Sharing cells and prison crowding – managing carceral space

The recent announcement from the UK Justice Secretary Chris Grayling that dozens of already full prisons would have to accommodate more inmates because the prison population is growing faster than expected, has caused widespread concern and consternation. Forty prisons in England and Wales have been told to raise their “operational capacity” in the next two months, although apparently all but six of these are are already running at full capacity, or are overcrowded. Grayling described the move as an indication that he was taking “sensible steps to make sure we can accommodate everyone”.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, criticised the state of prisons in England and Wales, and claimed that “political and policy failure” was behind dangerous overcrowding in publicly-run jails, in a context of the recent closure of 18 prisons in the UK as a cost-cutting measure which itself has attracted recent criticism.

The concerns over overcrowding and cell-sharing are well-founded, and have been widely debated in the media in recent weeks, for example in this piece in The Guardian which highlights the danger of cell sharing in a context of high levels of mental health problems, which can themselves arguably be exacerbated by close confinement. On the other hand, solitary confinement is also known to be extremely damaging – as this recent piece from the US on the damage done to the teenage brain by time in solitary demonstrates.

Whilst the policy context of overcrowding is impossible to ignore, and whilst the problems it causes are inexcusable, it is perhaps worth considering the insights provided by recent research into cell sharing and prison crowding, which offer some suggestions as to the ways in which more careful management of prison spaces may offer some relief from the psychological pressures of shared space.

At the heart of the problem of cell sharing is the notion of privacy. Using Altman’s model of privacy, the issue is the changing need that people have both for solitude, and for interaction with others. Optimal privacy is not necessarily being alone, but having the ability to control when to be alone and when to have company – whether in intimate relationships, as anonymity in a crowd, or reserve when withdrawn into oneself. Forced isolation is different from elective solitude, of course. Prison reduces, if not totally removes, the ability for inmates to control the nature of their social interaction, through the ways in which they are accommodated; in dormitories, in shared (or crowded) cells, or in isolation – each of which imposes a certain type of social contact which may be intolerable for some, or most, or indeed all, of the time for the individuals concerned.

To an extent this is unavoidable, in institutions that need to maintain order, and reduce the propensity for unrest, but it is worth noting that the ways in which carceral spaces are managed can have a mitigating effect on their potentially damaging nature. For example, where prisoners share cells, in which basic privacy norms are violated by enforced proximity, carefully managing access to communal or outside space can enable some relief from this situation. As Bogard and Wener (2007) noted, in their study of a prison in which the sharing of cells meant that the dayroom was too small for all the prisoners to occupy it at once, policy was to allow half the prisoners access to the dayroom at a time. How this half was chosen, though, had significant implications for prisoners’ welfare. Prisoners from an upper tier of cells were first allowed out, and when they returned to their cells, prisoners from the lower tier replaced them in the dayroom. Neither set of prisoners, therefore, was offered the opportunity for solitude in the cells which had been designed for occpancy by one person. As an alternative, allowing one prisoner from each cell, both upper and lower, into the dayroom at a time, would have offered the opportunity for ‘in time’ to represent solitude, privacy, and relief for the prisoner remaining in the cell, whilst ‘out time’ was enjoyed by his cellmate.

In his research on privacy in French prisons Olivier Milhaud reported the pressures of cell sharing, as described by inmates:  

When there are two of you [in the same cell], it is overcrowding. There is always someone with you. Whenever you eat, wash yourself, go to the toilet, cry, there are always two of you. There is no privacy. It is difficult… It’s very small. If you are with someone else, you have no privacy. You feel stress, anguish. I can’t bear it.… one of you is shitting and you, you are eating. One is peeing and you are eating. There are many things to endure. (Milhaud and Moran 2013, 172).

Although the strategy of releasing cell inmates one at a time was not in place in the prisons he studied, he found that when given the opportunity to leave their shared cells, some prisoners would forgo ‘out time’ for the chance to remain in the cell alone, enjoying some elective solitude. 

Wener (2012) argues that the absence of privacy in prison has become such an accepted norm, that changing approaches and management to enable it is simply not thought of often enough. However, if the crowding of prison cells in the UK is, as the Justice Secretary suggests, to become more common, it is imperative that its significant negative effects are mitigated by careful consideration of the management of carceral space.

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