Mediamatic Magazine vol. 8#2/3 Lex Wouterloot 1 Jan 1995

At Home in Prison

For fifty years, Eduardo Taguas lived in Spanish boarding schools, reform schools and prisons. He was fifty years old when he was set free.


At Home in Prison - published in Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#2/3 (1995)

His mother was in prison when he was born in 1939. Taguas grew up in institutions. When he got into mischief, he was placed in reform school. Once inside the penitentiary, he made sure he would be able to stay in the only world he knew. He took the blame for crimes committed by his fellow inmates. He prolonged his sentence in this way until he was released from the Cordoba prison in 1989. The seven months of freedom he had known in his life had confirmed his idea that the whole world was a prison. He longed to be readmitted to his familiar cell.

The tragic life story of 'Papa Taguas' is probably not as unusual as it appears. Many enter a penitentiary at such a young age that the term 'home' loses all concrete meaning, or remain locked up for so long that there is no home for them to go back to. 74-year-old Carlo Pillo was eligible for clemency after 35 years in an Italian prison, but deliberately decided not to submit an appeal. Get out? I saw on TV that old people, the aged, are treated badly, robbed, they take away their money. And where would I go? I don't know that world anymore... I have a pension, the pension I obtained in prison. I've spent my life here; this is my home now.
Various long-term prisoners have written autobiographies. Among them are Alan Reeve and Jimmy Boyle, both of whom landed in British prisons in their youths and seemed doomed to be stuck in the penal circuits for years to come. Their stories provide a hallucinatory picture of daily life in the cell complexes. At the same time, these prisoners' biographies are a mirror in which we can examine the extramural normality of the ordinary house. This exercise in the homely thoughts of prisoners tacitly reminds us of recent developments in criminology in the area of 'alternative punishment'. Cocooning and detention converge in the form of electronic house arrest. What can cons teach us about the experience value of the prison cell and the housing unit?

The Paradox of Detention

Detention means banishment from house and family and isolation in a closed penitentiary. This social separation from family ties forms one of the greatest burdens of imprisonment. It is thus an especially aggravating circumstance when prison accommodation is so far from home that the family is unable to pay regular visits. Being able to write and receive letters, and in a number of countries even to telephone, eases the pain of separation only slightly. The effect is that a prisoner is thrown back totally upon his own psychological resources and made dependent upon the functioning of the penal system.

Paradoxically, the prison places the inmate in an environment where scarcely any privacy exists. Locked up alone in a cell, the prisoner is subjected to permanent supervision by guards, who practise silent surveillance through a hatch in the cell door or via a video camera. South African poet Breyten Breytenbach explained in an interview why this surveillance is so oppressive: One of the strongest impressions of prison is that you're never alone. You're always alone - I was in solitary confinement - but whatever you do, every word you say, is completely known to the authorities. In most countries, several prisoners share a cell, and are never alone for even a moment. Thus the stress of imprisonment, paradoxically, consists of forced community.

Vertical supervision by guards and horizontal surveillance by fellow inmates leave the prisoner hardly any free space. This absolute lack of privacy causes enormous emotional stress. Withdrawing into the toilet is one way of creating a temporary private domain where one can vent emotions. Bobby Devlin, who was interned in Long Kesh in Northern Ireland in a comparatively open camp, observed that even there, there were certain methods of creating temporary privacy. For instance, to process the sorrow of separation from one's family after visiting hours: Some of the lads tried to overcome the 'Big D' by throwing a blanket over their heads and trying to sleep it off. I would rather fight it by walking around the cage for over an hour. In many prisons, the terror exerted on prisoners by each other is worse than the official penitentiary regime imposed by the wardens. Making an existence for oneself in this hard inside world without joining the school of criminals requires conditions and personal strength which many do not have. An Italian prisoner believes that the greatest hazard of life in prison springs from the danger of confrontations with fellow inmates. Prison is already a heavy sentence, but it can turn into an endless one. It's better to stay by yourself, don't ask anybody anything and solve things for yourself. That way at least you have the hope of someday getting out. But isolating oneself out of self-protection is only possible when a mild and orderly prison regime prevails and one does not have to compromise with fellow inmates.

