Mass observation behind bars: building collections with the prisoner community

Awake 7am. Up at 7.30. Toilet, wash, breakfast (cornflakes). 8.05 Door open. Hot shower, book papers for weekend, Lock-up 8.45. Morning in cell, cards, crossword. Paper came early, check sport. Lunch 12 noon, chicken roll, soup, banana…

In 1937 Mass Observation sought to capture the thoughts, experiences and observations of people on the 12th May, the day of the Kings Coronation. The resulting diaries provide a wonderful glimpse of life across the UK on this day. Each year we continue our national call for 12th May day diaries. Submitted electronically to our Archive, they record the everyday of 21st Century Britain.

In 2013 the Mass Observation Project, went behind the bars of Lewes Prison as part of our 12 May project. This paper intends to present findings from our recent creative writing activities with men at Lewes and our wider national project to engage prisoners in their writing of the everyday for our 12th May Day Diary archive collection.

The roots of Mass Observation are in capturing the voice of the ‘ordinary’ person and for the 12 May project we continue to increase our wider engagement of people to participate; schools, community groups, disability charities and prisoners. Engagement with these groups involves greater partnership work; building trust and understanding of our purpose for collecting. It also challenges our role in the preservation, access and use of these writings.

Diaries from the prison community provide a unique insight to everyday life Britain and enhance the diversity and value of our collection for research and teaching. As a result of our initial work, a partnership has grown with academics at the University of Sussex from Criminology, Sociology and English and in June 2014 we embark on a new research project at Lewes. This will provide access to prisoners’ individual understandings of their experiences and contribute to sociological understanding of prison and everyday life.

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