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Haley Read is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first and third years.
Yes, that spooky time of the year is upon us! Excited at the prospect of being free to do something at Halloween but deterred by the considerable amount of effort required to create an average-looking carved pumpkin face, I Google, ‘Things to do for Halloween in the Midlands’.
I find that ‘prison (and cell) ghost tours’ are being advertised for tourists who can spend the night where (in)famous offenders once resided and the ‘condemned souls’ of unusual and dangerous inmates still ‘haunt’ the prison walls today. I do a bit more searching and find that more reputable prison museums are also advertising similar events, which promise a ‘fun’ and ‘action packed’ family days out where gift shops and restaurants are available for all to enjoy.
Of course, the lives of inmates who suffered from harsh and brutal prison regimes are commodified in all prison museums, and not just at Halloween related events. What appears concerning is that these commercial and profit-based events seem to attract visitors through promotional techniques which promise to entertain, reinforce common sensical, and at times fabricated (see Barton and Brown, 2015 for examples) understandings of history, crime and punishment. These also present sensationalistic a-political accounts of the past in order to appeal to popular fascinations with prison-related gore and horror; all of which aim to attract customers.
The fascination with attending places of punishment is nothing new. Barton and Brown (2015) illustrates this with historical accounts of visitors engaging in the theatrics of public executions and of others who would visit punishment-based institutions out of curiosity or to amuse themselves. And I suppose modern commercial prison tourism could be viewed as an updated way to satisfy morbid curiosities surrounding punishment and the prison.
The reason that this concerns me is that despite having the potential to educate others and challenge prison stereotypes that are reinforced through the media and True Crime books, commercialised prison events aim to entertain as well as inform. This then has the danger of cementing popular and at times fictional views on the prison that could be seen as being historically inaccurate. Barton and Brown (2015) exemplify this idea by noting that prison museums present inmates as being unusual, harsh historical punishments as being necessary and the contemporary prison system as being progressive and less punitive. However, opposing views suggest that offenders are more ordinary than unusual, that historical punishments are brutal rather than necessary and that many contemporary prisons are viewed as being newer versions of punitive discipline rather than progressive.
Perhaps it could be that presenting a simplified, uncritical and stereotyped version of the past as entertainment prevents prison tourists from understanding the true pains experienced by those who have been incarcerated within the prison (see Barton and Brown, 2015, Sim, 2009). Truer prison museum promotions could inform visitors of staff corruption, the detrimental social and psychological effects of the prison, and that inmates (throughout history) are more likely to be those who are poor, disempowered, previously victimised and at risk of violence and self-harm upon entering prison. But perhaps this would attract less visitors/profit…And so for another year I will stick to carving pumpkins.
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com
Barton, A and Brown, A. (2015) Show me the Prison! The Development of Prison Tourism in the UK. Crime Media and Culture. 11(3), pp.237-258. Doi: 10.1177/1741659015592455.
Sim, J. (2009) Punishment and Prisons: Power and the Carceral State. London: Sage.
Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching on modules in years 1 and 3.
Last term, my 9-year-old son’s class topic was “Crime and Punishment”. They took a historical perspective, comparing punishments across different periods of time and they began their topic with a “creative kickstart”: a visit to the National Museum of Justice in Nottingham (albeit two weeks later than planned because the bus failed to turn up!). They had a whale of a time! They were photographed with a range of gruesome artefacts and they took part in a mock trial (a re-enactment of a genuine historical case). My son’s group acquitted the defendant, Isabella, who was accused of stealing clothes, on the basis of insufficient evidence, but the other group from his school found her guilty.
Part of the class’s enthusiasm for this topic undoubtedly stems from the fascination of 9-year-old children with blood and guts. The teacher reported that they were particularly excited to learn about criminals who had been hung, drawn and quartered (although she refrained from playing them the clips from Gunpowder which depicted what this actually looked and sounded like!!). My son drew great pleasure from thinking about what it would be like if he was actually allowed to impose mediaeval punishments on his arch enemy. However, exploration of issues of crime and punishment has value far beyond satisfying a fascination for the gory.
Thinking about crime and punishment requires critical reasoning skills. What is fair? What is reasonable? How much evidence do I need? How good is this evidence? Why do we do things differently now? And critical reasoning skills are essential for navigating a world of social media, peer pressure, advertising and fake (or at least dubious) news that these children will soon be entering. My son’s class had a debate on the death penalty. When I asked him his views later, over tea, he thought carefully and told me that the death penalty was a good thing because if someone had done something really bad, they deserved a really serious punishment. It was a very good example of level two moral reasoning (Kohlberg, 1964): what you would expect from a reasonably well-adjusted 9-year-old. But the class vote at the end of the debate was split equally for and against, demonstrating a range of views. As we ate our tea, I explained my own position on the death penalty (formulated much later, when I was a post-graduate student), that there are some things that a good society just should not do and killing its own citizens, for whatever reason, is one of those things. That argument might have been a bit abstract for my son to take on board, but it is exactly through discussion and debate and exposure to different views that we develop and improve our critical and moral reasoning skills. It’s never too early to start!
Kohlberg, L. (1964) Development of moral character and moral ideology. In M. Hoffman and L. Hoffman (Eds.) Review of Child Development Research, Vol. 1. (pp. 381-343). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.