Articles - 25th November 2019

Cultures of Confinement

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Oscar Price

I’m told that Shoreditch once epitomised the coolest district in the capital. Maybe I’ve lived in South East for too long, but there’s something about this particular patch of East London which makes my skin crawl. Shoreditch is an oil-slicked salesman knocking at my door, fouly perspiring in a flashy suit. He wears sockless deck shoes and sells high-concept high-capitalism trick gigs and Pop Art pop-ups on steroids. Perhaps the mighty wheel of cyclical trends has completed a full rotation and expressing contempt for the region is now passé. Whatever the status of Shoreditch may be, I’d much rather stay well away from it. 

Knowing, as you now do, my dislike for the region, imagine my disgust when flicking through Time Out magazine on a Tuesday morning, my eyes panned to an advert for a new branch of ‘Alcotraz: Prison Cocktail Bars’. The bar describes itself as an ‘immersive theatrical experience of the highest kind’, offering ‘the perfect backdrop to enjoy a drink within an intimate, yet epic environment.’ I don’t need to tell you that ‘epic’ isn’t an entirely appropriate descriptor for the simulation of an institution which Angela Davis argues is specifically designed to “break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo – obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other.”

I’ve not been to Alcotraz, although I did consider diverting my commute home in the name of research. When I considered actively stepping into Alcotraz and the reality of slipping my ducats into the silk-lined chino pockets of Shoreditch’s elite freehold owners, I thought Hell, I’ll save my gold pieces and I’ll pen a column about the appropriation of Prison cultures, instead. The intoxicatingly grim presence of Alcotraz Prison Bar evidences the existence of individuals so distantly removed from the lived realities of the criminal justice system that they’ll gladly sit around in orange pyjamas, tinkling the ice of their moonshine screwdrivers with eco straws until the sun comes up. It’s easier to identify examples of wrongful misappropriation(s) in popular culture than examples of appreciation because of the prevalence of exploitative discourses. I wish it were harder. 

In a quote often found spotted floating on Waterstones table headers, Mark Fisher famously writes that “Only Prisoners have time to read, and if you want to engage in a twenty-year long research project funded by the state, you will have to kill someone.” This is, I believe, an example of Fisher’s dry brand of humour, although it’s a thought which is echoed by in the collaborative handbook Prison: A Survival Guide, edited by Carl Cattermole with contributions from journalists and Prisoners including Jeremy Banks, and the bricklayer, amateur embroiderist, violinist, author and Britain’s longest-standing transgender Prisoner, Sarah Jane Baker. “Books offered so much more potential for escapism [in jail].” They write, “I had hardly read since I left school but by the time I was released, I’d eaten through almost every classic on the bookshelf. I came out feeling sharper than ever.” When he started writing the book, Cattermole was still fresh out of jail and fitted with an electronic monitoring tag. “I was confused and angry but wanting to turn everything I’d seen into something proactive and positive,” he writes, and he was quick to photocopy his new book with help from a friend with access to printing services that produced the first run of 1,000 contraband copies.

Prison is more than simply an instruction manual; it offers a lifeline to its reader – whoever they may be – detailing processes from arrest to conviction, imprisonment and release. We are provided with plenty of definitions and sage advice (“Always be honest and logical with honest and logical people, never be either with a system that is neither”) as well as tips on exercising, relationships, communication, religion, education, moving prisons and DIY. “Prison these days is completely different to what you might expect,” Cattermole explains, “- in their populations, their operation and their entire purpose. The Prison population is very skewed towards the disadvantaged side of Britain, but inside you’ll meet everyone from privately-educated fraudsters to dangerous drivers, knife crime kids, weed dealers, squatters and a huge number of drug addicts and mentally ill people. For an institution whose middle name is rules, you’ll be amazed. The inconsistencies are so extreme.” 

Two of Cattermole’s key contributors are Lisa Selby and Elliot Murawski; a Nottingham based couple who founded the Instagram page @bluebaglife. BBL promotes supportive activism and motivates those affected by systemic adversities. We read about life from both sides of the gates in accounts of imprisonment, mental health, substance addiction and experiences of Universal Credit. It’s not a breezy read, by any stretch; the images and captions are necessarily unflinchingly honest documents of incarceration and the dangerous effects of budget-slashing (the Ministry of Justice’s budget has been cut 40% since 2010) – with total, bloody clarity. 

As the #FckBoris pressure group holler from the posters at my local bus stop, “Prisons have grown by 82% in the past 30 years, with no relation to reducing crime.” The cognitive dissonance of the manicured, Inkwell-filtered hands gripping a tin can cocktail on Alcotraz’s homepage would be laughable, were it not for the sobering statistics. As the Prison Advice and Care Trust highlight on their website, of the current 83,234 inmates currently detained in UK prisons, there are 94,887 children with imprisoned parents. Indeed, only last week it was revealed that since 2017, four Prisoners at HMP Bronzefield have given birth in potentially unsafe circumstances. As the general election looms, 83,234 inmates will be unable to modify the conditions of their environment as they are denied the right to choose their parliamentary representatives. Prisons are far more severe than the Shoreditchian poster children would have you believe.

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