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Top bunk, bottom bunk: cellsharing in prisons

The politics involved in cell-sharing reach into the most personal parts of prisoners’ lives and are highly determinate of their experiences of imprisonment. While there is a small amount of research on the impact of cell-sharing on personal wellbeing and prison quality, much ...

Published onJul 14, 2021
Top bunk, bottom bunk: cellsharing in prisons


The politics involved in cell-sharing reach into the most personal parts of prisoners’ lives and are highly determinate of their experiences of imprisonment. While there is a small amount of research on the impact of cell-sharing on personal wellbeing and prison quality, much less has been written about the daily dynamics and significance of negotiating shared space under conditions of coercion. In this paper, based on in-depth research undertaken in England & Wales, we explore the experience of cell-sharing and how dynamics in the cell matter both intimately and socially. Essentially, we locate the cell as one of the primary sites of ‘where the action is’ in prisons, and where matters of safety, dignity and abjection are of particular relevance.


Prison research tends to focus on the public spaces of penal institutions. Reporting on their fieldwork experiences in the late 1980s, McDermott and King reflected that:

Detailing such games, McDermott and King noted both their ritual qualities – ‘the same moves are repeated, the same questions asked’ (p359) – and their highly consequential nature as ‘competitions for power’ (p360), and manoeuvres to ensure everyday survival. McDermott and King acknowledged that, while ‘the action’ occurred primarily on the prison’s the wings and in its communal areas, it also played out in the private domain of the mind. Notably too, they commented that they were repeatedly told ‘that we would only know what it is “really” like if we donned the uniform – staff wanted us to work the landings, prisoners wanted us to get behind the door’ (p357; italics added). In this article, we focus less on this power dynamic of the vertical relationship between prisoners and the authorities that McDermott and King highlighted, but rather on what it means to be locked into a room with another human being and the lateral power dynamics this entails. That is, one of our goals is to emphasise that much of the ‘action’ in prisons takes place within cells, particularly when cell space is shared.

To highlight the cell as a crucial arena of emotional and relational negotiation is not to dispute the crucial importance of the prison’s more public domains, or the relationships between prisoners and staff (Liebling 2004). Rather, it is to direct our focus to a domain of action and interaction that impacts prisoners at the most personal level. While the cell is often connected to solitariness, when cells are inhabited by more than one person, issues of intimacy and privacy are paramount. Indeed, as we argue in this article, many of the foremost pains and indignities of imprisonment, as well as some of the most profound practices of shared humanity, are experienced in, and structured by, the oppressive intimacy engendered by cellsharing.

The article begins by discussing the low visibility of the cell in the literature on imprisonment, and positions the cell as a crucial, but relatively inaccessible, sphere of prison life. Drawing on data from a study of everyday prisoner experiences in England & Wales, the first substantive section of the article focusses on experiences of cellsharing and problems like abjection, indignity and fear. The second half of the article explores the strategies that prisoners engage in as part of the process of navigating cellular confinement and recouping some sense of personal dignity and psychological security. These strategies that people employ range from atomistic solo strategies of withdrawal to joint strategies of collaboration and even friendship. One of our main objectives is to understand the dynamics inside the small sphere of the shared cell that provide the backdrop for what McDermott and King, in the context of their study, summarised as ‘despairing or desperate attempts by people, who felt dehumanised and powerless, to maintain some conception of themselves as active, controlling agents in some small sphere of their lives’ (p375).

The sociology of prison cellsharing

The phenomenon of cellsharing depends on the design and capacity of individual prisons, levels of systemic overcrowding, and jurisdictional decisions about appropriate conditions of confinement (Jewkes and Bennett 2013). In some countries, such as Norway, the vast majority of prisoners are held in single cells (Dullum and Ugelvik 2012), whereas in the United States, the Philippines and elsewhere, many prisoners live in large dormitories (Sibley and van Hoven 2009; Narag and Jones 2020). Carceral spaces, including cells, can therefore be considered a manifestation of broader correctional goals, policies and circumstances, as well as the artefact of design decisions during earlier periods (Hyatt et al. 2020).

In England & Wales, although most cells were not initially designed to be shared, and the European Prison Rules recommend single cells (Council of Europe 2006), ‘the number of people allocated to a cell frequently supersedes the number of people the cell was designed for’ (Muirhead 2019: 45). In February 2020, around 32,000 prisoners in England & Wales – 38.8% of the prison population at that time – were accommodated in shared cells (personal communication, HMPPS). Most men in training and open prisons, and virtually all in the high-security estate, have their own cell, as do most women. In local prisons, however – holding prisoners on remand, on short sentences, or sentenced prisoners awaiting reallocation – while some men are accommodated in single cells or are held alone in a double cell following a cellsharing risk assessment, the majority are ‘doubled-up’.¹ Official policy does not explicitly discourage this practice. This is in part a result of overcrowding, with current occupancy levels in England & Wales of 104.4% (25.9.2020, World Prison Brief). However, as Molleman and van Ginneken (2015: 1030) note, while there is a correlation between overcrowding and cellsharing, the two cannot be ‘treated interchangeably’ (see also Muirhead et al. 2020: 160).