In the Medium of Care

Avoiding the criminal milieu 'in the can' implies lying low inside the system of the prison. It is not easy to achieve such autonomy, because the machinery of the prison itself has an upsetting effect on the inmate. Daily life is totally controlled and regulated, with a predetermined mechanical outcome. The most elementary actions are established as programmed procedures. Ex-inmates' most painful memories are of the automatic waking and the regulation of sleep by a central light-switch. For me the worst thing in this cell was the loudspeaker above. Every morning at six o'clock the fluorescent light, which was sunk in the wall, went on. Pop. Bright all day, that yellow-green light. Like in an operating room. That loudspeaker jerked you out of your deepest sleep: Morning, it's six o'clock, get up please. This was every morning, every morning. Just when you're dreaming, you suddenly hear that voice. That glaring light. Every morning that shock. That broke me up.

The 'hotel function' of the penal institution, to use the management jargon which has caught on in the judicial bureaucracy, is in itself already enough to bring people to their knees. Isolation in prison, however, is a complex mix of pressure applied from outside, psychological and social methods of self-defence and the mechanical effect of the penal punishment structure. The prison creates a greater isolation than the care circuit of the prison itself imposes upon prisoners. Breytenbach: What wrecks you physically, as all that empty time goes by, is the awareness of an intellectual dulling, because you don't get a single intellectual impulse from outside, nothing, so you gradually turn in on yourself, your head becomes a sort of labyrinth. A stay in prison compels a fatal withdrawal onto the personal terrain of one's own body and mind. The sentence thus inevitably takes on the character of corporal punishment.

The media offer these immobilised and isolated zombies a means to fight boredom and kill time. A prisoner on remand in Switzerland endured the ordeal of isolation thanks to the printed word. I only saw the guy who pushed the food into my cell three times a day. Nothing else. What we got were a couple of crumpled magazines from 1972, and a book once in a while. Nowadays, however, television has become the chief medium in Western European prisons. Even in an institution like Long Kesh, with great freedom of movement, the television is central. There was a TV in the hut which was an 'idol of worship', and I was of that faith. To combat argument over which programmes to watch, each hut elected a panel of three to write out a choice of viewing for each night. Films and sport always caused resentment as to what was on.

This absorption in the media is regarded with a certain ambivalence. For the media have become an integral component of the prison regime. The inmates sitting in the TV room glued to the set can no longer live without it. Jimmy Boyle: They are locked into it as if television is a necessary drug to escape the present situation. A Swiss prisoner interprets this as an affirmation of detention: You're totally broken here mentally. The television is bad. Everyone just sits in front of the TV, since it's allowed. Life in prison does not allow much opportunity for critical reflection on the media. Even self-made intellectual and artist Jimmy Boyle noted, listening to the radio in the dead of night: The Radio Clyde disc jockey is speaking to people in their homes via the telephone. I get the atmosphere of home parties from them. Pop music is blasting in my ears and I marvel at radio and how it must comfort lonely people. It's almost as though it's reassuring me I'm not alone.

Gaol as a Sensorium

In a passive manner, the media seem to extend prisoners a helping hand, allowing them to spin a cocoon around themselves. The curtains are closed to shut out the light from the dying day, to blot out of sight that there is an outside. Earphones and darkness keep away the reality, and are measures taken to help me through the night as tomorrow the day will bring new hope , writes Boyle. When a prisoner is deprived of the control of sensory impressions, life becomes a hell. Overstimulation functions indirectly as a psychological method of driving inmates crazy. Boyle characterised the traditional prison as an acoustic universe: In the morning he will awake to the sounds of the old system, scraping keys in locks, chamber pots being emptied... The French psychiatrist Gerard Hof described night in prison as mimicking the repulsive sounds of a sewer. The acoustics were such that I was compulsively informed via my ears of the stinking and unhealthy state of the digestive tracts of my fellow inmates, caused by a chronically meagre diet; fellow inmates I was forbidden to know except through the sound of their defecation and those which they made while belching repulsively, vomiting and spitting.

