The shift of the penal gaze; From sites to bodies.

I’m fascinated by trauma tourism, a concept that is routed in the politics of pain, spectatorship and consumerism. For those of you who are watching this concept develop, and also helping me in theory building, you’ll know that my ideas of trauma tourism have stemmed from space in the criminal justice sector as someone with lived experience of imprisonment, and within the disciple of criminology and an undergrad and postgrad student. My earlier thoughts on trauma tourism can be found in previous blogs on this site for new readers of seek more context.

In brief, there were two main drivers that led to my intense interrogation of wielding the pain and trauma of those who have experienced imprisonment. First it was through a sheer frustration born from seeing systems and organisations capitalise on trauma stories with no lasting benefit to those enticed with sharing their pain. Secondly, it was through the popular culture of prison based publications which capitalise on sensationalism and narrating other people’s pain.  

The ethic of this caused me discomfort. Anyone who knows about prisons knows they are places bound by the use of power. Often abusive power. Take for instance Doctor Amanda Brown whose professional role as a GP in a women’s prison resulted in The Prison Doctor publication. Brown openly disclosed confidential medical information, gained through her professional capacity, for the world to read. Supposedly a name change in the interest of anonymity redresses the sheer abandonment of her professional code of ethics. Why? Because the subject was a prisoner.

As I have been actively thinking through trauma tourism, what it is, how to define it, how is it relevant and who perpetrates it, lots of reading recommendations around trauma, ethics, power and prison came flooding my way. I picked up The Culture of Punishment by Michelle Brown today and read the Prison Tourism chapter. Drawing parallels from this work seems like a good starting point in helping to defining trauma tourism. Definitions of trauma and tourism already exist, and joining trauma and tourism together paints a fairly accurate picture of what it is. The act of moving trauma depictions, whether it be from prison to mainstream through books or through lived experienced story telling. But this doesn’t get to the root of power, ethics or consequence. So this is not enough. Who has the power to elicit trauma stories, who consents and how is that consent sought, and who is helped and harmed in the process? These are the complex questions I continuously battle with. There was a small break-through today. Not all of these questions have been answered but I think I’ve rooted trauma tourism as an expansion of prison tourism. In doing so, found more questions than answers!!!

Empty Spaces

Brown (2009) discusses two different dimensions of prison tourism. The tourism of former prisons which mirror museums and ‘incarceration live’ which offer tours in prisons where prisoners are currently held. These two dimensions of prison tourism I think, importantly underpin the development of trauma tourism.

Undoubtedly, prison tourism on its own raises ethical and moral question. Many of which Brown (2009) addresses. The aim here isn’t to critique prison tourism (I do do that too, just not here!) but to map out progression from prison tourism to trauma tourism.

Touring old prisons ultimately is about exploring the empty space and architecture of penal sites. The important thing to note here is the emptiness of the sites. Brown (2009, p.106) notes “prison tours are about the practical concrete details as well as the most sensational aspects of incarceration”.  Providing the reader with examples of prison Halloween tours where actors are enlisted to portray ‘mentally ill’ prisoners for tourist entertainment. In the absence of real prisoner presence. In essence, these tours provide space where people can ‘look at’ prisons without a look back.

‘Incarceration live’ tourism adopts a similar approach to showcasing the space and architecture of penal sites but includes the display of prisoners. Making it that bit more real, than empty penal sites. Brown (2009, p.116) indicates that visitors “are given firm instructions, often justified in frightening ways, to stay on the opposite side of the wall as inmates and to avoid eye or verbal contact”. Notably, prisoners being in the location but being rendered silent and invisible only exacerbates these tours as a means to look at pain and misery and slightly increases the chances of the penal spectator being looked back at.

Both of this prison tour contexts give rise to power, imagination and dominance. The popularity of them gives rise to shaping consumerism. What is supplied is demanded. Significantly, the tours underpinned by geographical space and architecture with the added opportunity to glimpse at a prisoner by avoid eye contact has resulted in further demand for access. This is where trauma tourism sits, where access to penal space has evolved into unconsented access to penal lives. Where penal sites are no longer the only places of tourism, but the bodies of those who have been denied engagement through incarceration live tours. Where just looking wasn’t enough.

