Periodically there will be an outcry in the UK over the length of sentences and parole conditions imposed on violent criminals. ‘Life should mean life’ goes a common rallying cry amongst those who see prison not as a means of rehabilitation, but a mechanism of punishment, and perhaps secondarily a means of protecting the public. However the inevitable result of very long prison terms is of course increasingly elderly prisoners, and the fate of these prisoners in a system largely geared towards the young and the strong is a topic that is less often discussed. Although we know they exist (or we assume they exist) much of the discussion and debate around the penal system tends to focus on young and repeat offenders, not those who have been incarcerated for very long periods, and who may very well live out the remainders of their lives behind bars.
In Still Life Killing Time, Edmund Clark (who’s latest book Control Order House was launched last Wednesday) set out to explore the experience of inmates in the E Wing of Kingston Prison, Portsmouth, at the time the only dedicated prison wing for elderly prisoners. As the name implies the book is a series of still life and environmental photographs, taken around the prison’s communal areas and in prisoner’s cells. Originally setting out to tell inmate’s stories through portraiture as he had done in a previous project about young offenders, Clark turned from this approach to focusing just on still life photographs in response to the difficulty he felt about consent and the representation of violent criminals.
The result is a strange set of images, many of which are for me reminiscent of visits to elderly friends and relatives in their houses and care homes. Chintzy decorations, religious icons, cut out photographs of classic cars, royals and rather out of date celebrities. And yet little details come through that remind you of the context of these objects. What appears to be a fairly typical, if quite spartan, bedroom has to be reconsidered when one notices a book titled ‘Manslaughter United’ on the bedside table. A pin board covered in Celtic FC memorabilia is visually interrupted by a photograph of a famous murder victim, John Lennon.
Then there are the frankly depressing photographs of very institutional scenes; cells, waiting rooms, a chair lift, security camera monitors. A rota for newspapers, a list of daily activities punctuated by a ‘World mental health day’ sticker. These are still mostly ambigious images, many of which could exist just as easily in an old person’s home (or psychiatric hospital) as in a prison. The sense of visually criss-crossing between conflicting indications of what one is viewing is an unsettling experience, and one which somewhat reflects the genericity of all such state institutions.
As Simon Norfolk points out in his introduction to the book one has to remember that the owners of these objects and occupants of these spaces are not typical old folks, but people who have in many cases committed heinous crimes. And yet then as Norfolk also acknowledges there is also a sense of disconnection between what these people may have done in the past, and what they are capable doing now. If one views a core purpose of the penal system as being to protect the public from dangerous individuals, it becomes hard to see what purpose is served by incarcerating those who are unable to carry out simple tasks without supervision and instruction. One particularly sad photograph for example shows a list of instructions to guide someone (presumably suffering from dementia) through the steps they need to take to use the toilet.
Still Life Killing Time asks a lot of awkward questions, and it does it in an understated, quiet way which makes the sensation of looking at it all the more uncomfortable. The resounding message is that whatever crimes prisoners may have committed the attitude that we should simply lock them up and throw away the key is clearly not the right one, morally or practically, and that it’s impossible to ignore the responsibility for a certain level of care that the state takes on when it incarcerates people.