Rhiannon Pickin reports on a recent conference in Budapest.
Today it is estimated that over 9 million people are imprisoned around the world. Prisons are used to either punish offenders or silence those who challenge state authority. This conference aimed to examine the experiences of those who currently are incarcerated or have previously been imprisoned so to provide a platform for research that questions the purpose of prisons as well as their effectiveness and impact on wider society. This is a subject that covers a whole range of different issues, therefore making it immensely suited to an interdisciplinary discussion. Organised by Inter-Disciplinary.net, the Experiencing Prison 7 Global Conference took place in Budapest in March 2016. The research featured at the event was presented by people from many different professional backgrounds and cultures. A few of the countries represented included America, Egypt, South Africa and the UK. The event was held at the Hilton Hotel in the city’s beautiful Castle District. It was centred on current research exploring prison environments and the experiences of prisoners from across the globe and throughout history.
Over the three days there were sessions that focussed on health inside prison, historical prisons, segregation and space, political prisoners, the experiences of women and children, dying inside prison, art and sculpture within prisons and life after prison. A few fascinating papers included current research on the effects of the UK smoking ban in prisons, given by Alison Spurgeon-Dickson and Julie Taylor of the University of Cumbria, and how art can be used within prisons to aid the skill development of prisoners, which was the focus of a paper given by Sophie Nickeas of the University of West London. The presentation given by Kori D. Novak, of Oxford University, on prison hospices and the increasingly aging prison population in American prisons was one that struck an emotional chord with many delegates. From a literature perspective, Sonia Farid, of Cairo University, presented her research on prison memoirs written by female Middle Eastern political prisoners. This brought in a valuable discussion about how these women perceived their own imprisonment and how they represented this through their writings. One of the conference organisers Diana Medlicott also gave a paper on the psychological torture that ensues from prolonged imprisonment from accounts written by death row inmates from the United States. The experiences of staff, prisoners and their families was also expanded upon in the penultimate session that examined the release of prisoners from prisons. This included a paper given by Tebogo Elliot Banda, of the University of South Africa, who spoke about the stigmatisation of ex-prisoners in modern day South Africa. My own contribution on the representation of history and emotions within museums of crime and punishment led to a lengthy discussion about the commodification of prison history and the ethical boundaries that museums should adhere to when presenting this to the public.
The conference concluded with a discussion on prison reform, why this is needed and suggestions for how this can be implemented. Whilst there was some contestation about how alternative methods of punishing criminals can be designed and enforced, the conference made it clear that prisons are complex places that create equally complex problems. The many failings of prison systems around the world dominated the conference proceedings. The humanity of prisoners was at the heart of the research atmosphere with an emphasis also placed on their reform. It provided an insight into prison experiences that were specific to certain counties but also contributed to a universal understanding of how people experience prison. The conversations and debates flowed well into the evenings, whether in the local restaurants, during evening excursions into the city, or in one or two of the recommended thermal baths! This conference experience will bring a more contemporary edge to my research, which partly examines how modern prison issues are confronted by museums of crime and punishment. Many thanks goes to the team at Inter-Disciplinary.net for organising the event.
More information about the ‘Experiencing Prison’ research thread can be found here: http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/probing-the-boundaries/persons/experiencing-prison/