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Prison bars close up, with a large padlock unopened
Photo by Oscar Ivan Esquivel Arteaga on Unsplash

Prisons, Poems, and the Legal Researcher

Prison bars close up, with a large padlock unopened
Photo by Oscar Ivan Esquivel Arteaga on Unsplash

There is no doubt that the poetic writings of imprisoned and otherwise detained people, made available to the public by organisations like Koestler Arts and the Longford Trust, represent an important light-admitting gap in the prison wall. On November 13th at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton, Koestler Arts launched its fourth volume of ‘Koestler Voices: New Poetry from Prisons’ (KV) anthologies of the best of the many hundreds of poems collected for its annual award. But beyond the (arguably trite) reminder that prisoners are also human beings, what is the real value of this work for researchers of the experience and meaning of incarceration? Put this way, the question is beset with methodological anxieties. Without gaining access to the imprisoned poets themselves, the texts alone may not be relied upon as sources of information about imprisonment. The (literal and figurative) wall separating ‘inside’ from out necessitates a degree of cautiousness not usually necessary for the researcher with access to the prison and its inhabitants. Even where the interpretation of the texts seems straightforward, the same problem qualifies any attempt to generalise from them about the prisoner experience, more broadly than the experience of imprisoned poets.

On the other hand, that separation between the free reader and imprisoned poet does not diminish the value of reading the poems as sources of insight as to the process of translating the experiences of imprisonment creatively into text. Analysis of the poems from prisons and other places of detention clarifies two important things about them.

First, poetic writings by prisoners often reinforce the idea of imprisonment primarily as a punitive response to crime and, by implied extension, reinforce also the symbolic divide between life inside and outside prison. Punitive treatment means giving effect to a community’s anger at an offender: it calls for punishment to make them suffer, and to feel divided, cut-off, from the wider community. Poems from prisons are often painfully alive with cognisance of this, and of the gulf that opens up through the state’s condemnation and hard treatment, and the prisoner’s own feelings of having let themselves and others down. The poems duly reverberate with a sense of suffering, often through being disoriented by sensory assault (‘Continual banging, shouting and crying / Officers oblivious and not even trying’ (Anonymous, Kindness…, KV3, p.89)).

Second, the articulations in poems of frustration, isolation, and dislocation of imprisonment typically draw on a store of figurations shared by writers outside of prisons, and as such also break down that divide. The conceptual metaphors of confinement used in the poems are often also much the same as those found in empirical research with prisoners (Crewe, Chamberlen, Medlicott, Wahidin).

The poems demonstrate how such figurations may serve as vehicles for channelling feelings and ideas productively into new forms. For the prisoner, the translation of painful experiences into poetic metaphor offers a way of creating some distance between the author and their pain so that the latter might be looked at, turned over, examined. For the reader outside of the prison, that translation opens the experience of imprisonment out into a more familiar, shared territory, and thus an opportunity for empathy. This may explain why the mental pains of imprisonment so often become, through the use of poetic metaphor, physical pain (‘pulled apart / by the persistence of sadness / the relentlessness of remorse, / and the incessant pounding of shame’ (Anonymous, In Time, KV3, p.48)); why birds signify so importantly, embodying the imprisoned person’s undominated spirit (‘Her song is drowsy and meandering / Like summer days or streams without end’ (Solomon, Nightingale…, KV1, p.19)); why time comes to be personified or turned into a landscape in order to be made less slippery, or spectral (‘Yesterday has fallen / Like the leaves of autumn’ (Moses, Therapy, KV1, p.29); ‘she now / dwells / in a memory that / tells / the past that I am here…’ (Bob, Lock Down, KV1, p.32-33)), and why feelings of disempowerment come to be expressed through connections with lowly and marginalised non-human lives: animals in and around the prison which, dirty and scavenging, provide worthy objects of pity and concern (such as a mouse, at which the poet is initially angry because it is pilfering from his cell, but who is then moved by its story of a hard life ending in prison (‘I was born and raised in Brixton, my father was a rat, / He used to beat me badly but I won’t go into that’ (Kharhak, Wandsworth, KV2, p.22-23)).

For me then, the real value of poetry from prisons lies in the fascinating ambiguity it sustains – simultaneously reaching out to readers to draw them closer, while at the same time reinforcing the separation between the poet ‘inside’ and the reader outside. The latest (fourth) volume of KV, with poems both humorous and politically engaged, promises to further challenge received notions as to what poetry from prisons looks like.

About the Author

Headshot of Professor David Gurnham

Professor David Gurnham

Professor of Criminal Law and Interdisciplinary Legal Studies, University of Southampton

David Gurnham is Professor of Criminal Law and Interdisciplinary Legal Studies in the School of Law, University of Southampton. He researches intersections of law, humanities and the arts. He is the General Editor of the journal Law and Humanities (Taylor & Francis) and is the author of numerous scholarly publications.

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