These thoughts came to me after a bout of spontaneity which led me to attempt to get my hands on a souvenir of one of my childhood favourites – a crystal from the brilliant (in my opinion) television programme Crystal Maze. Obviously having never had the opportunity to take part in the programme, neither being convinced that anyone will revive it (much to my displeasure) I decided that the consolation prize given to each participant would be an excellent potential purchase.
Ebay returned no hits, merely offering the chance to buy a board game and numerous puzzle adventure books – all of which I had as a child. According to Wikipedia there were 83 episodes with 6 people per team, so there should be over 500 ‘official’ crystals out there, but no one’s selling. Gutted isn’t the word. However, I soon appeased myself by moving onto Blue Peter Badges…
Indeed this practice could well be explained by the twelfth week of my broken leg immobilisation – any kind of distraction seems to make the recovery more bearable. However, it is no doubt true that there are many people whose legitimate pastime consists of acquiring items such as old toys, artwork and war-related paraphernalia amongst many other location- or subject-specific collectables. This also led me to consider that there seems to be a huge and easily marketable body of memorabilia associated with prisons.
Again using that popular online auction site, today’s search presented me with 131 items in the Prison Memorabilia category. Alongside the create-your-own-mugshots and mousemats with the HMP logo, browsers are invited to purchase a sliver of prison life such as towels and shirts from Horfield Prison or a tie pin from HMP Kennet. Other offerings vary from medals given to prison officers to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee to a Cell Fire Safety Plaque Sign. Sellers play on the celebrity status of certain prisoners, selling photographs and shirts signed by such people as the Kray twins. At the current moment, an oil painting purported to be done by Ronnie Kray has attracted bids of £51 with just over an hour of the auction remaining.
Last week, the BBC reported that Former MSP Tommy Sheridan has said he is keeping his electronic tag as a “wee souvenir” of his time as a prisoner. I can see why prisoners themselves might hold onto items, possibly as a stark reminder to their time in prison as a motivation for their personal change. I can also understand the celebrity collectables culture and this might explain the penchant for owning items belonging to those people. But what of an everyday item such as an old phone card or standard issue lighter, used by the average prisoner?
Paul Wright (2000) explained how at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Canon City, Colorado, a prison museum displays prison memorabilia from the past and sells handicrafts made by today’s prisoners. Wilson (2008) describes the culture of ‘dark tourism’ where people desire experiences of spaces of death, disaster or incarceration for leisure purposes. I find it intriguing that society has produced a commodification of spaces and items associated with prison, considering the fundamental tenant of prison – which surely should detract anyone from ever wanting to go there or be associated with anything to do with imprisonment. However, like the Crystal Maze crystal, I suspect that the lack of access for most people, combined with the largely invisible nature of the prison altogether increases the purchase appeal. And for me, as much as I was tempted, I resisted the urge to bid on a framed Ronnie Kray prison shirt. The frame was ugly…
Wilson, J. (2008) Prison. Cultural Memory and Dark Tourism. New York: Peter Lang.
Wright, P. (2000) The Cultural Commodification of Prisons, Social Justice 27:15-21.