Prison noise examined in new book from Leicester alumnus

A researcher has used her time spent behind bars while at the University of Leicester as the basis for a book on the effect of sound in prisons.

Katherine Herrity spent four years at Leicester, from 2015 to 2019, investigating the noises experienced in an English prison, and their effect on inmates and staff, for her PhD.

Her research saw her visit a men’s prison in the Midlands, which she has renamed HMP Midtown in the book for anonymity purposes. But Katherine has also visited various secure facilities over the years for work and other projects, including HMP Brixton, Leicester and the former young offenders’ institute in Glen Parva – even spending a night in one.

While inside, she interviewed inmates and staff about the impact of sounds that can dominate prison life, from the clanking of doors, jangling of keys and shouting, to the everyday sounds from over the walls, such as children playing and passing traffic.

Now a Mellon-Kings Research Fellow in Punishment at the University of Cambridge, Kate has expanded on her Leicester research for the book Sound, Order and Survival in Prison: The Rhythms and Routines of HMP Midtown, which will be published by Bristol University Press on Wednesday 31 January.

“I first visited a prison while I was working as a library assistant, as part of a career-development trip to HMP Wandsworth library,” said Katherine.

“I found standing in the middle of the swirling soundscape at the central control point as dizzying as it was overwhelming. What did this tell me about prison social life? What significance might it have for how we understand these spaces? I couldn’t find much in the literature but the question puzzled me and kept nagging away.”

Katherine went on to become an Oxford Master’s student, where she pursued her new-found interest, completing a dissertation on the significance of music to people in prison, before studying for her Leicester PhD.

She said: “Spending time with people on the wings was important and interviews allowed me to chat about specific issues or sonic events around the wing with people I had often come to know quite well. I was often referred to as the sound lady.

“Prompting people to reflect on sounds that have meaning for them alerts us to the way time is experienced in multiplicities – not only in time served but in the memory of times gone, of time with loved ones, time that goes by in their absence and times of hopeful futures. The sounds of children playing or life in town can be a poignant reminder of exclusion from social life.

“Asking people about what sounds have an effect in prison, illustrates how sound can act as a conduit of power as well as illustrating how our interpretation depends upon our social circumstances. For example, jangling keys can be a source of comfort for an officer, reassurance that back up is near, a means of expressing professional identity. For prisoners, hearing keys can be a source of profound anxiety, prompting the fear they will be moved away from family, that news of an ailing loved one is coming, or a reminder of their circumstances.

“Becoming familiar with the soundscape emphasised how important sound is for diagnosing when disturbance and violence are on the way, but also that maintaining ‘order’ is a collaborative process in which prisoners participate.”

Katherine hopes her study will lead to positive change for both prisoners and prison staff.

She said: “Sound is associated with a number of poor outcomes for a number of wellbeing issues and conditions which are more prevalent in populations of both prisoners and prison staff than the general population, from people on the autistic spectrum to depression and PTSD. Greater awareness of this can inform design to improve outcomes as well as quality of living/working life to decrease social harms associated with prison for all who spend time in these places.

“Sound can work to evoke the social imagination, to diminish distance between the lived experience of our fellow humans and I would very much hope to invite people to think about what these places do, and what they are for in the broader context of what their current state means for the communities to which the vast majority of these people return, as well, of course, for those who live and work in prison spaces.

“Learning to ‘read’ the soundscape is fundamental to both surviving prison and to jailcraft. Understanding this has far-reaching implications for safety and wellbeing in prison spaces at a time when we are facing chronic overcrowding and underfunding.”