Recent publications on the prison cell (notably, Turner and Knight 2020) have tended to regard the cell as a place of relative solitude (although see Narag and Jones 2020; Fransson and Giofrè 2020). While a number of authors note the constant risk in prison that even private space can be invaded by staff (Crewe et al. 2014; Jewkes and Laws 2020), often the cell is presented as a place of refuge. Jewkes and Laws (2020: 7), for example, note that ‘after a period of emotional volatility […] most prisoners were able to make peace with cellular confinement, especially valuing it for the privacy it afforded’. Quoting Fludernik (2019: 34), they add: ‘Once the jailer has departed, the prison cell […] provide[s] an intimate locus of personal space and safeguard[s] the inmate’s physical integrity’ (p7). By customising a single cell, prisoners can produce a personal, even homely space (see also Sibley and van Hoven 2009; Ugelvik 2014), in which they can ‘drop their defensive postures and not only behave more authentically’ (Jewkes and Laws 2020: 6) but also allow themselves to experience and express emotions such as sadness.

When cells are shared, not only is the individual denied this kind of backstage escape, but the same space that might offer relief can instead become a source of distress. The need to maintain a semi-public façade places limits on feelings of personal autonomy, deprives prisoners of control over immediate space (Morey and Crewe 2018), and exposes them almost perpetually to the forms of sensory intrusions – noise, smell and lack of hygiene – that are typically found in communal living spaces (Jewkes and Laws 2020; Warr 2021). Likewise, having to share space with cellmates who are highly distressed or unwell can expose prisoners to significant trauma. The loss of autonomy produced by cellsharing may therefore have a negative impact on wellbeing and coping (Liebling 2004; Favril et al. 2017; Muirhead 2019), including through its impact on sleep quality (Deva 2017). Many criticisms of cellsharing also relate to the risks of violence and exploitation (Keith 2006). While Muirhead (2019) underlines that, in the United Kingdom, the risk of homicide² within shared cells is relatively low, forms of physical, sexual and verbal abuse are more common (Banbury 2004; Sondhi et al. 2018; McGuire 2018), though, as O’Donnell and Edgar (1999) note, prisoners might still feel relatively safe within them.

Yet the literature on solitary confinement emphasises the many negative effects of extended periods of solo segregation (e.g. Shalev 2008), and, for some individuals, cellsharing may have positive effects, including the potential to mitigate feelings of loneliness, boredom and isolation (Muirhead 2019; Schliehe et al. 2021). The fact that in most prisons suicides occur in single cells is well documented (Tatarelli and Mancinelli 1999; Reeves and Tamburello 2014), and recent studies suggest that cellsharing might be considered a ‘modifiable risk factor’ (Zhong et al. 2021) – i.e. a suicide prevention measure – in that cell mates can provide both direct supervision and emotional support (van Ginneken et al. 2017).

Overall, then, the social and emotional dynamics that might determine the experience of cellsharing have not been well articulated within the literature (Muirhead 2019: 53). The paucity of research on the lived experience of cellsharing is all the more surprising given the grounds for assuming that many of its most challenging features are intensified versions of the pains and abasements that are identified in prison sociology’s most influential texts. For example, the deprivations of personal security and autonomy famously documented by Sykes (1958) seem likely to be exacerbated by close confinement with a relative stranger. Indeed, quoting a prisoner, Sykes declares that ‘the worst thing about prison is you have to live with other prisoners’ (1958/2003: 77). Of even greater relevance is Goffman’s (1961) account of the various forms of mortification imposed upon the inmates of total institutions. Among these mortifications are ‘a kind of contaminative exposure’, in which various ‘territories of the self are violated; the boundary that the individual places between his being and the environment is invaded and the embodiments of self profaned’ (p23). Examples include difficulties in concealing ‘discreditable facts about oneself’ (p24), being physically exposed to others and seen in ‘humiliating circumstances’ (p24), being deprived of normal forms of privacy (‘the inmate is never fully alone; he is always within sight and often earshot of someone’ [p25]); having to deal with one’s own and other people’s bodies and body fluids (p26); and enforced interpersonal contact with people one might regard as ‘undesirable’.

Since all of the indignities that Goffman associates with ‘batch living’ are likely to be intensified in circumstances of prolonged proximity, his analysis points to the relevance of dignity to any consideration of cellsharing. The general significance of dignity to incarceration lies in its relevance to human rights, matters of fairness, respect and degradation, (Liebling 2004; Snacken 2015; Etnison 2020) and the broader issue of what it means to have moral worth (Ward 2009). Moreover, writing about dignity in non-penal contexts, several scholars have noted that dignity has a social and relational quality, in that it ‘is not felt unless it is recognised by other people’ (Fukuyama 2012: np; Etnison 2020). In the context of care, dignity is often discussed with regard to the sheer indignity of one’s mind or body being under someone else’s control (Brodwin 2016; Buch 2018), emphasising the basic issue of losing physical autonomy and having limited agency over practical tasks and the sensory environment. In this respect, dignity and indignity seem highly relevant to situations involving lack of space, exposure to others, and the power dynamics involved in being confined within a small space with another human being.

A wider literature on impure and ambiguous spaces underlines the ways that cellsharing

‘might create conflicts, [and] threaten the atmosphere, the rhythm, the tone’ (Fransson and Giofrè 2020: 272) of everyday life, leading to strong feelings of disgust and abjection. Referring broadly to a state of misery, degradation and defilement, abjection is generally associated with threats to cleanliness and propriety, often connected to bodies and bodily practices. Echoing Mary Douglas’s (1966/2002; 1968/1975) work on the disconcerting power of dirt, pollution and boundary breaches, Kristeva (1982: 2) associates abjection with a threatened breakdown in meaning and order, and with the destabilizing sense of ‘danger, or at least uncertainty’ that results in spaces of marginality and ambiguity (see also Sibley 1995). The ambiguity of the shared cell, as a place i.e. neither ‘front’ nor ‘backstage’, and in which normal and basic boundaries cannot easily be maintained, therefore makes it a crucial site for analysis. Cells are places of exceptional intimacy and intensity, in which life is reduced to its barest qualities and individuals may experience some of the most primal fears and acute indignities imaginable. Yet, as we also illustrate, prisoners seek to alleviate these experiences, recoup their dignity, and sometimes grant it to others. In doing so, either individually or collectively, the ‘games’ they play are not just – as in McDermott and King (1988; see also Liebling et al. 2020) – between themselves and staff, but with each other.


