of time – the single most challenging aspect of incarceration for people serving indefinite sentences with no determined date of release. While prison life is characterised by “eventlessness” – very little happens and every day is punctuated by a very rigid set of repeated events, access to the daily rhythms and routines of the outside community (e.g. in the shape of moving cars and people walking on the street) or the evolving seasons, for instance, in the form of a ‘forest that changes its colours’  gives prisoners a sense of the passage of time.

Older prisoner at his cell window
© Andy Aitchison

In the open air

Every day, prisoners were given one hour to spend outside in the prison courtyard which was a grassy area. Prisoners talked about the importance of lying down on a real lawn or touching trees. They also talked about how they could hear the outside world with noises form planes, trains, cars and people. Marti talks about how time in the courtyard stimulates prisoners’ senses which for many was crucial since prison life is a form of ongoing sensory deprivation. One prisoner, Leo, talked about how he liked to lie down under a particular tree:

“I push myself to recall the memories that are still present and to put myself back into them. I then concentrate on the odours, the sounds. When I’m lying under this tree, I try to listen carefully and also to smell this summer air, or that I’m outside. Then I maybe hear a bird somewhere, and all the people [fellow prisoners] who are walking around, and all these different languages, this I filter out so that I won’t hear it anymore, only the birds, so that [it feels as if] I am lying in a meadow outside somewhere or recalling nice memories from the past, my childhood, holidays, nice experiences. [ . . . ] And sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I don’t. And if it goes well, then I feel like totally re-energised, like a newborn, as if I had been outside [the prison] (laughs).”

 

Marti argues that for prisoners like Leo, daydreaming is not primarily a means of escape but a way to transcend the here and now of the prison context. Daydreaming is something Leo was consciously practising. By making use of the sensory experience he gained in the courtyard, he actively and specifically recalled his pre-prison memories and relived them. She argues that this helped him not only to relax but also to maintain his most precious memories, to feel connected to the outside world, and maybe also to retain a part of his pre-prison identity.

Again, however, this experience differed between prisoners. While for some prisoners, the daily time in the courtyard was “a little piece of freedom”, many others avoided the courtyard, this was particularly true for sex offenders who would be ignored and socially excluded.

Conclusion

Marti summarises that some prisoners need to (still) feel connected to the outside world and its rhythms as it provides them with hope and a sense of the future; while for others it is particularly challenging to be reminded of the outside world and to realise that ‘normal’ life goes on. These prisoners generally try to concentrate on the present and the (prison) inside, and they usually cut off their bonds to the outside world as it is emotionally too demanding and too painful to live in two worlds at the same time.

Different prisoners deal with these sensory experience and potential connections according to their individual needs and interests (e.g. mobilising it as a resource, ignoring or avoiding it), which allows them to maintain their sense of self and personal integrity and to influence how it feels to be in prison.

The author suggests that these are issues for prison architects to consider when designing custodial institutions.

 

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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