“Outside the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always midnight in one’s heart.” Oscar Wilde, de Profundis, 1897
People were moving around the building as if it were an ancient site, a relic of times long past. Tentatively they stepped into the tiny cells, their barred windows raised to a height designed to deprive. Metal bunks, the squeak of their springs still echoing in the silence of long nights past; a painted table, names etched into the surface, reminders of identities transformed into numbers; and toilets tucked behind waist-high partitions separating toothbrushes and washing-up from another’s piss and shit.
“When one is in prison, the most important thing is the door.” Robert Bresson
Jean-Michel Pancin – the original door to Oscar Wilde’s cell C.3.3.
The clank of bolts and metal doors slamming open and shut, open and shut is replaced by absorbed voices of visitors wandering the wings, dipping in and out of cells in a new form of free-flow. Which one was Oscar Wilde’s? Cell C.3.3. now Cell C.2.2. on the second floor, no different from the rest. On the ground floor below, looking up out of wooden cabinets, mugshots of the others who shared his time with him, breathing the same thick air.
This is the now-closed Reading Prison, home to the site-specific INSIDE exhibition commissioned and produced by the innovative ArtAngel and to which artists and writers from all over the world were invited to submit work. Reading Gaol was a state of the art Victorian prison opened in 1844 its cruciform architecture designed to move the inmates out of dormitories and into the isolation of individual cells. Locked in for up to 23 hours a day there was to be no contact with other prisoners. This was to be the end of prisons as schools of crime, part of a progressive mission to not solely lock up prisoners but also to reform and improve them.
Steve McQueen, gold-plated mosquito net
From the raised viewpoints of our contemporary thinking we look back at Victorian institutions as belonging to a distant history, times that were largely more barbaric, inhumane and backward than ours today. And yet, until 2013 Reading Prison was in full operation, latterly as a Young Offenders Institution, but often with two, sometimes three, 18-21 year olds sharing the space specifically designed for one. All around the UK there are others still in operation except now they are plagued with the additional elements of ever-increasing overcrowding, underfunding, understaffing, drugs, suicides and violence.
Relief stone-carving project, HMYOI Reading, 2004
Just back in 2004 I wandered these corridors myself meeting the young men who, with hammers and chisels and blocks of stone, participated in one of our Learning to Learn through the Arts Scheme 5-week projects. I have been into so many prisons, they have never fazed me and yet, each time I am struck by the same sense of utter illogic, injustice and tragic waste, human waste. We need prisons, of course we do, but as they are, how can they possibly really help these people? They are just making things worse.
Here in Reading Prison art works replace prisoners as artists strive to find meaning in the dark corners of our society where at times there seems to be none. Our thinking has got stuck with devastating results and what Oscar Wilde could articulate then, so many prisoners still feel but can’t express: “In the great prison where I was then incarcerated, I was merely the figure and the letter of a little cell in a long gallery, one of a thousand lifeless numbers as of a thousand lifeless lives.” Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, 79812