That there is relatively little empirical data on the phenomenology of cell sharing is no doubt a reflection of the methodological difficulties of accessing and observing such spaces, not least because cell doors are often locked and the spaces within them literally unobservable. In England & Wales, at least, prison researchers are not typically allowed to enter cells or are able to do so only under certain conditions – with staff very nearby,e.g. In such circumstances, prolonged and candid discussion is virtually impossible.³ Few researchers can make any claim to having undertaken serious research within cells (though see, e.g. Ugelvik 2014); and much of what occurs in cells – sleep, rumination, drug-taking, fantasies of a better life – is silent or would not happen in the presence of a third party. It would be fanciful for anyone who has not served a sentence to claim deep understanding of what it means to experience some of the most profound yet mundane aspects of a cell-based existence: entering a cell for the first time, with the knowledge that it is now to be ‘home’, and sleeping on a flimsy mattress, slept on by many previous occupants, in a bare room that cannot be exited until unlocked by someone else. Cells, then, represent one of the limit points of prison ethnography (though see Warr 2021).

It is possible, nonetheless, to generate meaningful data about the experience of cellsharing, based on non-observational methods. The article draws on interview data from England & Wales, representing a sample of 278 interviews overall.⁴ Most were located in local prisons, where the majority of prisoners share cells, and levels of turnover are high, meaning that many interviewees had had more than one cellmate during their sentence. Within our sample, we took into account three population groups: ‘mainstream’ male prisoners, female prisoners and men convicted of sexual offences. Most were serving sentences of less than two years, and were interviewed on three occasions, as part of a longitudinal study of entry into and release from prison, though some were deliberately selected because they were serving longer sentences. While there are therefore some limits on the generalisability of our findings, since all prisoners start their sentence in local prisons, where cellsharing is most common, their applicability is relatively widespread, both in the sense that almost all prisoners are, at some point doubled up, and in that the number of individuals who come into local prisons over the course of any year is much higher than the static prison population.

Interviews were generally conducted in offices on prison wings, lasting between one and three hours, and were recorded and subsequently transcribed verbatim, with a pseudonym assigned to each participant. Data were coded using NVivo software, drawing on a conceptual framework deriving from established work on the nature and experience of confinement (see Crewe 2011; 2015) and on themes emerging from the study.

While cellsharing was not a primary focus of the study, it was relevant to a range of matters that related to our core research questions, including the experience of entering custody, settling into the prison, and adjusting to the sentence. As a result, one of the coding nodes that we established on undertaking the analysis was ‘The Cell’, including sub-nodes on cellsharing and time spent in cells. A number of questions about daily treatment and conditions also touched on the material environment and issues of privacy, meaning that several further NVivo nodes contained data relevant to this analysis.

Cells and cellsharing were particularly important to the experience of imprisonment in the local prisons in England & Wales in which we conducted fieldwork, because prisoners in these establishments often spent the vast majority of their day locked up. Cells were often very cramped and in a poor state, with paint peeling from the walls and scuffed flooring. Typically, they contained a metal-framed bunkbed, wooden furniture (e.g. a desk, a chair, and a small cupboard) a small television, and a toilet and sink (often with no or a minimal divider between them), with very little decorative embellishment other than the piecemeal efforts by prisoners to make their environment a little more homely or comforting, through posters and photographs. In the older prisons, built in the nineteenth century, unsanitary conditions and long periods of bang-up left us with some of our most powerful research memories, with the opening of cell doors releasing odours of sweat and stale food, often revealing men sleeping on bunks in darkened cells during the day, and exposing a general sense of listlessness and cramped despair. Cells felt like portals, both to other worlds beyond the prison, through prisoners’ reveries of their lives outside the institutional boundary, and to the immediate micro-world of the cell space that they had to share with others.

Doing double ‘bang-up’ and the problems of cellsharing

Going from that level of freedom [outside] to this, you feel like caged animals really, like you have to share everything, share space, share toilet paper, share the same toilet. […] Your bunks are placed one above the other, so you don’t really have your-side-of-the-room, my-side-of-the-room […] We have one table; one cupboard. […] The toilet is right behind the bunks, so you can’t really go toilet in peace (Charlie)

Cellsharing is at once a mundane experience and highly complex terrain. As the quotation above suggests, the micro-politics of cellsharing reach into the most personal parts of prisoners’ lives and are highly determinative of their overall experience of imprisonment. Not least, sharing a cell originally designed for single habitation is deeply uncomfortable and challenges fundamental matters like sense of self, dignity and personal boundaries.

Most prisoners have almost no choice at all over their cell-partner. Indeed, population pressures – especially in local prisons, with a high degree of daily ‘churn’ – mean that decision-making is generally highly pragmatic and involves little consideration of personal preferences, as Lexi described:⁵

They just throw you in a double and you can be in there with any Tom, Dick and Harry, anybody from like a heroin addict to a crack addict to an alcoholic [...] and it’s like you have no say over the matter, they’re putting them in there, it’s ‘tough shit, you’re in jail’, that’s their kind of attitude.

