Cell In The City

On a drizzly Friday afternoon in Coventry, shoppers were offered an unusual break from their trips to Argos and Primark - a chance to go to prison.

For the past six years, the charity Rideout has planted a replica jail cell in public spaces across the UK. From Cheltenham to Wolverhampton, the GOTOJAIL exhibition has worked to increase public understanding about prison life, and to encourage debate about the purpose of locking people up and the conditions of our jails.

The cell is not empty. It is usually occupied by two people in prison-issue clothing, who perch on the bunk bed. Visitors are encouraged to engage with them, asking questions about their backgrounds, surroundings and prison experiences. The cellmates are actors, who also happen to be former prisoners. Over 4,000 people have visited the exhibition since it started running.

Saul Hewish, Rideout’s co-director, says the public response has been “overwhelmingly positive”.

“Unless you’ve been to prison or worked there, it’s a world that’s completely hidden,” he said. “This just adds to the stigma and mythology around jails and around the people in them. The project aims to counter this by bringing a cell into the city centre and by telling stories that aren’t sensationalist, but are as close to reality as possible.

“What I’ve been most surprised at is the amount of people who have actually thanked me for the opportunity to visit and ‘get inside’ prison life"

When the exhibition first opened the cell only had one occupant. Now, reflecting increased overcrowding in the real estate, it has two. On the day PET visited GOTOJAIL in Coventry, the cell was manned by Akiel and Danny , who played characters named ‘Tony’ and ‘Neil’. Both have worked as freelance actors since the end of their sentences.

"My intention is to challenge their judgement – giving them layers to the circumstances that lead to prison.”

Danny says part of his role is to gently challenge the views of people coming into the space.

“You get people coming in saying “oh this is nice; this is easy”, he said. “I leave them talking a little for while and then I say “excuse me” and go and shut the door. When you shut the door and the flap it completely changes the atmosphere. That’s when you see people begin to panic - often they need to get out straight away...a lot of people end up being sympathetic, but it’s only through the stories we tell - talking about what we have to cope with, what obstacles we’ve faced, how we’ve found help or not found help.”

For some guests, the experience is very close to home, said Akiel. “A few days ago a man came in who had recently been to prison himself. He started looking around the space very carefully and noticed my cell mate’s tobacco. Although he said he’d been a non-smoker since his release he immediately asked for some ‘burn’, sat down and started rolling. Straight away he was back to prison language and prison life.”

In developing his character’s back story – that of a recovering alcoholic who has assaulted a man after witnessing a sexual assault – Akiel said he wanted to create a story that was “nuanced” and “thought provoking”. “People will come with a degree of judgement – saying you’re violent, you’re this, you’re that. My intention is to challenge their judgement – giving them layers to the circumstances that lead to prison.”

Akiel now works as a storyteller in schools, where he shares tales of his prison journey alongside stories from West Africa. While he was in prison, PET funded him to take a course in counselling, after which he was trained as a Listener for the Samaritans. 

Akiel said the course helped to change his experience of prison and the way he dealt with his own problems. “It made me aware of the games we play; of manipulation; of the complicated way that prison can affect your mind and emotional state,” he said.