At home in a prison cell?

We use the word ‘home’ a lot. But what do we mean by it?

Perhaps a good way to find this out is to consider one of the most unhomely places many of us could think of: prison.

What makes prisons so much unlike homes?  In other words: in what ways could a prisoner create a little more sense of homeliness for themselves?

Not surprisingly, it might help when inmates are allowed to furnish and decorate their own cells. If those spending their days imprisoned can take familiar objects from home, such as photographs, letters or their own music, or even just decide how often they wash their sheets, their cell already becomes a little bit more their own place.

But there may be something more basic about imprisonment. It is not just that a prisoner is not supposed to get away. It is not just that they haven’t chosen to be in the place where they are now. It is the fact that there is only one lock to their room.

This, of course, is a lock that works from the outside of their cell. What a guard might decide to do, is give their prisoner the key to a second lock. This key works not from the outside, but from the inside of their door.  For a prison is not just a prison because other people lock you in. It is also a prison because you cannot lock other people out.

If a prisoner were to have control over when they are disturbed and who enters their cell, they might, I expect, already feel a little more at home. It would make their ‘home’ a place where some peace of mind might be possible – some being off their guard (!).

So besides familiarity and recognition, the home also means safety. It is their peace and safety that prisoners perhaps have most to worry about. And besides controlling things (the wallpaper and the music you play), it also means controlling people.

I am using the cell as an example here, but many people in this world really do have to make do with a prison cell as their home. And many more people do not live in official prisons, but nevertheless live in very prison-like circumstances. For example those workers, often immigrants, often underpaid, who are forced to live with their employer. And also many of those living in a zone of war, whether they are soldiers or citizens or rebels (the distinctions are blurred anyway). For them, a lock on their door to which they keep the only key, would make a huge difference.

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