First, then, the very process of being allocated a cellmate – let alone the actual experience of involuntary space-sharing – confirms to the prisoner his or her degraded status and loss of autonomy, underlining the centrality of ‘the cell’ to the workings of disciplinary power (Fransson and Giofrè 2020). Among out interviewees, this deprivation of autonomy was also reflected in unwanted forms of inter-dependence that meant that individual behaviours could produce a shared fate:

I didn’t have a telly for three weeks because my pad mate on G Wing, he smashed it up and chucked it out of the window. (Tyler)

My previous cell mate got caught with stuff in the cell, and both of us lost our jobs. […] My cell mate is gone now but I’ve been treated like a leper. (Earl)

A second challenge is the deprivation of privacy and the denial of a meaningful ‘backstage’ domain. Many interviewees referred to the difficulties of expressing and concealing emotions when in almost-perpetual company. As Ibrahim explained: ‘you can’t break down, you haven’t got time to cry or get a bit weepy or a bit emotional, there’s nowhere for you to do that [as] you’ve always got someone watching you’. Evelyn likewise explained both the stress of having no private space in which to express her emotions, and the strains produced by others doing so in such compressed circumstances:

Sometimes I just need to be by myself. If I want to cry, I just want to cry. I don’t want to see people around me, but when you are in a double room it is so hard, so difficult. You don’t want to put your problems on somebody else as well, but if you are happy this day, and they are unhappy, and they sit in your room and cry, then you feel sad as well.

In such ways, the degradation of constant surveillance does not just encompass institutional ‘panopticism’ (Foucault 1991) so much as lateral, inter-personal surveillance (see Ievins 2020). The deprivation of autonomy was also manifested in the multitude of ways that, alongside the already acutely stressful experience of being imprisoned, prisoners were required to manage an unwanted interpersonal dynamic: ‘we’ve got to face each other and do our sentence’ (Levi). To minimise friction and co-construct a modus vivendi, this involved altering personal habits and respecting ‘each other’s personal space and dignity’ (Willow).

Several participants used the metaphor of marriage to convey these everyday compromises and intimacies:

It’s the same as marriage, isn’t it? If you get on you get on and if you hate each other’s guts, well … (Albert)

He’s like my wife. […] He knows everything about me. It’s crazy. He knows what time I go to the toilet, what time I do anything. He’s there, when I’m changing... But what can you do? (Taariq)

If anything, though, the intimacies involved in sharing a cell are more invasive, and more awkward, than a typical marriage, not least because the prison partner is a stranger, rather than someone actively chosen. Moreover, the invasion of personal space involved in cellsharing is more pronounced, and the ability to avoid forms of invasion and contamination more compromised, than in a domestic partnership, where there is almost always more potential to find spaces of relative privacy, or even to exit the arrangement entirely. Jacob described the extraordinary forced intimacy of cell sharing as follows:

So, I came in, unpacking my stuff, putting my bedsheets on, introduced to each other - it’s just weird thinking that this is your life now for x amount of time, this is your life. You’ve got this little TV, a kettle and a sink to wash-up in, a toilet that you have to have a dump [in] while he’s sitting there watching TV, and you can smell it and [he can] see you, and then you have to smell his shit.

This absence of privacy, and associated feelings of degradation, defilement and anxiety, was the most prominent theme in accounts of the difficulties of cell sharing. As Poppy explained, there was almost no possibility of producing a form of defensible personal space:

You don’t have any privacy. You’re always in each other’s kind of space. Like even now in this cell that I’m in, even if I sit on the top of my bunk, and read, I still feel [...] like it’s not private. Even though I don’t need to be private to be reading it is nice to have your own kind of space.

In particular, many participants described a range of deep indignities that resulted from cellsharing, including having to use a barely screened toilet in front of someone else, being subjected to the sensory overload of sounds and smells produced by other people’s bodies (e.g. sweat, snoring, loud voices), exposure to dirt and disease and having to co-exist with people with severe mental health problems, including cellmates who talked to themselves, self-harmed and attempted suicide. Even when seemingly ‘minor’, within cramped cells over extended periods, such matters – in many respects, non-negotiables, that had to be negotiated – could become major aggravations. As we now discuss in more detail, they also represented a threat to normal forms of personal and bodily integrity.

The problematic nature of abjection

Accounts of the struggles of cellsharing radiated sentiments of abjection and disgust, particularly when relating to having to deal with dirt, excrement and exposure to unwanted substances. The principal struggle among our interviewees was connected to in-cell toilets, which exposed prisoners to the sound, smell and sight of ‘shit’. This was regarded by many participants as ‘the most degrading part of prison’ (Aliya) – in Eva’s terms, ‘absolutely frigging horrendous’ – causing visceral and emotionally painful forms of mortification, and feelings of deep indignity (Kristeva 1982). Charlie described in-cell sanitation as being like ‘a public toilet at Maccy D’s [McDonalds], but with the door completely missing’, implying shame about his own excrement as well as disgust about his cellmate’s. The visibility and openness of this usually private space – ‘they can see you strain’ (Jacob) – and the mobility of smell and sound were exacerbated by the cell’s austerity and compressed spatiality:⁶

People are taking craps and... you know, like it’s not very nice, is it? It can’t be hygienic, I’m sure it can’t be legal, because the toilet’s next to the bed. It doesn’t make sense. But you’re a criminal, that’s what I’m saying, and it doesn’t matter how you get treated. (Nathan)

They are open cesspits, you know, there’s no cover round the toilet, there’s no door, no nothing. (Teddy)

Many prisoners described the basic difficulty of urinating or defecating in front of others: ‘I didn’t even go to the toilet for the first couple of days, I just, my body would not let me, it was just the awkwardness’ (Jacob). Feelings of abjection were also produced by other body fluids and practices, including struggling with menstruation, body odour, poor hygiene and the sheer proximity of other people’s emissions and ablutions. Many prisoners described themselves as being preoccupied with personal hygiene, and found it distressing to live alongside people whose standards of tidiness and cleanliness were lower than their own:⁷

