Prison, aesthetics and reflections

The dungeon, the shackles, the grimy walls with signs of former inhabitants are thrilling for there is an enjoyment from distance

By Author  |  Pramod K Nayar  |  Published: 16th Jan 2021  12:07 am

Experience jail, come and get a taste of prison life.

At first glance, that seems a terribly awkward kind of invitation to extend to anyone. And yet, carceral tourism is a major component of the industry. As the Additional Director General of Prisons in Kerala, R Sreelekha proposed a prison tourism project at the Viyyur Central Prison, Thrissur, in 2018, no doubt inspired by similar initiatives as the Robben Island tours (Robben being made famous for Nelson Mandela’s stay). Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay, we are told, hosts over 1.5 million tourists annually.

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In places like Inveraray, Scotland, the prison is ‘occupied’ by costumed characters playing prisoners and wardens so as to ‘animate the past’, as the brochure puts it. The high point for carceral tourism came, of course, in 2017. That year the World Travel Awards named Spike Island, Ireland’s former fortress and prison, ‘Europe’s leading tourist attraction’. This prestigious honour went to Spike Island, which beat — no kidding — the world’s most celebrated tourist destinations like Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower, and the Acropolis!

Everyone, it seems, wants to go to jail. And pay for the honour.

Penal and Penitent

Sociologists Jill McCorkel and Anna DalCortivo argue that penal tourism spots humanise their former wretched occupants. Mobilising archival footage, objects and prisoner biographies, they propose, the prison and its museums cause us to reflect on the larger purpose of prisons and the criminal justice system in any particular society.

The ‘penitentiary’ was a place for the criminal to contemplate her or his awful way of life and repent — and become a ‘penitent’. In prisons such as the Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, the cells have a single glass skylight that was meant to symbolise the ‘Eye of God’ watching the prisoner in her/his cell, and thereby encourage moral contemplation, argue McCorkel and DalCortivo.

That prisons are places where the inmates do contemplate is borne out partially by the huge numbers of prison memoirs, diaries and autobiographies from all over the world. From famous accounts by freedom fighters — Lala Lajpat Rai, Nelson Mandela, VD Savarkar, Rajaji, Bhagat Singh — that were reflections on colonialism and anti-colonial struggles, to post-independence prison writings that reflected on the state of the (new) nation – such as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (If I am Assassinated…) or Ken Saro-Wiwa (A Month and a Day) — the prison account revealed a deeply meditative inhabitant.

Whether they were penitent is, however, a moot point. Nothing in Saro-Wiwa, Mandela or Rai indicates penitence for their actions in battling injustice. The prison enabled reflections on not only the state of their nations but also on contemporary politics, their own political leanings and that of others (Antonio Gramsci’s tracts from prison are now mandatory reading in the social sciences).

The prison in the case of political prisoners was a space that enabled both political protests (as seen in prisons across the world, from Andaman’s Cellular Jail hunger strike in the late 1920s, as documented by its inmates, BK Ghose, BK Sinha and others, and studied by Clare Anderson in her book, to the more recent Guantanamo Bay strikes) and political studies. Numerous accounts by inmates document how they studied philosophy and political writings — political prisoners were allowed access to books in many prisons — and so broadened their thinking. In some cases, they developed a leaning towards meditation and spiritual self-exploration. So, in the place (literally and metaphorically) of ‘penitence’, one can envisage the prison as a place of political reflection by those arrested precisely for those reflections and actions! Their writings then become acts of ‘resistance literature’, as the critic Barbara Harlow argued.

Prison Aesthetics

The tours of such places may call our attention to the role they played in forging a Gandhi, a Mandela or an Aurobindo, whose time in Yerawada or Robben was spent in moulding their decisions for a future public life. But such tours are also, effectively, an attempt to foreground a prison aesthetics. One is forced to recall and reconstruct the excessive violence, suffering and horror of being confined to a narrow, dirty spaced designed to destroy a human’s sense of self and dignity. Yet, many ‘find themselves’ through the years of confinement, giving some credence to Michel Foucault’s comment, ‘prison is hell for the majority and salvation for a few’.

The prison tour is a spectacle of former lives, brought alive through a dramatisation and an enactment of how things have been. The dungeon, the shackles, the grimy walls with their signs of former inhabitants are thrilling precisely because there is an enjoyment from a distance.

Carceral Gothic

The prison’s iconography and architecture, beginning with the formidable walls and through the dark, dank cells, the mechanisms of torture and isolation all contribute to a ‘carceral Gothic’, in the words of narrative theorist Monika Fludernik. While these aesthetics may cause us to dwell on the justice system, the social role of prisons and the contexts of such suffering – studied extensively by Didier Fassin, Angela Y Davis, among others, they are primarily directed at a voyeuristic taste of a life as distanced and distant from our ‘normal’ ones as we can imagine.

Prison aesthetics in such a tourism serves then as a real-life experience equivalent to the filmic and theatrical enactments of torture and extensive violence. While ‘aesthetics’ may seem an inappropriate term – since it is inevitably associated with ‘beauty’ – to describe scenes and depictions of grime, pain and torture, ‘prison aesthetics’ can be employed to capture an embodied experience in relatively sanitised settings that operate within a nostalgia regime of examining so-called ‘worthless’ lives of the past. Or lives that have become iconic of suffering, resistance and resilience – from Gandhi and Mandela to Breytenbach and Ruth First – for later generations to admire.

The prison was and is a part of the city/town and yet not a part of it. It is a place viewed with horror and despair, standing as a monument to evil (of both, criminals and the law enforcement system), and adjacent to ‘civilisation’. Those waiting to meet their relatives in the prison – most famously presented by Anna Akhmatova as the preface to her collection, Requiem – the scenes of the visiting room, the preparation for the prison in the form of the trial are all constituents of the construction of the prison as a specific kind of place for a specific kind of person.

When the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky – who spent four years in chains, and in an underground cell – declared that ‘the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons’ (commentators dispute he said it), he was pointing to the prison system as a social commentary.

Reviving prison aesthetics is a populist paean to Dostoevsky.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)


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