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  • Eddie Hewitt

Prison Culture: Inside Reading Gaol

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

There are some buildings that maintain an ominous presence on the landscape long after they have served their original purpose. Reading Gaol, or HM Prison Reading if you prefer its harsher sounding name, was once a formidable place of punishment and correction, but it no longer seems such a dreadful eyesore or a site of terror.

The Artangel exhibition entrance, October 2016

Far from looking like a place of austerity, violence and other disorganised internal crime, Reading Gaol appears to be a fairly unremarkable, barely historic red brick building behind a plain red brick wall. The overall site is impressive enough. Not the kind of place you’d want to relax in for too long, perhaps, but somewhere to see, and somewhere to be seen. Not quite a palace of correction, but certainly part of the prison cultural heritage from Victorian Britain.

Battersea power station springs to mind as a similar historical edifice. There are no criminal links there, but the building is another important landmark, now being redeveloped and converted into a building of great architectural beauty with enhanced social value. Reading Gaol has been eyed up by the developers too, but I’m not sure it will be treated with quite the same level of fondness and respect.

The gaol is just a short stroll along Forbury Road from the railway station. How many of the prisoners came in by rail, one wonders? And how many had something sensational to read on the train? Reports of their own crimes and misdemeanours, perhaps, or transcripts of hideous travesties of justice in the courts.

A bouquet of barbed wire. OK, not quite a bouquet, but I just like the term

The prison was built in 1844, witnessed internal executions up until 1913, became a young persons remand centre in 1992, and was finally decommissioned in 2013. This wasn’t very long ago at all, and it’s no wonder that many of the fixtures and fittings are still in place. The last owners must have taken the carpets with them, though.

Since then, the building has been subtly redeveloped. They’ve painted over much of the rude graffiti, made the shower rooms less scary, somehow, and smartened up the barbed wire trimming around the perimeter. There are light, open staircases. High ceilings that seem to go up for miles. Contrasting primary colours embellishing the ironwork in a rather fetching blue-red-green colour scheme on the ground, first and second floors respectively. No longer the dreary, grey interior that one might expect.

High ceilings, a flawless setting, an aesthetic delight

Above all, the light streams in through the massive windows at both ends. Not quite vast open spaces, not quite a modern cathedral, but not oppressive by any means. And where are those dark and dingy cells we read about in De Profundis? I think enough’s been done to allow us to say the building has been sympathetically enhanced. This ex-prison is now a place of contemporary architectural beauty, transformed from its previous existence as a warehouse of broken lives, nasty behaviour, indifference and neglect.

Architectural beauty

So, the décor really doesn’t look that bad, now. What made it look, and feel, awful, were the inmates. And the prison warders. As an exhibition goer, able to wander in and out of any cell of my choice, and to climb up down any set of stairs that took my fancy, I found it quite a stirring environment. An uplifting experience. The company you keep in prison plays a big factor in this too. It must be rare to have the cellmate of your choice, but sometimes you get lucky I suppose.

Freedom to mount any stairs you like

Who would not be happy together in this cell?

Taking pride of place in the former chapel / basketball court is the original door to Oscar Wilde’s cell. It looks solid, secure, and ominous. The reverse of the door, visible from the inside of the cell, looks quite soul destroying. As for the cell itself, C2.2 now looks bright and airy with a shiny red replacement door and frame set against a pale yellow background. Just a little less soul-destroying, then, for the prisoners.

The original door to Wilde's cell, as he would have seen it from the inside in 1897

C2.2 The new entrance to Oscar Wilde's cell, as seen in 2016

So now we come to the main purpose of my visit. This autumn, Reading Gaol is hosting Inside: Artists and Writers In Reading Prison, an exhibition showcasing the output of a host of creative types, with the broad theme, unsurprisingly, of captivity and freedom. This event, staged by Artangel, forms part of the Reading 2016 Year of Culture programme. A fine aspiration, no doubt, but for me the displays were rather sparse and uninspiring.

For many visitors, Oscar Wilde is the star of the show. Wilde is aided and abetted by contributions from a few other big names, notably Ai Weiwei, the hugely popular Chinese political dissident conceptual artist, and Binyavanga Wainaina, the experimental Kenyan author. Beyond these stars, I was unfamiliar with the vast majority of the other contributors. And sad to say, I don’t think I’d go looking for their work again.

The intention was admirable: celebrating the concept of creative freedom despite the psychologically damaging effect of confinement. The triumph of the mind, or perhaps the soul, over physicality. But again, my mind was mostly not much in tune with most of the exhibitors'.

One of the few charming pieces of artwork on display, alas

The exhibition otherwise comprised a series of photographs of the water in the River Thames, other lack-lustre pictures, sombre portraits, abstract pieces, fortune-teller style beaded doorways, and a few wooden installations, none of which inspired any great emotions in me. A double page spread of Wilde’s writing, an extract from De Profundis, was the highlight of the literary content. Supported by a typed letter by Ai Weiwei.

For me, the real exhibition was the prison itself. An expression of contrasts, of space and confinement. Of structure – the structure of the building and how it must have reorganised the structures of the minds of the prisoners. And an expression of time. Of serving time and of the impact of the years on the infrastructure as well as the psyches of those who have passed through the prison and been obliged to stay.

Visiting prison: an uplifting experience

As a shrine to Oscar Wilde, the building has huge literary and sentimental value for me. This is a modern day presentation of the temporary home that once hosted one of the most brilliantly witty but also tragically profligate figures in cultural history. A place of absolute solitude for one who enjoyed the company of others so much. Somehow, Wilde survived the hardship and the desperation, and his writing even flourished inside.

My sentence was short, albeit delightful. The venue and the experience were inspiring. But as a working prison, it must have looked simply dreadful, and felt horribly lonely, for both the inmates and the prison warders. And the sentences must have felt interminable. In such conditions, I would surely have gone mad.

I feel compelled here to give Oscar the final words - from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

"I never saw sad men who looked

With such a wistful eye

Upon that little tent of blue

We prisoners called the sky,

And at every happy cloud that passed

In such strange freedom by".

© Eddie Hewitt 2016

See Oscar Wilde - In Profile by Connected Cultures here

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