In here when you have somebody washing their feet in the sink a yard from your head while you’re lying in bed, and spitting and burping and just being generally unpleasant, it’s kind of hard then to get past that as you’re in such a confined space. (Luca)

He used to wake up, no wash, no clean his teeth, straight on with his clothes and gone. All the time I was in with him I think he had one shower. (Albert)

I’ve got a habit - every time I go toilet, I’ll wash my hands, but some prisoners don’t, and that does my head in. Like when they’re touching the [remote] control, and stuff like that, I’m like ‘no’. And I’ve, like, got to jump down, ‘What’s happening?’ I’m really touchy. (Justin)

Being unable to uphold standards of cleanliness and therefore separation between ‘me’ and ‘them’ applied to material and bodily surfaces, as well as the surrounding air: sharing space with a cigarette smoker or drug user produced feelings of unwanted exposure, pollution and disgust as well as causing worries about bodily integrity, like Dexter who ‘felt really ill every day’, as a result of inhaling his cellmate’s smoke: ‘he was on the bottom bunk as well, so the smoke was rising and it just stank. It was horrible’.⁸ Benjamin described being in a cell with a Spice smoker as ‘absolutely horrible’, and often disruptive: ‘he sleeps in the day after he gets over his buzz and then he is awake all night. He keeps me up’. Noise pollution, including cell mates talking loudly or constantly, or ‘chatting shit all the time’ (Floyd), was a further source of abjection. Chloe described the visceral impact of being exposed to several contaminative elements at once:

[My cellmate] squats on my floor, she doesn’t sleep in her bed or anything, she doesn’t flush the chain after or wipe herself, she’s got hepatitis, she is always asking for my food when I’m eating it, she smokes tea bags and [it] makes me sick.

Such conditions thereby produced a multitude of abasements and represented the basic deprivation of dignity through exposure to other people’s uncleanliness, dirt and illness. The power of pollution and the breaches of boundaries (Douglas 1966/2002; 1968/1975) are keenly felt and can cause a sense of danger (Kristeva 1982). Supplementing these feelings of abjection were equally primal feelings of anxiety and fear related to enforced intimacy with a stranger.

Fear and the emotional toll of enforced intimacy

Most of our interviewees described deep insecurities relating to cellsharing, particularly when anticipating a new cellmate. Such fears could be all-encompassing:

Are you worried who else might come into your cell?

Yeah. It’s all I’ve been thinking about. (Louis)

Louis had been imprisoned following a breach of his probation conditions, and much of his anxiety reflected his concern about the more serious offences committed by potential cellmates, and what they might therefore be capable of:

It got really hard to sleep and just knowing that someone was there that I don’t actually know too well, like I know their name, I know what they’ve done, but do I really know them and are they going to put a bat over my head when I’m asleep? (Jacob)

The fear of sharing with someone unknown and potentially violent often generated low-level but persistent feelings of insecurity. Willow captured the insidious nature of this fear as follows:

I had an issue with safety was when I had an issue with a previous padmate who was invading my privacy. I didn’t feel safe as in I was going to be harmed; I didn’t feel comfortable that I felt that my dignity was being encroached upon, so I was unhappy about that. […] I felt vulnerable. My privacy was invaded and I felt that she wasn’t respecting my personal space and she was trying to push my buttons and it was very stressful. I got to the point I wasn’t sleeping. (Willow)

Such accounts highlight both the intensity and impact of in-cell tensions. Poppy described herself as quiet and unassertive, and spoke of her fear that she would be taken advantage of. Nathan explained that he was cellsharing with someone who was ‘completely different, and a lot bigger than me, and what he said went. […] He took what he wanted, and there was nothing I could do about it’. This persistent fear, including the anticipation of coercion and control, reflected the development of hierarchies normally found within the prisoner social system within the confines of a cell. Charlie, for example, who had been convicted of a sexual offence, recounted the ordeal of being accommodated with a cellmate whose suspicions about his index offence had spiralled into violence:

He just kind of ignored me for the first day. On the second night, I was getting a lot of verbal abuse […] Apparently one of the officers told him what my charges were, and he started punching me in the ribs and that; it was like: ‘tell me what your charges are’. […] At one point he hit me straight in the kidney, then the solar plexus.

Several other prisoners described getting involved in fights with their cellmates, or being robbed of their meals or other possessions, yet having to continue to share space with them afterwards. For other interviewees, fear derived from having to share space with people who had severe mental health issues. For example:

He started going a bit crazy, and he started cutting his arms and writing on the walls with blood. Writing stuff like, ‘Who needs voices - who needs friends when we have the voices?’ in blood from his own arm. And he started going a bit crazy and getting violent towards me, so me and him had a little fight and he attacked me with a blade and started cutting me. (Jacob)

Other interviewees described the torment of threats and psychological coercion. Harry explained that his current cellmate had threatened him and his loved ones by writing down details about his girlfriend and family: ‘he broke me’. A previous cellmate had doctored his roll-up cigarette with a new psychoactive substance: ‘he spiked me, and he videoed me. […] and he picked me up and dropped me down a few times. […] I still have a scar there’.

Living under such conditions of exceptional uncertainty, with threats to body and mind, was acutely unnerving. Many participants described fears – or direct experiences – of sexual and physical assault, or of deeply unsettling acts such as hearing cellmates masturbate. To endure such anxieties overnight, in an inescapable space, was, for many prisoners, almost intolerably difficult, leaving them ‘always on edge’. In light of such concerns, prisoners had to find ways of minimising the potential for problems and maximising their comfort and security, as we now discuss.

