1280Px Panopticon
The works of Jeremy Bentham vol. IV, 172-3, 'Progetto di Panopticon', 1791

I had completed my security training and was about to start working—I thought. The distance between me getting accepted for the job as a teacher in HMP X [1] and starting it, became months rather than the usual weeks. I was about to learn how plastic and surreal time can be when it comes up against the prison and how strange space, and in my case learning spaces, become when situated within a prison.

The night before I was to go to X, I looked on Google Maps for the best way to get from the train station to the prison, and I had real difficulties locating the destination. The only thing on the map that corresponded with the post code was what looked like a nice green park. It was only after reading other ‘How to get here’ advice on the Scottish Prison Services’ website, that I realised that the building had been blanked out on the map. In my mind, I had thought that Google Maps represented a real image of what was on the ground, a digital photograph not meddled with in any way.

This distortion of the birds-eye view of the world—held by the white, privileged, Christian, god-like, man, architect—and the extended power this view possesses when it is hidden, instantly interested me, especially as I was soon to walk up to the prison walls, experiencing what urban philosopher Jane Jacobs calls ‘The eyes on the street’.

‘Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) remains one of the most influential books in the history of American city planning. It introduces terms like ‘social capital’, ‘mixed primary uses’, and ‘eyes on the street’, which became popular in urban design, sociology, and other fields. Jacobs painted a devastating picture of the entire profession of city planning, labelling it a pseudoscience. This led to angry responses from various rich and powerful men. Jacobs was criticized as a ‘militant dame’ and a ‘housewife’: an amateur who had no right to interfere with an established discipline.’ [2] 

Jacobs applied her concept to urban landscapes, taking a horizontal approach to architecture, a discipline usually dealt with vertically. Although primarily known as an urban theorist, you can draw parallels between Jacobs’ insights into city design and carceral design. It matters greatly that Jacobs walked and cycled a lot, a choice of transport that meant she knew her environment horizontally, and knew the pace of a place not from a car—the mode of transport so much of America/modern planning centres around—or from a vertical vantage point, the blue print. ‘Jacobs argues that modernist urban planning rejects the city, because it rejects human beings living in a community characterised by layered complexity and seeming chaos’ (emphasis added). Complexity and chaos are both space/time events that prison design tries to minimise. ‘The modernist planners used deductive reasoning to find principles by which to plan cities.’ These policies, Jacobs claims, destroy communities and innovative economies by creating isolated, unnatural urban spaces. In their place she advocates ‘four generators of diversity’ that ‘create effective economic pools of use’ [3] outlined in The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

If this is a check list of what makes us human and happy when living in close proximity to each other, i.e. in a city or in a prison, carceral designers are continuously constructing a very difficult day-to-day life for both the watched and the watchers.

In this context it also interesting to look at the way prisons are gradually moving out of city centres, mostly due to an increasing (prison) population and the price of land in inner cities. Prisons were traditionally built in close proximity to our fellow beings, the court house and the gallows. In contrast, the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, which is housed in a sky scraper and outwardly not visibly a prison, functions quite differently in the urban fabric. The old brushing up against the new. The vertical used as a razor wire, rather than the circular gaze, keeping (most) prisoners in. Due to safety concerns, for staff and prisoners in case of fire or similar, prisons in the UK are built in a horizontal fashion, taking up a lot valuable space. Using gravity as an extra guard is both smart and sinister, and possibly something we will see more of in the future.

The mismatch between the birds-eye view and what’s on the ground, between map and reality, is quite disconcerting. I can understand that for safety reasons a prison plan can’t be handed over to members of the public, but to realise that the Google Map of the world had been altered made me wonder where else and how often this happens. I presumed military bases, and maybe power stations, but what else? Schools, hospitals, Number 10? My house? Or maybe looking over my shoulder, thinking Big Brother is sitting in a central watchtower, had made me overly suspicious?

