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The modern ballad of Reading Gaol – a guest blog from Roma Hooper

14 Nov 2016

“In the great prison where I was incarcerated, I was merely the figure and the letter of a cell in a long gallery, one of a thousand lifeless numbers as of a thousand lifeless lives”

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, 1897.

Is this where we are today, over almost 120 years later? Or could we be facing a new brighter dawn?

I have just visited an exhibition at Reading Prison choreographed by Inside:  Artists and Writers in Reading Prison.  I was involved    in a project at this prison a few years ago so It was a strange feeling returning where the cells were empty. The place was void of any voices, bar those of the visitors chatting and peering into the cells, imagining life inside when Oscar Wilde was there.  But eavesdropping into some of the conversations it came as no surprise that no-one had any real idea what life was actually like then or now, or the impact that imprisonment has turning lives around.

Yet, young men were living there until 2013.  Two in a cell, one high window and the lavatory behind a small wall.  In Oscar Wilde’s day, of course, prisoners did not share cells – part of their punishment was living in a world of complete silence.  The exhibition managed to create a real synergy between life then and life now.  There are paintings, sculpture, photographs, videos and writing exhibited in some of the cells which provided an opening for me to share some of my knowledge with fellow visitors.

Everywhere we turned we were faced with cold, thick, harsh walls – walls with no give, no sense of hope, no way forward.  As a visual manifestation of prison life, this could not have been starker.

Yet, the public steadfastly believe that prison should be harsher and only by making it so will children and adults stop offending.  But the Frameworks research has suggested a new way of telling the story of crime and punishment . Experts in communications have found  that the public respond much better to the use of metaphors rather than listening to us experts blathering about what we think (not having, as it turns out, the vaguest idea as to what they think.) This is because such metaphors help people think and talk about a complex concept in new ways and they make information easier to understand.   One particular metaphor, Channelling Crime, has real resonance   “Locking up people for minor crimes sweeps people into a powerful stream of crime from which it is difficult to escape.  We need to keep people out of this current of criminal behaviour in the first place and guide them to safer, more stable shores.”  The research showed that people can easily use this metaphor and remember it. And it is especially helpful in getting people to understand why imprisonment can be counterproductive.