Solo strategies of coping with cellsharing

Faced with cellsharing dilemmas, prisoners deployed a range of strategies, either ‘solo’ or ‘joint’ i.e. based on communication with or constructive participation from another party. As Figure 1 illustrates, solo strategies varied from ‘compliance’ to disengagement to physical violence, along a continuum of relative passivity.

Figure 1. Continuum of solo strategies

Compliance, submission and pacification strategies were often used by prisoners who were at the start of their sentence, nervous about their environment, or physically disadvantaged compared to their cellmate. This response partly reflected the general demands of the prison environment, in which fortitude, or passivity in the face of authority, were generally considered the most effective means of making it through the sentence. For example:

Living so close with someone else is very odd to me and very awkward and strange. But because it was [only] six months, I thought ‘right, I’ll just put up with this and it will be alright’. You hold your farts in and whatever. For six months I can soldier through. (Adam)

Ayo actively adopted a strategy of pacification in order to minimise the possibility of violence or conflict: ‘In prison someone might come to you annoyed, like “Where are you from?” “I”m from Bow [in East London], but I’m going through stress man’, and as soon as he sees that you’re stressed out, he doesn’t feel the need to attack you’. Other prisoners, like Nathan, reported using carefully scripted forms of comedy, either to relieve their own anxieties or to put potentially dangerous cellmates at ease.

While solo strategies could involve actively addressing a cellmate, more often they were ‘played in the head’ (McDermott and King 1988: 359), without open communication with the cellmate. These strategies involved ignoring issues, minimising interaction or defending personal space and property. Ibrahim explained that his cellmate was ‘under a lot of stress and strain, so I just try and ignore him’. Poppy preferred ‘tense silence’ to engagement: ‘I’d rather not talk to her to be honest […] when I talk, sometimes she moans, so… I’d rather just sit there and read my book’. Sophia waited for opportunities to engage in private activities, however difficult this proved:

She goes for her breakfast, so I’m like ‘OK, this is my chance to get changed and get up and go for breakfast’, so I locked the door .... she keeps trying to open it, she opens the flap and she can see me; I’m trying to get changed, but she still insists on standing there, she’s persistent, so now I have to rush […] but I eventually get dressed and I open the door.

Here, the silent struggles and micro-politics of cellsharing are clearly apparent. Other unspoken defensive practices included hiding personal details (such as family phone numbers) and protecting personal property. Jacob, for example, had devised a system for storing his possessions securely:

What I usually do is tuck it up in my bag and stuff, but I put it in there in a certain way, so if it’s been touched, I know. [...] I wrap it in [plastic], and then I burn it with my lighter so it’s sealed. When I get it out, I double check it’s still burnt that way, and if it isn’t, I know.

The drive to ensure personal and moral space also generated a number of more active practices. Some prisoners ‘investigated’ their cellmate (mainly, to see whether they were convicted of sexual offences), by demanding to see their papers, seeking information from staff or asking relatives to check online court reports. To avoid cellsharing altogether, some participants told staff they were racist, homophobic or violent, and therefore too risky to share: ‘I couldn’t bang up with anyone, black, white, anyone, I don’t care, I tell them that I’m racist just to get that [single] cell’ (Austin).

Other prisoners used specific threats of violence, or feigned insanity, to intimidate cellmates and claim back some control over their environment. Many believed that, to get rid of a cellmate, it was essential to ‘kick off’, ‘make a stand’ and ‘use force’ (Gary).

I tell them [officers]: ‘Put me in a double [and] I’ll slit the man’s throat if he carries on’. […] And I either say to the officers, ‘Look, get me out of here or I’m going to hurt him’. Or I say to [my cellmate], ‘You either keep your mouth shut or I’ll hurt ya’. (Brian)

We’re in a double cell. I’ve closed the curtains. I was standing in front of the mirror and muttering to myself, ‘You always give me bad advice. I can’t listen to you anymore’. Eventually, he takes the bait. Don’t forget, prior to this he was aggressive towards me, very intimidating. […] He said, ‘Who are you talking to?’ [Laughs)] I said to him, ‘My friend’. He looked around the cell and couldn’t see anyone. […] He looked so fucking scared it was unbelievable. (Nathan)

Joint strategies of constructive cooperation

Joint strategies were borne out of some sense of commonality and the shared desire to make a difficult situation comfortable and tolerable, through some form of constructive co-operation. While some prisoners developed relationships of trust and intimacy, others simply worked together to make the most degrading parts of cellsharing a little less unpleasant. As can be seen in Figure 2, joint strategies ranged from practical solutions to more emotionally-involved strategies that entailed some degree of personal sacrifice.

Figure 2. Continuum of joint strategies

Working together did not necessarily involve a strong personal connection, and was sometimes simply the outcome of a common understanding of informal rules. Notably, across a range of prisons, the bottom bunk was considered preferable, and was an entitlement of the more long-standing of the two residents, which also determined who had overall dominance within the cell:

You’ve got to learn where your boundaries are: you’re both sharing the cell; it ain’t just your cell it’s the other person’s cell as well. But in prison when the person leaves the cell, if you’re left in that cell it’s then your cell, and that’s how the rule is. If the person comes, in it’s still your cell. (Justin)

What helps is when it’s your cell. In prison a lot of people know whoever has the bottom bunk, it’s their cell. (…) You feel a lot more comfortable when you’re on the bottom bunk, it’s your cell, so when someone comes in, they respect that. (…) Does it make a big difference just where you are in the bunk? Yes, a massive difference. (…) Yes. You feel a bit more comfortable because in a way, the bottom bunk is a status symbol. It’s respect between prisoners. It’s an understanding. When you’re in the bottom bunk, you’re the big man of the cell. (Jacob)You shouldn’t have bunk beds, what if they put you in with someone and both of you can’t get up, I’m on the top bunk, I’ve got a broken collar bone (…) and I’ve got gallstones. (…) I struggle. But the girl was in there before me so I didn’t want to ask. (Elsie)

