Sunday, September 27, 2009


Along with "got a roll-up?" and "fuck off", two of the most frequently heard words on the landings are "bang up", meaning to be locked in a cell. It forms the centrepiece of imprisonment, and the frequency at which the doors are unlocked reveals the culture - and health - of each particular institution.

Prisons which have long and frequent periods of unlock tend to be more relaxed, socially cohesive and stable. In prisons where bang-up is the major activity, it signals inactivity and instability.

At the start of a sentence, as a new boy, being locked behind a cell door is an alien and unsettling experience. Vast efforts are expended attempting to get the door opened and maximize the resulting limited freedom. The door can become a genuine, as well as symbolic, focus that determines all else in the day.

For long termers, though, there is an undefined and unconscious moment when the cell changes from being an imposition of confinement to become a refuge from imprisonment. Being banged up for a few hours offers a relief from the forced metronomic existence that is the regime.

Cells can become a home, each modified by the inhabitant to best suit his needs, his way of living. Some cluttered with books and files (mine), others bare shrines to the need for space to exercise. The cell can offer the only semblance of privacy, isolation and respite from the daily grind.

For some, being slung into solitary is to be welcomed. Many prisons used to have an informal arrangement that allowed lifers to decant into the punishment block on request for a few days, just to savour the relief from forced company.

If nothing else, this suggests two things - that people are infinitely adaptable and resilient; and that prison can have unexpected effects upon you.


  1. Prisons, and the 'prisoner experience', are more complicated than I thought!

  2. Fascinating and I can understand the need for privacy and to get away from all. I suppose for those serving long sentences the cell becomes a home. Does it disturb one when moved to another prison? I keep reading about overcrowding and the continual movement of prisoners often into unsuitable prisons because of the pressure on the system.

    I am glad when I read that a modicum of dignity can be achieved by having a little space to oneself. I regularly watch the Crime Channel on Sky and am horrified by the cages used in some US states. Our system may not be perfect but we would not resort to such degrading practices.

  3. Moving to another prison means losing all that creates social identity and security- friends, job, status, etc. Very destabilizing.