It’s been a while since I’ve got my camera out and enjoyed a day just capturing something beautiful or interesting, so when I heard Shepton Mallet Prison was closing for good, I had to go! The prison closed as a working prison in 2013, but for the last few years has been open as a tourist attraction documenting its fascinating history, as well as offering tours and experiences such as escape rooms and even overnight stays.
Having spent most of my working life as a youth worker, some of which involved working in youth justice, I find some of the glamourising around prison and crime really uncomfortable. In my experience, working with young people in custody often meant working with very hurt and traumatised young people who had themselves often been victims of crime such as abuse or neglect.
That said, it’s important awareness is raised, stories are told and space is given to reflect, particularly around criminality and justice, and the urgent need for prison reform. There’s also something really powerful about entering a space you’re not normally allowed to enter. The vast majority of the population will never enter a prison, never see beyond its gates, walls and barbed wire. Stepping inside one and being able to wander, explore and visually document the space felt like a real privilege, a kind of ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity.
What I mostly felt walking around and taking photos, was sadness. Sadness at how much pain there has been in that place – the pain caused by the people in custody here, and the harm done to them through an ineffective and outdated system that does little to repair or rehabilitate. I also felt strangely hopeful, mostly through the little details of beauty I found in some of the decaying and neglected spaces, and through the powerful metaphor of a closed prison where no one is locked up and all are free. We all have parts of us that hold the potential for harm and evil, and we all have things in us that keep us bound and locked up. We all have ways in which we long to be free. These photos remind me of the ability we have to escape what binds us, to recover, restore and repair. You can see the full set here, and some of my favourites below.