Unlike Indian, Australian, and Malaysian powers (among others), the UK government doesn’t seem to be in ‘official contact’ with Google Maps and is thus more generous with showing ‘reality’ on maps than some other countries. The severity of the classifications of sites that need obfuscating seems to be diminishing as well. Now, as I am writing this, more information is available through Google than two years ago, and when I now re-visit the site that was ‘a nice green park’, there’s a fairly full image of the prison there, which for the purposes of this text is very annoying. It’s also possible that there are a lot more map providers than there used to be, and they might or might not be as keen to enter into discussions with states. It is also strange to think that Google, a commercial entity, is ‘having talks’ with governments, and that foreign policy, and domestic too, is influenced by these communications. To illustrate my point here is a section of the US-Mexico border: 

Tex Enlarge
(31°14'51.0"N 105°50'15.7"W) United States–Mexico border in Hudspeth County, Texas. An approximately 15-mile stretch of the Rio Grande intentionally distorted in Google Maps. Screenshot: 13:54, 07/03/2018

‘Some locations on free, publicly viewable satellite map services have missing, incomplete, or unclear map data. In some cases, these regions have been intentionally digitally obscured or blurred. Westchester County, New York, for example, has asked Google to blur potential terror targets (such as an amusement park, a beach, and parking lots) from its satellite imagery.

In some cases, censorship of certain sites has been removed. When Google Maps was launched, images of the White House and United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. were blurred out; current versions of Google Maps and Google Earth show these sites uncensored, but with out-of-date imagery.’ [4]

As an aside, I find it interesting that the entire continent of Antarctica is in very low resolution with only small patches of high resolution imagery (70°10’04.0”S 87°43’57.5”E).


In the end I made it to HMP X, full of ideas about how to make my students engage with Pamuk and Galloway. I was quickly introduced to staff and asked if I knew anything about computers. My class had been cancelled but there was an IT class, beginners Excel, and could I please run that? And did I by any chance play an instrument, enjoy music or actually just possess a pair of ears? If so, could I run the guitar class back to back with the computer one?

After a two-hour lunch break when I couldn’t leave the building, let alone open a window, or indeed go anywhere beyond the 50 square metres the educational unit is made up of, I was wondering if my English class would ever happen. Instead, I escorted one of my colleagues down to the multi-faith room, which doubles up as a cooking class facility, one wall lined with ovens, where we set up the afternoon knitting class.

HMP X is a mixed prison, but only staff are allowed to meet with both the men and the women. Only on the very popular committees (for a variety of things like Theatre production, Prison Radio, the Library, Liaison with the SPS, etc.) are the sentenced genders allowed to come into view of each other. I am not very good at the woollen crafts, and handing out scissors and needles to a circle of women all convicted of serious crimes didn’t help my levels of concentration. I couldn’t contribute any expertise—I think I was more of a welcome distraction than anything else. The women found it hilarious that I, a man, was knitting, and they found my crocheting attempts ridiculous, especially as I was trying to talk about masculine fishermen of yore and, I don’t know, the Gordian knot, (echoing Bentham from above ‘the Gordian knot of the Poor-Laws not cut, but untied—all by a simple idea in Architecture’). And maybe realising that solving the knots in our social fabric (or, in this case, tartan)—the knit and purl of people on the inside and people on the outside—was maybe too complicated to unravel, at least by an idea in Architecture.

‘…in the Anatolian interior at Gordium, the old capital of the Phrygian kings, there occurred the famous episode of the ‘cutting of the Gordian knot.’ The old prophecy was that whoever unloosed the knot or fastening of an ancient chariot would rule Asia. Alexander [the Great] cut it instead [… and] solved the problem by abolishing it.’ [5]

‘Turn him to any cause of policy / The Gordian knot of it he will unloose / Familiar as his garter; that, when he speaks / The air, a charter’d libertine, is still / And the mute wonder lurketh in men’s ears,’… [6]  

Once the class was over I gathered and triple-counted the sharp implements and locked them into a toolbox adorned with a padlock. This was the first time I was entrusted to turn a key, but it wouldn’t be the last. And every time would be just as nerve-wracking. That marked the end of my first working day. The weeks proceeded just as unpredictably.

HMP X is both a ‘top end’ prison and a local one. [7] This means that the inmates who are at the end of their sometimes very long sentence come to X which will be their last prison before reintegration into society. These men, mostly, will have seen a fair few different prisons on their journey through the system. They are in general oddly hardened, disappointed and easy to deal with. They have little to prove, and a lot to lose. They have a release date and unless their fear of the outside world overrides their wish for freedom, they won’t do anything to risk leaving X for another prison. The SPS hopes to put a smile on the people in their care (from a policy document): 