Gerard Hof experienced prison as a system of organised overstimulation, an entire spectrum, from the racket caused by construction to wilfully caused noise pollution. After being locked up in solitary confinement, Hof was treated to a blaring radio. After the cell door was slammed, all hell broke loose. It was precisely at that moment that the loudspeaker came through, a blend of piercing whines, military commands, pop music, etc., so loud that it wouldn't have been any louder if I'd put on headphones with the volume all the way up. His unasked-for radio receiver could not be turned down or off. When the guards ignored his pressing of the alarm bell, he decided to wreck the set. The noise was threatening to drive him crazy. Hof immediately draws a connection between the psychotechniques inflicted on him and the normal media outside the prison. '''Two thoughts flashed through my head in that racket: Sensory deprivation = sensory compulsion and the conclusion that I'd already made before: ''There is a fascist tendency in pop music...

The Frenchman grew suspicious and concluded that his radio must contain not only a speaker but a microphone, and that he was being permanently watched in his cell. I was a guinea pig in a trial setting which had been conceived so that all my reactions were controllable, measurable and quantifiable; you knew how many times I turned on my radio, how often I looked for another station; you conducted a purposeful study of my motivations by changing the dose of frustration at will, a study that can be very useful for a number of goals: the refinement of psychological methods of torture, the study, for reasons of advertising, of sound structures which attract the attention of the ear or create a mnemonic obsession. Was there a team of researchers in white coats intently studying the curves? A practical memory experiment, fundamental research for the advancement of advertising and the consumer society? To this day I am convinced that there was.

Alone in yourself

However correct this intuition may be, the realisation that he is being subjected to permanent observation pushes Hof, even in the absolute solitude of the isolation cell, to camouflage his behaviour. This medial pressure forces the prisoner to close up in himself. Forced into passivity, deprived of information and without feedback from regular people, the prisoner must use his creativity to create his own environment, discipline and communication circuits. Everything happens as if external reality had disappeared and with the signified also the signifier, as if the prisoner, deprived of his freedom, was at the same time also deprived of the signification of any discourse about anything that wasn't part of his cell. The prisoner, locked up by himself, sees no one who can strengthen him and help him learn from his experience by explaining to him that his reaction is normal.

To escape being closed off in the world of his own thoughts, he must go to great lengths to make a mental goalbreak by making contact with the outside world. Birds can be an almost saving link to the reality from which prisoners are excluded. Many prisoners scatter bread crumbs to lure birds to their cell windows. In the mornings I heard the singing of the birds that came in great numbers for the bread crusts which the prisoners threw them through the bars. There were sparrows, blackbird and also crows. One morning, I was awakened by the call of a bird, instead of a roaring racket. I felt an almost mystical happiness

Less poetic is the call of nature which sounds in one's own body: that of sex. An oversexed atmosphere is created by the forced abstinence and segregation of the sexes. As a rule, masturbation is the only form of sexual experience permitted. But pornography is available everywhere. In almost all French prisons, porn magazines flourish, and the phallocratic mentality of the majority of the inmates continually enriches itself through fantasies. Perversity becomes visible in its full spectrum. Where prisoners are not totally isolated, 'perversity' mainly means sexual abuse of other inmates. Disgust with the celibate universe unexpectedly manifests itself in collective actions like the 1988 uprising in the English prison of Haverigg, which erupted after it was ordered that pin-ups be removed from the walls.

