Experiencing Prison


Age Foto

“I know not whether Laws be right or whether Laws be wrong; all that we know who live in goal is that the wall is strong; and that each day is like a year, a year whose days are long.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

“Nothing about the daily workings of the prison system focuses its inhabitants’ attention on what life back on the outside, as a free citizen, will be like. The life of the institution dominates everything. This is one of the awful truths of incarceration, the fact that the horror and the struggle and the interest of your immediate life behind prison walls drives the “real world” out of your head. That makes returning to the outside difficult for many prisoners.”
― Piper Kerman, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
― Nelson Mandela

The Project
Throughout history and across cultures, incarceration has represented a powerful tool for maintaining civic discipline. It is estimated that 9 million people are in prisons around the world, with over half the global prison population incarcerated in United States, Russia and China. Whether used as a tool for dealing with offenders who threaten the safety and well-being of the public or a means of silencing social or political dissidents who challenge the authority of those in power, prisons are central to our understanding of law and order. In many segments of society, incarceration is inextricably tied to being tough on crime, not only because it removes troublemakers from the community but also because of the potential for this type of punishment to deter future offenders. Social progressives have challenged the validity of the deterrence argument and raised concerns that fundamental flaws in the justice system, combined with inhumane prison conditions, undermine the legitimacy and value of incarceration. As debates continue to rage over the correct approach to dealing with those who break the law, it is not uncommon to see exchanges of simplistic, sound bite-friendly pronouncements that fail to address the nuances and complexities of the issues around prisons.

In view of the sheer number of individuals who are either incarcerated or otherwise affected by the imprisonment of others, the Prison Project provides a platform for inter-disciplinary dialogues aimed at grappling with questions around the purpose, effectiveness, legitimacy and social impact of prisons. This entails exploring questions about the justifications for withdrawing the freedom of another human being, the fairness of legal processes used to determine guilt, the usefulness of incarceration as a mode of punishment, ethical treatment of prisoners and the impact of the legal and economic structures that support prison systems around the world. The project will also examine prison experience, as well as the cultural mechanisms that inform our understanding of it.

The project meets the requirements of the 6 Pillars of Inter-disciplinarity with scope that covers experiences of former inmates, philosophical and religious theories of punishment/incarceration, legal and legislative issues around regulating prisons, NGOs operating in the area of prisoners’ rights and institutional reform, medical/clinical perspectives on the health of prisoners, counsellors, educators and clergy working in rehabilitative roles in prison, technologies/architecture/building principals that inform the creation of prison spaces, business issues relating to the administration of the prison system and individual gaols, artistic practice by inmates and by artists whose work deals with the prison experience, historical and cross-cultural perspectives on prison and pop culture engagement with prison.

The Issues
Prisoners and the prison experience
• Types of Prisoners: political dissidents, prisoners of war, violent offenders, non-violent offenders, white collar criminals, innocent/wrongly accused, asylum seekers
• The female experience in prison
• Transgendered people in prison
• Relationships in prison: motherhood, sex, friendship and bonding, relationships with people ‘outside’
• Rape, assault and other acts of violence
• Torture in prison
• Death and dying in prison
• Social structures within the prison environment
• Prisoner interactions with guards and administrators
• Historical perspectives on the prison experience
• Race, racism and prison
• Poverty, class and prison
• Writing, art and other creative practices in prison
• Representing the prison experience in literature, theatre, TV, film, video games, music and art

Life after prison
• Challenges of reintegration
• Rehabilitation and education
• Discrimination against former inmates
• Family and friends coping with the release of loved ones
• Community service and volunteerism

Prison as Institution
• Prison as workplace: experiences of guards, administrators and institutional officials
• Prison spaces: architectural design in theory and practice, boot camps, work camps, open air prisons, etc.
• Technologies of incarceration
• Teaching and learning in prison
• Spirituality and religion in prison
• Counselling and other clinical experiences with prisoners
• (In)Famous prisons and their legacy (Auschwitz, Guantanamo Bay, Alcatraz, Newgate Gaol, etc.)
• Prisons and dark tourism
• Prison conditions around the globe
• Economics of incarceration: politics of awarding contracts, private vs public management, impact of prison location on local communities, etc.

Prisons in Law and Policy
• Theories and practices in rehabilitation and humane containment
• Balancing punishment and human rights
• Prison reform initiatives
• Innovative approaches to incarceration
• Relationship between justice system and corrections system
• Race, class, sex and other forms of discrimination in sentencing
• Correctional services as public policy: governmental/civil service perspectives
• National and international legal provisions around prison conditions and prisoners’ rights
• NGOs and charities working in the area of prison reform
• Social attitudes toward prison and prisoners

Who Should Get Involved
The project welcomes participants whose professional expertise or experiences may contribute to the project’s inter-disciplinary understanding of prisons, including but not limited to: corrections facility staff, legal experts, law enforcement officers, former inmates, medical/clinical professionals, clergy, journalists, civil servants, representatives from NGOs, creative practitioners whose work deals with prison issues, and academics working in relevant fields.

The Outcomes
The overarching aim of the project is to draw upon inter-disciplinary knowledge to foster awareness of key issues and translate research into professional best practice protocols, creative workshop opportunities, community development strategies and policy papers. The following is an indicative plan for the proposed direction and scope of the project over the next 3 years.

Year 1
Conference Theme: The Prison
Supporting Activities: Prison writing seminar
Output: Edited collection

Year 2
Conference Theme: Understanding the Prisoner
Supporting Activities: Seminars on women in prison, transgendered people in prison, prison and mental health
Output: Curated show of prison art
Edited collection
Dossier on dealing with sex and gender based discrimination
Mental health and prison dossier

Year 3
Conference Theme: Prisons and the Law
Supporting Activities: International law/human rights
Non-profit/NGO seminar
Public policy challenges: workshops for civil servants working in corrections policy
Output: Policy paper for national and international reforms
NGO resource guide