The ever increasing prison based publications authored by those who have held profession positions of power within prisons, sits within the realms of incarceration live tourism by proxy. Hindered by lack of access in to UK prisons, the penal spectators become the penal workers who make a side buck by selling the trauma of other people. With sensitive and confidential information they are privy to as a core part of keep people safe. Where access to prison is denied, these publications become the sites of tourism, filled with trauma content as opposed to traditional prison tourism where empty penal sites are explored.

Take for example Samworth (2019) who left the prison service and then capitalised of the trauma he had witnessed in his professional role. In the knowledge of that fact that prison tourism is restricted in the UK, Samworth (2019) utilised his access to penal space and transformed prison tourism into trauma tourism by virtue of a publication ridden with sensationalist, fictional and exaggerated accounts of the traumatised penal body. In contrast to prison tourism, where penal space is experienced. Samworth provides a publication where the ‘creatures’ and ‘twats’ behind bars can have their trauma toured by the turning of every page. This is a shift away from the space of the penal system to a focus on the gaze of the penal body.

Similarly, Dr Amanda Brown sensationalised her GP career in prison when opting for a publication title of ‘The Prison Doctor; My time inside Britain’s most notorious jails’. Setting the scene of penal space but providing content on the penal bodies. Dr Brown discloses imprisoned patients tendencies to self-harm, their medications and their diseases. This book became a Sunday Times best seller and became replicated by another penal worker, this time a prison teacher. In a rebranded book launch earlier this year Skinner’s 2019 publication ‘Jailbirlds; Lessons from a women’s prison’ became ‘The Prison Teacher; My time inside Britain’s most notorious jails’. With the new book face almost exactly replicating Amanda Brown’s book. Pertinent here is that book content had no changes, only to title and book face changed. In recognition of the successes of Amanda Brown’s trauma tourism publication, replication of this has already began to continue to meet consumer demand of access to penal bodies.

On the flip side to publications providing access to penal space and trauma, which notably offer the reader at look at penal bodies being narrated by people they don’t belong to, without giving space for their characters to look back. Is the wielding of trauma across the CJS through the utilisation of lived experienced stories. Where prison tourism creates an absence of engagement, trauma tourism relies on it. Whether that be through eliciting unconsented information through professional roles of power or through actively seeking out trauma stories to share in blogs, on websites or at conferences. It can be seen as an act of resistance to a system for those with lived experience to share the sheer environments in which they have been forced to endure in the name of justice. As already noted, access to UK prisons as sites of ‘live incarceration’ tourism is very rare. What’s the next best thing, enlisting those who are generally looked at to tell us all about the trauma of prison when they get out? Literally, putting trauma stories on tour. Often under the pretence of ‘awareness raising’ or ‘change influencing’. We (criminalised bodies) have not only come from penal spaces of tourism, our whole bodies as become penal bodies of tourism, and then we are actually put out on tour with our trauma. We become the tourists.

As trauma studies show “systemic trauma is the repeated, ongoing violation, exploitation, dismissal of, and/or deprivation of groups of people” (Haines, 2019). As such, the exploitation of penal bodies in pursuits to raise awareness of our suffering by pleading to a moral consciousness actually form a part of the systemic trauma we face. Prison tourism violates us, trauma tourism publications exploit and violate us. Touring our trauma under misguided and false pretence, exploits us.

Brown (2009) states we must not only connect visitors (tourists) to experiences and conditions of imprisonment but also to “their own complicity in current penal practices and their own agency in altering those trajectories”. It isn’t quite good enough to take a standpoint of ignorance when ‘trauma-informed’ campaigns actually collude with systemic trauma. It isn’t quite good enough to say ‘it’s just a book’ or ‘harmful intent’ wasn’t there. We all know the impact of stigma, if we are consuming the publications full of stigmatising trauma discourse from the comfort of our mortgaged homes, while positioning ourselves as advocates for equality. We aren’t really understanding how inequality is sustained, and our own complicity in the maintenance of privilege.

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