Friday, November 5, 2010

My body isn't mine

There are very many aspects of imprisonment which are extremely difficult to explain. While the wider world focuses its sporadic attention upon the easily visible artefacts of menus and TV’s, the actual experience of being a prisoner comprises intangibles.

It is taken for granted that everybody exercises sovereignty over their own body. Hundreds of years of legal argument has honed this into a deep strand of law; assault, negligence, murder, rape, medical ethics...all stand as testament to the socio-political belief that our body is inviolate. It is ours, trespass at your peril!

None of this is true for the prisoner. Our persons are liable to be searched and examined at the whim of staff, if necessary by the use of force. It is a loss of privacy, a degradation that cannot be surpassed unless a mind-reading machine is invented.

Prisoners are searched as we move about the prison, leaving a wing, moving to work, before and after receiving a domestic or legal visit. This is often a 'pat down' search, with the screw rubbing his hands around the body over the clothes.

Less frequently, we are strip searched. Leaving visits, during cell searches, drug tests, transfers...all involve stripping naked. The screws examine your clothing and your body, sometimes to the extent of insisting we squat over a mirror, lift our testicles and pull back our foreskin.

There are various responses to this intrusion, a number of emotions evoked by this systematised degradation. Often, all parties work in silence or attempt to mask the unpleasantness with irrelevant chatter. This is determined by the level hostility which motivates the search. Some strip searches are accompanied by forthright mockery, the con waving his body at the staff and accusing them of taking a perverse sexual pleasure in the process.

Pat down searches, a rub down, are often conducted with a certain level of indifference, even irritation, as being a mere institutional requirement that amounts to a pointless interruption to the daily flow.

The loss of bodily sovereignty is merely one aspect of the loss of privacy that comes with the status of 'prisoner'. It is a degradation which can often be conducted in an inoffensive manner. But it is never accepted, it is never comfortable, and it should never become a mere bureaucratic process.

It is these intangibles, these daily experiences, which are the essence of what it means to be a prisoner. These are the strands from which our daily life is woven. To overlook this is favour of the more easily grasped physical items, such as TV’s, is to wholly miss any opportunity for understanding.


  1. I am facing a possible prison sentence soon and I am petrified of the strip searches! The thought of it makes me want to cry and I know if I do that would be the worst thing. Also scared to eat the food incase it has been spat in or use the toilet in the cell because it would be too humiliating. Thanks for your blog it is a real insight.

  2. Thank you Ben for highlighting an aspect of prison life that doesn't often get talked about. And also to Anonymous - how can any of us who haven't been in your position possibly imagine your fears - thank you for being so frank about your feelings; they are thought provoking, which is what we all need.

  3. It is really distressing to hear how you guys get treated in there.

    Anonymous I second Jules here, thank you for sharing the fear like you have done, it really does make you sit up and realise the situation.

    The judicial/probation/prison/police system is not known colloquially and by the masses as "filth" for no reason ...

    It takes huge strength to come out the other side of all of this degradation relatively intact, so well done Ben; these insights you give make us all more aware and therefore stronger.

    Keep strong Ben and best wishes for this coming Thursday.

  4. Wit and intelligence
    you are refreshing to read
    I think you have a future despite these institutional lunacies - good luck

  5. Hi Ben,

    Just wanted to at I love your blog and aspire to teach inside. I married an IPP prisoner, who is now free, gained a degree and ibelieve is all round great person.

    I'd love to teach inside myself. Best wishes for the future.



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