The prison cell and the third space

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Happiness is Door-Shaped: Issues of Control and Safety in Prison – Anita Wilson, Literacy research centre, Lancaster University

‘Happiness is door shaped’ is a phrase well-known to those of us who undertake long-term sustained prison ethnographies. We hear it uttered by disillusioned, ‘old-style’ prison officers who are uncomfortable with contemporary prison policy and its ‘modern’ ideas of prisoner rehabilitation through socialisation rather than isolation. Happiness for these officers is achieved by putting prisoners ‘behind the door’, thus creating a protective barrier that maintains the distance between ‘us’ (the keepers) and ‘them’ (the kept). Confining prisoners to their cells appears to make these officers feel secure, protecting them from risk of attack, disease, or emotional attachment to or from prisoners.

Ironically, while not exactly ‘happy’, and albeit for quite different reasons, many prisoners are agreeable to such distanciation. What officers see as confinement, prisoners see as liberation. Time spent ‘behind the door’ provides them with a much needed opportunity for contemplation, for ‘personal’ time, and for relaxation. What staff see as punitive, prisoners see as a welcome escape from their day to day proximity to shouting, jostling, fighting, bullying, anger, fear and distress.

However, while ‘door-shaped happiness’ for officers is achieved through the single act of protecting themselves from contact with prisoners, ‘ door-shaped happiness’ for prisoners involves engagement with complex and continual acts of transformation, which take on any number of subtle and personalised forms, and respond to the status of the person and the place in which they find themselves. They identify some nuanced strategies for resilience and survival, that draw on the practices of social rather than institutional worlds.

This paper takes a look behind various prison doors to reveal how prisoners create some of their own places of ‘safe living’ as a way of countering the ‘door-shaped unhappiness’ of imposed confinement.

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