As both excerpts suggest, norms around cellsharing served to minimise conflict, by producing a hierarchy of status and providing a set of informal rules around which person’s standards predominated. The turnover of cellmates also meant that each individual eventually occupied the more dominant bunk. For example:

My cellmate was in there before, it was all his, and he’s on the bottom bunk. […] And when I went in there it was a shithole, and he left it as a shithole and I’ll leave it as a shithole until he goes, and then I’ll clean it the way I want to clean it. (Maarif)

This minimal form of joint thinking was sometimes extended towards sharing tasks. Given common sensitivities to matters of hygiene, sharing responsibility for maintaining a clean cell was a mundane act of importance. Levi described his relief at having a cellmate who shared his commitment to cleanliness:

I’m with a guy who’s really clean and so am I […] we’re always cleaning the cell, he mops out every day and... when we have sandwiches we have a tray and stuff like this, you know, we go to the toilet, we wash our hands, all this sort of thing.

Other interviewees tried to accommodate their cellmate’s cleaning routine, or divided up tasks: ‘he cleans, I wash up’ (Reggie). Deference over who operated the television remote control, was, likewise, a means of managing out potential sources of friction.

To minimise tensions, experienced prisoners taught newcomers how best to make use of limited cell-space and use the environment productively. Dexter, for example, explained that his cell mate had taught him ‘how to put boxes on the wall to put my toothpaste and toothbrushes in and razors and stuff, and he’s told me where to put my envelopes and keep them away from people’. Charlie described the intricate planning that helped ensure the secure separation of personal possessions, including splitting the space within a shared cupboard.

The most common practices of customising cell-space involved attempts to maximise mutual dignity relating to nudity and using the in-cell toilet. Many prisoners explained that they and their cellmate had rigged up a curtain as a makeshift screen, and devised rules that whenever one of them used the toilet, the other should increase the volume on the television, face away or engage in some kind of distracting activity. Some masked the odour of faeces, by burning incense sticks or orange peel that had been dried on heating pipes. Agreed practices of timetabling were also common. Benjamin and his cellmate agreed that they should notify each other when getting changed, to grant each other temporary privacy, and should avoid defecating unless one of them was out of the cell: ‘it is just courtesy’. Others reported shared rules about trying not to use the toilet close to mealtimes (since meals were eaten in cells). Willow’s account highlighted various micro-practices of intimate diplomacy:

You do alter your habits and obviously you have to respect each other’s personal space and dignity as much as you can within the room you’ve got. If she’s on the phone, I leave the room. [If] I phone my partner, she leaves the room. She showers during the day, I’m straight out in the morning and down the shower, so when I come back, she goes and gets her breakfast, so I can have the privacy to muck about and do what I need to do. And we’ve got into that without discussing it. (Willow)

These intricate, repetitive forms of choreography created unspoken rituals. Many such agreements were tacit, and demonstrated emotional intelligence and compassion, as did cellmates making adjustments for each other’s stress (‘if he knows I’m stressed out maybe he’ll make me a cup of tea, and he’ll have a little chat with me’ – George). As Fransson and Giofrè (2020: 271) comment, ‘closeness and distance have to be carefully regulated’ in the small space of a shared cell and joint strategies were a constructive way of achieving this.

While such strategies were not always a sign of a deep relationship, some practice and interactions were better understood as forms of kindness and friendship than as acts of mutual benefit alone. Some such acts included sharing scarce supplies (‘I share my cigarettes with my cellmate because he hasn’t got that many’ – Levi) and treating a cellmate’s belongings with respect. Other forms of care involved the sharing of knowledge, or the provision of emotional or physical support. William had persuaded a timid and fearful cellmate to leave the cell and mix with other prisoners: ‘I’ve told him I’ll look after him while he’s in here […] I’m trying to get him to come out and interact’. Ava had supported a vulnerable cellmate through the night: ‘I was up until 5am with [her] because she had a fit in her sleep, […] and then she wanted to sit and talk about her self-harm, her [legal] case, how she was doing’. Justin had prevented his cellmate from taking his own life: ‘I woke up one night when I was on B Wing with my pad mate hanging. […] I was, like, “no no”, and I jumped up, quickly lifted him up, and I was just shouting out for the [officers]’.

Acts of compassion were often expressed through unspoken forms of compromise and consideration. Here, examples ranged from dealing with another person’s drug withdrawal in a manner that helped them retain some dignity to feigning happiness at a cellmate’s imminent release (‘when they’re going home, they’re excited and obviously you’re not excited [but] you try and be happy for them’ – Louis). Some interviewees, such as Charlie, recognised that they were the beneficiaries of forms of tacit kindness:

I burst into tears, I’m not going to lie. Like it’s a lot of strain.

Did you do that in front of your cell mate, or did you try and keep that...?

… basically when I said I was going to bed I had to face the other way and ... He probably noticed or something, but he didn’t really mention it, so he didn’t embarrass me about it, or anything like that. [He]’s been in prison beforehand, he knows how it is.

In some cases, prisoners offered the bottom-bunk to cellmates who found it physically challenging to reach the top, due to age or injury. For the reasons discussed above, this was a significant concession.

