No place like home

Over the past three years, the photographer James Davies has been given unprecedented access to every prison in England. Here the novelist Ronan Bennett, himself a former prisoner, reflects on life in a cell
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The Independent Culture
CHAMPAGNE in prison. You really can find bubbly behind bars. The walls of the wings are often coated with the stuff. As a colour scheme, "champagne" - a highly unpleasant mismatching of the most unforgivable shades of pink and mauve - is thought by the authorities to have a calming effect on prisoners. Who else but "authorities" could really believe such a thing? Like everything else in prison that tries to hide the reality of the place, that tries even for the smallest moment to tell you that where you are is not as harsh and forlorn as you know it to be, it comes across as just another cheap and transparent overcompensation. Look at the wall and feel champagne's soothing qualities, then glance up to the gallery suspended from the ceiling where masked men in 1984-style uniforms will appear at the sounding of an alarm to hose you off the landings and beat you into your cells. Feel calmed by that thought.

Overcompensation is everywhere in prison, nowhere more than in the cell itself. Start with the basic whitewashed box. In older, Victorian prisons this might have solid stone walls; a vaulted brick ceiling; a high barred window. Attractive period features, almost. At least compared to the newer jails - there are so many of these, and there will be more - where economies in budget and rationalisation of design mean it's all ruthless straight lines; the modern cell is a reinforced concrete cube. A little smaller, too, than the original. If anything, starker, sadder, lonelier.

The prisoner is starkest and loneliest in the strip cell. Here life is lived at its bare minimum - so bare, in fact, that you wonder how survival is possible at all. From here, the cells in the punishment blocks and segregation units - where prisoners are sent sometimes for their own protection, sometimes for the protection of others, sometimes for the infringement of rules serious and trivial, and sometimes for reasons no one can ever really fathom - seem like highly desirable residences in fashionable districts. The punishment cell at least has a bed, a chair, however crude.

The remand prisoner or the short-termer, if they have any resources at all (many don't - prison is and always has been overwhelmingly a poor person's place), may make some efforts to mitigate the harshness of the box. A photograph of a mother, a lover - real or imagined - a pal, the family dog. Or a picture torn from a glossy magazine and stuck to the wall with tape or, if that's not available, porridge (Blu-Tack can be jammed in keyholes). Most likely, it'll be a girl with promises in her eyes, a pop star, actor, sporting hero basking in an admiration the one who gazes on it now will never know. But remand prisoners and short-termers are transients. They're passing through, headed, if they're lucky, for the outside world and, if they're not, for some other institution. They don't care about upkeep and fixtures and fittings.

Not like those doing serious time. And we have such a lot of people doing serious time. In the late Seventies, there was alarm when the tally of those inside our walls crept up to 40,000. To exceed that record high, it was generally agreed, would indicate the grossest institutional and societal failure, not law-enforcement success. As Home Secretary, Michael Howard reversed this principle and made good his promises to delegates at Conservative Party conferences not to flinch from sending more people to prison for longer periods because, self-evidently in his view, "prison works". Howard filled the country's jails, built new ones, filled those, built more. At the beginning of his period in office, the numbers behind bars in England and Wales (the prison systems of Scotland and the north of Ireland are run separately) stood at about 45,000. By the time Labour came to power, it had reached 60,000.

But if Howard was afraid that his successor was going to undo his good work, he need not have worried. Jack Straw, like the Prime Minister, extols the virtues of zero tolerance. Today's curfew-breaking child is tomorrow's armed robber, and must be locked up and tough-loved out of his wayward ways. By this summer, there were 66,500 people inside, and Straw has the honour of presiding over the fastest-growing prison population in the European Union. Not even the rising number of suicides (set this year to break last year's record) can dent the upward spiral. But still it seems the British just can't put enough of their fellow citizens away.

For those put away, especially those put away for serious time - 10, 20, 30 years or more - the first reaction will often be a deadening numbness. But as the shock wears off, some instincts start to re-assert themselves. Such as the desire to turn wherever we find ourselves, no matter how grim and hope-less, into something like a home. For many, this will go hand in hand with a certain sentimentalisation - of the world, of life, of self - and the home will reflect this state of mind. Where possible, available materials permitting, there will be attempts to soften that which is hard. The cells of women prisoners will be softest, with flowers and teddy bears and pastel patterns, with photographs of babies and drawings the children made at school. But the men, too, often go for an overcompensating softness (even if it has to rub shoulders with posters glorifying screen villains and musclemen): pictures of robins and pandas, rainbows and hearts, home-made cards with sentiments from Woolworth's: "Love is the best way to do things"; "What everybody needs is love." Psychological overcompensation? A way for the guilty to remind others - and themselves - of an essential, irreducible human innocence?

These photographs are from a project for the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. Some are in the exhibition 'Inside the Walls' at the Architecture Centre, Bristol, until Friday. A book will be published this spring. Prints available from National Monuments Record, 01793 414 600

Ronan Bennett's 'The Catastrophist' (Review, pounds 14.99) was shortlisted for the Whitbread novel award