HMP Send Prison, Woking, Surrey

23 January 2017, marks the day I entered a prison, a new first in my life’s experiences. I spent two and a half hours inside a ‘closed’ women’s prison on the outskirts of Woking. Contraband: cameras, mobile phones, computers, electrical devices, USBs”. Permitted was pen and paper.

I met with the friendly Educator who was generous with her time. She explained the opportunities within the Education department at HMP Send to rehabitiliation and life skills on offer. Maths and English were obligatory to attend. I heard of the difficulties of relationships beyond the prison walls, and keeping connections with families and children once incarcerated. Distance from ‘home’ is a problem. Moving on after sentencing sometimes ends in work placements (catering and hairdressing being very popular) while the sad truth is that many leave to enter an unstable and vulnerable ‘independent’ life and the ugly old life inevitably becomes revisited.

I was given a tour of the 450 inmate capacity campus as well as an opportunity to attend the women’s art group, around which my visit purposely coincided. A local gallery, Watts Gallery, regularly hosts the weekly activity from Woking.

A morning filled with many new institutional regulations, different yet similar in many respects to the institutions we all know, even art school. An ‘inside’ language of slang and prison terms, conversations in corridors overheard between inmates and wardens, I was even able to share a gentle exchange with an inmate. There was much for me to concentrate on; to record in my memory and take away…then there were all the visuals my eyes were noticing. It was a juggling act looking, while at once, not loosing my concentration when being spoken to and having something suddenly grab my peripheral attention, something not necessarily apparent in the ‘every day’. I did my best to listen while taking all this new information in.

First impressions: many of the regulations ‘not permitted’ or ‘do not enter’,’restricted’ a no entry exclusion zone that doesn’t give access to locked doors, are familiar forms of exclusion, within the institution of power and control.

Society of Control: there are no uniforms for staff and inmates, therefore constant ‘checking’ of others and constantly ‘being checked’ by ones internalisation of the gaze disciplines behaviour. A reward system prevails for good behaviour.

Micro management: Efficiency and productivity within the time table system; minute division of the day regulates behaviour and prevents uncontrolled behaviour.

Irony: ‘Authority’ is dressed in ‘shackles’ attached around the waist (and is recognised as authority as it holds the heavy clump of keys).

Sensible Signage: “If it has a lock, lock it”

Ringing in my ears: Clink, clink, jangle, jangle.

Case Study: Morning complete, I head back to London on the train. Hundreds (myself included) milling ‘free’ at Waterloo station all purposefully organised and going somewhere. I recognise I am a programmed, a ‘docile body’.

Last word: Thank you Jeremy Bentham, father of the Panopticon theory, thank you for this structure of power and control. This difficult-to-erradicate lasting power of punishment in the institution really re-educates the mind and soul!

Help: Where are we to go from here Michel Foucault? Your observations in 1975 are as relevant and poignant today, as ever!


Annabel Ludovici Gray