Prisons in the Mind

Prison wherever you look. This edition published by Corgi Books 1970. Cover art by James Tormey.

Being trapped in a prison is very destructive to the human spirit.  No matter how extensive the boundaries of the prison might be, the very idea that one cannot go beyond those barriers presents an obstacle to a person’s endeavours – and hopes.  Release is all that can be wished for.

When incarceration is intended as a form of punishment in itself, then such damaging feelings can be part of the purpose of the prison, but where the overall aim is to isolate people from others or simply to keep an eye on them and ensure they are kept under control – as in an internment camp – then they can be an extremely negative consequence of the process of imprisonment.

Open prisons, where inmates are kept under minimal supervision and security and allowed a limited amount of freedom for specific purposes, can be particularly effective as a means of rehabilitation.  But where the boundaries still exist, in one form or another, the desire for complete freedom will always persist.  In the 1967 television series The Prisoner, the aim of destroying the individualism of Patrick McGoohan’s main protagonist is clear throughout, despite his ability to roam freely through the Village and to conduct a fairly comfortable lifestyle alongside its many other inhabitants.

We see a similarly functioning, though far less idyllic, society trapped within clear boundaries in the 2014 film The Maze Runner, where those who live in the Glade, surrounded by an ever-changing and threatening labyrinth, believe they are in a sort of prison and many ache to escape.  Though the true reason for their imprisonment turns out to be rather different to what they expected.

James White’s 1965 novel Open Prison, which was shortlisted for a Nebula Award, describes the conflicting views that prisoners may feel in a prison which is, in just about any sense, “open”.  During a long-running interstellar war against an alien race, human prisoners-of-war are dealt with in an entirely practical way – they are deposited on an Earth-like planet, which is utterly unsuitable for habitation by the alien foe, with minimal material supplies and left to fend for themselves.  A single orbiting guardship watches for the unlikely event that anyone should find a means to escape.

As the years pass, two opposing views develop among the POWs.  Some adopt the traditional view that it is the duty of all officers to escape and return to their units, come what may.  But on the other hand, life on the planet is far from intolerable once established communities are flourishing, and the “contention that the place was escape-proof and that the prisoners should accept that fact was also, on the surface, eminently sane and logical.”  Conflict between the two groups is inevitable.

The opposing thought processes are clear.  How could the freedom of an entire planet be considered a prison, especially when the inhabitants can develop their society as they wish and have children who will never have known a different way of life?  But the mere fact of an ultimate restriction on movement, when there is an over-riding urge to escape, is sufficient to create a sense of detention.

Could we believe that imprisonment, in whatever form it may take, is all in the mind?  If so, mere confinement, without a means of ready escape, may always represent the most severe prison.  One wonders how an astronaut in a space capsule would view this, since surely that must feel like the most restricted environment imaginable.  In his 2005 book Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, Andrew Smith reported his conversation with Dick Gordon, the pilot of Gemini 11 and command module pilot of Apollo 12, when Smith suggested how unpleasant the confined space of a tiny capsule would be.  Gordon looked at Smith “with mild disbelief” and observed: “Well, I don’t know…you’ve got the whole Universe outside your window.”  Perhaps it’s all a question of attitude.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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