Prison literature and theory often focuses on the oppressiveness of the system, the callous discipline enforced on the prisoner, the strict rules which often seem arbitrary in their focus and the often patronising attitude of the authorities. We often assume that prison is an environment so infused with control and discipline that the inmates have no choice but to bow to the authorities. This is of course not the case. Prison life is full of upturned collars and resentful squints, as well as a myriad of other ways to subvert the rules, however slightly.
In a plane of crisp sunlight that angles down through the door frame, and dissolves into rust-coloured shadows settling across the dark floor, unease spreads along the walls of this wooden interior. A woman in the centre hugs a small infant close to her breast. Next to her, another holds a child on her lap. To their left is a muscular man dressed in light yellow work trousers and a waistcoat: he watches them, his face expressively surly. Seated in a semi-circle the women stare intently at the stove, or let their eyes settle on something outside the room. They are dressed well in respectable printed cotton dresses, their sleeves billowing out from under stiff white aprons. Four white men – one in the background and the other three conversing in the doorway on the left – like sentinels, stand watch. And as they watch and we watch them, these slaves, neatly arranged on rough wooden benches, quietly wait to be sold.
The really nasty ones, the killers, the rapists, the child killers and child rapists; the ones who have been held in custody, denied bail, too dangerous to release, flight risk, suicide risk; they arrive in prison vans. They’re tricky, the vans. The toughened plastic windows are tinted, and we all hold up our cameras and take shot after shot anyway, but almost all of the time the results are useless. Nothing but close-ups of a black plastic window.
‘There is an obvious and prominent fact about human beings,’ notes Bryan Turner at the start of The Body and Society, ‘they have bodies and they are bodies.’ However, what Turner omits in his analysis is another obvious and prominent fact: that human bodies are dressed bodies.
“Take it off, Carrie. We’ll go down and burn it in the incinerator together, and then pray for forgiveness. We’ll do penance.” Her eyes began to sparkle with the strange, disconnected zeal that came over her at events which she considered to be tests of faith. “I’ll stay home from work and you’ll stay home from school. We’ll pray. We’ll ask for a Sign. We’ll get us down on our knees and ask for the Pentecostal Fire.”