The psychological dimension of the experience of gaol is compounded by excessive drug use. Alongside the taking of medically prescribed pharmaceuticals, illegal drugs circulate in all prisons on a large scale. Boyle: Speaking to a guy in the dining hall this morning, he said he hasn't gone more than three months this sentence without a smoke of hash - he is in nine years. He said he was glad to be out of 'B' hall as there was too much heroin there and he could feel the temptation. He was into hard drugs before this sentence. On speaking to him and an ex-Peterhead prisoner, they remarked that the hard drug scene has changed in recent years in the nick. At one time in prison it was all pills (barbiturates, etc.) but now it's all hash that's on the go. They say that everyone, even the screws, are more tolerant of this. But if it is pills, they go mad searching everyone and everywhere, knowing there is violence associated with them. On hash everybody is passive.

Finally Home

A compulsory 'inner emigration', which has little to do with moral repentance, characterises the prison experience. A stay in prison ultimately has a totally desocialising effect. After being forfeited for so long, the basic psychic requirements for taking part in normal social life are undermined. One is very isolated here. I noticed that in the hospital. When I got to go outside sometimes at the end, I got agoraphobia in a department store, and I felt so foolish, I don't know. I kept thinking, this is how a farmer must feel, coming to the city for the first time. I always get the feeling that if you're here it seems like you've been here your whole life and will be here for the rest of your life, remarked a gaoled Swiss drug addict.

The prisoner is ousted from the order of space and time and isolated in an extraterritorial transit space. Hof: I lost the notion of time, had no idea how many days had passed, didn't know the date or when I could expect visitors. The link to the outside becomes an inner experience; even an obsession. When you're here, you keep dreaming of outside, even if reality is very different. Through the availability of the media one remains reasonably well-informed. We're quite informed here about what's going on outside, through papers and now and then TV. When Jimmy Boyle is placed in an experimental prison ward with longer visiting hours, he realises to his embarrassment that his social skills and contact with his family have been affected. I didn't know what I would be able to talk about for this length of time. I was dreading those moments of long, drawn-out silences when we were all lost for words.

For many ex-inmates, regained freedom is a traumatic affair. Many who are set free have no one waiting for them any longer. I don't know what I'll do when I get out of here. I don't have relatives or friends. No one comes to visit, but when I'm free, I'll go to Bern, Zurich or Basel. I always spend the night in hotels. And when one does have a place to go, such as the parental house, then one no longer knows one's place. Boyle spoke to an acquaintance about his integration problems: He said there are times when he lies in his bed for three days at a time, sometimes even a week. He said he isn't depressed or anything but enjoys being a recluse. He is questioning his whole way of life and feels he cannot get on the same wavelength as other people on the outside..

Breyten Breytenbach: I've known a number of those guys who had only known a criminal milieu, inside prison as well as outside, and who were gradually so numbed that they only felt at home in the nick. And they really made a nest there, too; prints on the walls, curtains over the bars, really cosy. The prison only has one real effect: it makes you a prisoner. And in the end that's the only thing you're good for. If you can't go back in the clink, and can no longer lead a normal life, you must lock yourself up in your own house. A friend of Boyle's chose this option: He said that he locks himself up in his room like a prisoner and feels quite happy as he lies reading books and watching TV. It's almost as if he has created his own prison outside.

This self-created individual prison in one's own house is in essence a media cell. Some ex-inmates enter the normal world as prisoners of the media. A freed acquaintance of Jimmy Boyle's was thrown out of his house with his family, but carried shelter with him. They are virtually homeless. As though to reinforce the distorted influences in his life, although homeless, he has a TV and video recorder, which is a pretty expensive commodity. For electronic house arrest, one need not wear a computerised wristband; transfer to the virtual reality of the media is enough. Breyten Breytenbach: In prison you're like a baby. You lose all sense of reality. You think up the most fantastic stories about what's happening outside. You would expect the opposite in such a hard, hyperrealistic concrete milieu like a prison. But it's there that you start to live in a fantasy world.

You are only truly at home in your belief in urban legends, pyramid power and the consciousness-expanding effect of sensory deprivation.

translation Laura Martz