Hard cell

Submitted by Razor Smith on 4 March, 2002 - 12:00

Buildings - Razor Smith gives an insider's view of a glossy account of prison architecture

The close study of prison architecture has been a hobby of mine for many years now, though not, I must admit, for any aesthetic reason. I have been a "guest" at more than 30 of Her Majesty's prisons, on and off since 1975, so believe me when I tell you that there is no such thing as a "good" prison. There are only varying degrees of bad. Therefore, when I discovered that English Heritage had published the first architectural history of prisons in England, "complete with over 100 full-colour photographs", I couldn't help wondering what its next project might be. Perhaps a full-colour guide to historically interesting whipping posts, torture chambers and gibbets?

The prisons of England are steeped in the misery and despair of the countless thousands of men, women and children who have been incarcerated behind their high stone walls and razor-wire-festooned fences. So, to me, there is something intrinsically voyeuristic about a book that celebrates places of punishment.

I can understand how people on the outside, whose only experience of English prisons comes from the ludicrous sensationalism of the tabloid press and reruns of the 1970s BBC comedy classic Porridge, might be interested in seeing the mausoleums of misery that have been built in their name, and with their money. And if architecture is your thing, Victorian to modern with all the stops in between, this book will probably keep you as happy as a pig in uniform. But while you admire the full-colour pictures of cells and punishment blocks, spare a thought for the human beings who are held inside them, forced to see them every day, sometimes for decades, until it becomes easier to take their own lives rather than keep on seeing them.

English Heritage received "unprecedented co-operation" from the Home Office and the prison service during the three years it took to put this book together. It can only be a coincidence that English Prisons was launched in the same week that Beverley Hughes, the prisons minister, gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph outlining plans to sell off most of the inner-city Victorian prisons - the very prisons that receive such fulsome praise from English Heritage.

The plan is to create a generation of "super prisons", holding up to 1,500 prisoners, on sites outside major cities. They will be built and run by the private sector, but paid for by selling prime prison real estate to developers. One can only assume that the English Heritage book will be most helpful in showcasing exactly what the prison service has for sale.

Martin Narey, the director general of the prison service, has welcomed the book, calling it "fascinating, historical and beautiful", and yet he is also on record as saying that the Victorian jails are "hell-holes". But that was obviously before he decided he wanted to sell them. Narey also says that he "recommends this book most warmly to all who have an interest in penal history". So it might interest him to know that the book has already been deemed "unsuitable" to be seen by prisoners, and is banned from prison libraries.

Already this year, there has been another damning report, by the new chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, on the state of HMP Dartmoor, one of the prisons praised by English Heritage for its Grade II-listed gatehouse. And the suicide rate in prison is the highest ever for this time of year, with six deaths since New Year's Day, including two on the same night at HMP Woodhill. Not to mention the failed suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm - around 40 a day in the English prison system. So instead of focusing attention on the veneer of English prisons and delighting in the aesthetic form of the grounds and buildings, perhaps we should be looking more at the detrimental effect these places have on the human mind and spirit. Let's turn the spotlight of publicity on prisons for the right reasons, and not just for the edification of a few academics and the entertainment of people who don't know any better.

English Heritage offers "a glimpse inside", and that is all it is. The full human misery of the prison experience involves a bit more than a well-carved flying buttress or an eye-pleasing stanchion. Instead of preserving these human warehouses, as English Heritage proposes, I advocate pulling every one of them down and trampling the ground underfoot. If it is beauty and history you crave, then go to an art gallery or a museum, but don't come to prison.

English Prisons: an architectural history is published by English Heritage (£40)

Razor Smith is currently residing in HMP Whitemoor

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