Thursday, 13 September 2012

To See All is to Condemn All: Prisons & Panopticism

One of the most notable features on Walk 3 is this muckle great thing.

Her Majesties Prison Isle of Wight.

The attentive amongst you may have noticed that the above, though it contains photographic elements, is a drawing. This is because, when I went to take photos of HMP IOW, I noticed a large (albeit very beaten up and rusty sign) saying that photography was forbidden. However, I couldn't work out exactly WHERE photography was forbidden from, or, frankly, why. I mean, look at this:

It's a google earth image of the prison (clearly showing how it was once three seperate prisons, a fact we'll return to later). You'll notice it shows the exact layout of everything, rendering prohibitions against photographing the (I'm guessing very deliberately) opaque outer walls rather idiotic. But then, authorities, particularly the modern British ones, have a bit of a thing about photographs. They'll get funny if you photograph police officers, say, or certain government buildings. They'll tell you it's about 'terrorism'. It is, but not like that. It's about your terror; it's about panopticism. As I said in my last post, this is getting, and will continue to get, rather political.

Talking of panopticism and prisons at the same time is apt, of course, becuase the original design concept from which the term takes it's name, the Panopticon, was a prison. To put it simply, the essence of the panopticon is an institution where all inmates can be observed at any time, without knowing whether they are or are not being observed.

Seem familiar?

In his 1975 book Discipline & Punish, Michel Foucault turns the panopticon into a metaphor for how social control functions in western societies, particularly within institutions.It is worth noting that he developed this theory before the advent of true mass surveillance, and it is not meant to refer to such. In fact, some theorists argue that we now live in a post-panoptical society, whilst others have invented different schema: Panopticons II & III, neo-panopticism, etc.; Google and Facebook, those great engines of self-surveillance, have even, rather wonderfully, been referred to as 'Panopticon 2.0'. I like that one.*

The fact of mass surveillance in the panoptic mode is so ubiquitous that it can be easy to lose sight of it unless we are directly confronted with it. This is what the obviously absurd and pointless prohibition against photography does. It reminds us, in a stage whisper, that we're not supposed to see our observers. By pointing them out to us. With a great big sign. But the panopticon model doesn't particularly mind this; whereas anthropologists struggle with the fact that being observed changes the behaviour of the observed, panopticism revels in it. That's the point, after all.

The absurdity extends further. On the large and increasingly illustrated map that hangs on my wall and provides one of the mental lynchpins around which I organise Vectis, the prison is marked simply by...nothing. A blank space, no labels.

You can see where I've drawn in the rough area myself; apart from that, nothing. As if, perhaps, it's just not tasteful for a map aimed at tourists to even admit it exists. They will not be fooled of course. The prison has changed it's name, but it is still notorious; part of it anyway. There are, you see, really three prisons on the site. Albany, Camp Hill, and Parkhurst. It's that latter one that would be familiar to any fan of British gangster films or true crime. It was once one of the most notoriously tough prisons in the country, a high security, category A establishment that held such luminaries as Peter Sutcliffe, the Richardson brothers, Mad Frankie Fraser, Ian Brady and the Kray twins. It was a so-called 'dispersal prison', housing inmates deemed to be dangerous to themselves, prison officers and other prisoners. Many prisoners were kept for long periods in solitary confinement, and conditions were tough. Fraser recalls prison guards urinating in his soup in one interview. Sutcliffe, the infamous 'Yorkshire Ripper', who claimed god told him to kill prostitutes, was stabbed in the face with a broken coffee jar by another prisoner, precipitating his move to the secure mental health unit at Broadmoor.

Parkhurst's notoriety ended with an embarrassing high-profile escape attempt in the mid 90's. The inmates managed to escape the prison, but not the Island, demonstrating the reason for the institution's siting. I certainly remember the events clearly, and I'm sure everyone else who was resident on the Island and who was old enough at the time does as well. It was a shocking thing; it was so easy to forget the prison was there, what it was. And suddenly, we were being warned that there were men in our loose, 'armed and dangerous'. The subsequent enquiry exposed the fact that the prison was suffering from corruption, poor security and a range of other problems, and it was downgraded and re-organised over the next ten years. 

On one level, of course, I was rooting for those escapees, hoping they would get off the Island, and disappear. We know prisons are terrible, I think, instinctually as a culture. How many films are there where the protagonists are a bunch of heroic prison guards, versus the ones where the protagonists are the escapees? Despite the thought-terminating cliche of the justness of the 'rule of law', we know that to wish to escape prison is always a noble aim. I will make no secret of the fact that I do not believe prisons should exist. How fitting that the makers of maps and laws appear to agree with me?

*I thought I might have thought of it myself, but alas, google itself proved me wrong. Wheels within wheels.

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