Screen Shot 2018 03 25 At 12 19 59 Enlarge
Credit Martin Cathcart Froden

At the other end of the spectrum are people who have been sentenced to a shorter stay. They will mostly be sent to whatever prison is closest to their home post code, to make it easy for relatives to visit, and maybe to make the already unfamiliar experience a little less so for those new to prison life. This mix means that the same guy who punched a bouncer in the local pub will sit next to someone at the end of their 22-year sentence. There is also an automatic age-difference—if you’ve been in even for ‘just’ ten years for a serious crime, you will be at least in your mid-20s, and might have matured as a person. If X is your first prison for your first crime, you might well be a lot younger and more impressionable, possibly keen to show the others who you are, and your potential. The pressure of entering prison is unimaginable to me. And once in, it seems to be a difficult circle to break. Young Offenders (YO’s) are often thought of as coming in and out of prison as if they were stuck in revolving doors. [8] 

Screen Shot 2018 03 25 At 12 20 22 Enlarge
Credit Martin Cathcart Froden

Some days I would teach a class with a mix of men. To my left, a man with pretty serious dyslexia (dvslexia, dsslaxya, dslaixiya?), which I’m not trained to deal with, but obviously did my best to help. Next to him, a man who was doing his last module in Philosophy through the Open University and who would ask me if I could help conjugate Latin verbs: durare, duravi, duratus.

Next to him, an obviously depressed man, highlighted by the fact that he had no belt in his trousers, but a piece of string, (there are no belts, due to the risk of strangulation, self or other, but most people wear track suit bottoms, or at least jeans that fit in a way that you don’t need a belt). He only wanted to do sheet after sheet of wordsearch, but could never seem to find all the words. At least he might have acquired some difficult-to-use knowledge:

Shark species:

Angel shark (Squatina squatina)
Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus)
Blue shark (Prionace glauca)
Common smooth-hound (Mustelus mustelus)
Nursehound (Scyliorhinus stellaris)
Porbeagle (Lamna nasus)
Small-spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula)
Spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthus)

And next to him, a man who had no inclination to do any work, but happily asked questions like, ‘Why did the second world war start? Why did it end? Can I go to the toilet? What will happen to the pound as a currency if we vote for independence? Who do you rate more, Zlatan or Larsson?’

All this, plus another couple of voices and constant requests to photocopy, which took place in a different room. Because I was from the outside I was expected to know not just my thing, but everything. Not just how to teach, but to possess the knowledge of an oracle. It was a bit like a high-pressure University Challenge with lots of Jeremy Paxmans. Some with tattooed forearms the size of my thighs.  


I was in HMP X around the time of the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, and as prisoners are not allowed to vote, they were voting vicariously through me. There were some fascinating, enlightening conversations thanks both to the referendum, and to the fact that the prisoners had neglected democracy, solely based on a sentencing date. I found this quite jarring. Especially for a decision that would affect the whole country, and one that would have effects on them once they were out, regardless of how long their sentences were.

‘The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly ruled that banning most prisoners from voting is a breach of their human rights. Although the UK has promised to abide by the Court’s decisions, nobody can force Parliament to change the law on prisoner votes. The stalemate looks likely to continue for some time, but no compensation has ever been paid to a prisoner denied the vote. The European Court of Human Rights has now ruled on four occasions that the UK is violating prisoners’ rights by banning almost all of them from voting. The UK has not yet changed the law in response to these judgments, which go back over a decade.’ [9]

How can you ask a person to reintegrate quickly, stop using the revolving doors, if one of the basic rights of society, the freedom to vote, has been denied? How can you ask a person to trust that society wants what’s best for them, when society doesn’t want to hear their voice? What is the purpose of prison? Manifold and simple at the same time, it seems.


Originally from Sweden, Martin Cathcart Froden has lived in Canada, Israel, Argentina, almost Finland and London. He won the 2015 Dundee International Book Prize with ‘Devil take the Hindmost’. He is the 2017/18 National Trust Scotland Poet-in-Residence, and is represented by Johnson&Alcock literary agents. He is working towards a doctorate in Creative Writing / Criminology / Architecture in Glasgow where he lives with his wife and three weans.

[1] Name has been anonymised

[2] Gratz, Roberta Brandes (July 4, 1026). “The Genius of Jane Jacobs”. The Nation. 303 (1): 16–17. Retrieved 27 June 2016. / 2. Alexiou, Jane Jacobs (2006), p. 76. / 3. Alexiou, Jane Jacobs (2006), pp. 83–90.

[3] https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/home/uk-architects-are-94-per-cent-white/8633432.article

[4] “Jane Jacobs’ Radical Legacy”. Peter Dreier. 2006.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…

[6] www.britannica.com/place/ancient-Greece/The-4th-century#ref298258

[7] ShakespeareHenry V, Act 1 Scene 1.

[8] https://dynamicweb.com/company/blog/returning-customers-generate-growth

[9] Full Fact