skip to content

Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

The prison at night

Kate Herrity is in the final year of a PhD studentship in the department of Criminology at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the significance of sound in prison, using aural ethnography and interview.

Unaccustomed to being reliant on staff to let me on and off the wing, I was reminded of my disadvantage with every jangle-free step. I’d been at HMP Midtown since February. Now at the tail end of a sticky August, I had grown accustomed to the familiar din of the men, animated in greetings from the landings, conducting business in corners, engaging in daily life or dawdling and dragging their feet in efforts to avoid it. The familiar, disorientating clang of the bell marking out points of the regime, officers shouting for artfully elusive prisoners, or to underscore the bell’s message; “Ehxeerceyese!” “Peterson! The floor echoes with the recent memory of the activity contained within. The relative quiet marks the absence of those 290 odd men who now were locked behind the door until morning. I had not come to see them, much as I missed the array of cheerful greetings shouted from landings above, and the updates on personal events; anticipation of a precious visit, a sought after move, an impending parole hearing. All to a backdrop of staff answering queries, exchanging pleasantries, or issuing warnings, random barking, whooping, the strains of music, shouting, staccato exchanges over the way and regular laughter; the sound of movement around stark and spartan spaces; all clangs, bangs, creaks and rattles. Tonight I was here to listen.

I walked the landings, appreciating the soundless footfall of my trusty 110s on the walkways. Much as I missed banter with the occupants, I relished the rare opportunity to walk around unencumbered by concerns about giving the staff more to worry over. I moved in circuits around each landing, pausing to note the occupants listed outside of the cells as I passed, the familiar faces indicating who was locked within, faces I had come to know, their presence reduced to strains of TVs, music, flushing loos, coughing, conversation; sonic samples across empty spaces. I felt uneasy eavesdropping in a place where privacy is so scarce, so kept it moving, catching sounds of shifting moods within as I walked by different cells. The relative quiet, save loud music and periodic shouting, is punctuated by occasional banter with a popular officer, laughing at an inmate’s incongruous choice of “hungry eyes” played loudly, on repeat; “What the F*** are you listening to? Turn that s*** off!”. I perch awkwardly on stairs as the staff dwindle to those lumbered with the night shift, enjoying someone’s music. I’m teased about this by an officer: “I wouldn’t sit there if I were you, the cockroaches swarm out of there. Well, maybe not that step”. This place is not designed for comfort. Every decision to sit represents a social breach and one I would not make while the residents ran, slid, ambled, strode and limped up and down the stairs; their status indicated by their footwear, altering the sound of shoe soles on the iron steps. No such variation in the regulation footwear of the staff, nor the rhythm of their gait; driven with morning purpose, sluggishly reluctant after lunch. Now reduced to a few, the relative absence of their shoes and keys makes them immediately locatable. The lights are dimmed. The building winds down towards patrol mode; cell doors irreversibly locked shut save life or death emergency.

I accompany the officer in command around the building as security routines are observed around every lock in the place. Night amplifies our steps on concrete and metal, expanding the small site to one of uncertain corners and indistinct perimeters. Occasional sounds come from within the cells escaping across uninhabited grounds. I’m conscious of our chatter, not wishing to disturb the occasional, fleeting shadows glimpsed through barred windows. The prison at night is strangely altered, unfamiliar.

Purposeful, clustered feet on metal stairs, synchronised jangling, pierce the slow routine of night patrol. “Miss, miss” a prisoner calls to me; “has someone died?” “Miss?”. I answer no, but tell him I’ll speak to him in the day and move rapidly along. I marvel at his ability to recognise my steps. Only later, when I ask him, does he tell me he could see through the crack in his door. A prisoner has hurt himself, bleeding profusely. He is moved to a neighbouring cell where he continues to harm himself. “You might as well see it all if this is what you’re here for”, says an officer, inviting me to join. Staff retch as the smell of blood, warmed by the summer heat, reaches their noses. He refuses care and remains conscious. A trip to hospital would leave two remaining staff. Not taking him anyway will mean additional anxiety for the familiar ritual of the morning count.

To much relief he accepts a sugary cup of tea, a breakfast pack having been sought out and fetched in an effort to replace some fluids. He settles, and our footsteps withdraw from their clustering around his cell. Customary routines are resumed. Rounds are taken, notices posted. Solitary boots on metal walkways, the flash of a torch. As the darkness deepens, sound retreats. Conversations drift in to sleep, the occasional snore rumbles under the door. TVs are turned off, music comes to an end. Time slows, stretching in to indistinct corners as I find places to perch, listening as the constant electrical thrum becomes more perceptible. In the early hours of the morning a quiet calm descends, at least in these dark and empty spaces. I feel a solidarity with remaining signs of wakefulness, stereos lowered out of respect for sleeping neighbours, the company of televisions.

As cells are checked, and numbers recorded the prison holds its breath… as the new day breaks, all have made it through.

Listening to the unfamiliar sounds and rhythms of patrol state, the squeaking of congregating mice and cockroaches scuttling across lino, I fell asleep. I woke up to the realisation of how little I had acquainted myself with the darker corners of HMP Midtown, and wondered how much any of us appreciate how little we can see, when so much of prison life is conducted out of view.

logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









Follow Us