While often a source of conflict, the enforced intimacy of cellsharing also had the potential to generate relations of mutual understanding and intimate disclosure, in particular through extended conversations:

[Me and my cell mate] we have our cultural differences. He’s a firm believer in the Islamic faith, I’m an atheist, so we have interesting conversations about the formation of the universe and evolution and things like that. It’s... you know, he’s a nice bloke. (Luca)

Because of the circumstances, I would say I’m quite close to my cellmate, because neither of us sleeps particularly well. So, he’s told me things about his life and I’ve told him things about my life that I probably wouldn’t have told someone, unless I’d been in a cell with them for 23 hours a day. […] I’ve told things to him that I wouldn’t tell my friend if I’d met him in a pub for three hours, because you just wouldn’t scratch so deep. (Archie).

As suggested here, the development of a close bond entailed the sharing of emotions and significant trust:

She’s seen me cry and cry and cry, I’ve seen her cry, we lay awake at night and she’s at the end there, I’m here, and we just talk about our families and how we’ve ended up in here’ (Lucy)

Some prisoners, like Alfie, explained that their cell mate was the only person in prison who gave them hope and recognised their strengths and achievements. Most importantly, a sympathetic cellmate provided everyday company and levity at a time of crisis and despair:

It helps when you have someone that is on your wavelength, and you can crack jokes and stuff, and you can maybe make things, like the situation a bit lighter […] it’s misery here, to be honest. It really is misery, and I’m really lucky I’ve got a cellmate that is on my kind of level, and we can have quite a deep conversation about things. I’m really quite lucky, because that helps the time, and it helps the time a lot because there’s only so much TV you can watch. (Taariq)

Given the context of stress and the potential for conflict, to be able to ‘have a laugh’ (Blake) and to find common ground – ‘obviously we talk about women troubles’ – were significant achievements. But more significantly, being in such an intimate encounter with another person, in circumstances of pain and indignity, could bring out fundamental aspects of personal and social humanity.

Concluding comments

While, as Fransson and Giofre (2020) propose, the cell might be considered the modus operandi of disciplinary powers, these powers flow laterally, between prisoners, as well as vertically, between prisoners and staff. Cellsharing places prisoners in situations in which challenges to selfhood and dignity are at their most intimate and invasive. In the general field of prison research, that has been so preoccupied with matters of pain and deprivation, it is especially surprising that scholars have paid so little attention to these experiences, including the terror, abjection and sensory intrusion that can result from being closely confined with someone unknown, often for most of the hours of the day. Conversely, in research on cellsharing specifically, the focus on suicide risks – and the common conclusion that such risks might be reduced through placing prisoners in shared cells – means that the mundane but psychologically corrosive effects of unease and indignity are rather neglected. The lateral dynamics that result are borne out of a necessity to confront these profound and primal threats, which many prisoners experience for almost all hours of the day (and almost all have had to endure during the recent pandemic). However, the strategies and experiences we have outlined also illustrate the manifold ways in which prisoners insist on reclaiming a sense of selfhood and dignity, and can sometimes form relationships of considerable humanity, kindness and care that make an otherwise appalling situation survivable. Here, the difference between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cellmate can be critical. In this regard, and as we seek to highlight throughout the article, the cell is a crucial arena of emotional and relational negotiation, and a domain of action and interaction that impacts prisoners at the most intimate and existential level.

In exposing the visceral realities of imprisonment, exploring the micro-practices and deep challenges of cellsharing also helps us to think through macro-issues of punishment. The pains involved in living in cramped conditions with a stranger seem sufficient in themselves to breach the idea or principle that imprisonment should entail the deprivation of liberty alone. Meanwhile, the centrality in our account of matters of dignity – a concept so closely linked to matters of what it means to be human, and to be treated as a person of moral worth – should help underscore why it matters that so many countries are complacent about locking up people in crisis, for long periods of time, in cramped, decrepit and inhospitable rooms with strangers.


Funded by the European Research Council ERC Grant 648691.


Our sincere thanks to our research participants, and to our colleagues Alice Ievins, Julie Laursen and Kristian Mjåland for all their work on the COMPEN project. We are also very grateful for the helpful comments from our anonymous reviewers.


  1. It is unusual in England & Wales for cells to accommodate more than two people.

  2. While homicides within cells represent under one percent of prison deaths, as with the case of the racist murder of Zahid Mubarek in the United Kingdom in 2000, their overall impact on the prison system, can be extremely significant in bringing into relief the risks of cellsharing and the importance of thorough cellsharing risk assessment processes.

  3. On visits to prisons, it is customary for officers to encourage researchers to look into cells, often, those that are neatest or most modern. Such viewings can feel exceptionally invasive, given that these are private living spaces, although prisoners often relish the opportunity to show personal items, such as photographs, in order to explain their extra-penal identities or rehearse moral narratives through reference to the state of their cell.

  4. We spent time in five prisons in England & Wales as our ‘core field sites’ and depending on where prisoners were moved to, conducted follow-up interviews across the prison estate. These five core prisons comprised three (category-B) local establishments (two holding men one holding women), one medium-security (category-C) establishment and one open [Cat-D] establishment. Of the 278 interviews, 75 were with women and 203 were with men. Most of the fieldwork sites comprised a mixture of cells designed for single and double occupancy, but prisoners rarely commented on such distinctions, indicating that the issues we identify in this article are germane regardless of cell-size, specifically. One reason for this might be that the number of moves between wings, and prisons, that prisoners experienced meant that their accounts conflated experiences of different kinds of cells.

  5. Our sense was that decision-making was shaped by who could not share – based on a cell-sharing risk assessment protocol ( – rather than an evaluation of which individuals would actively get on.

  6. It is notable that, in McDermott and King's account, a number of the ‘games’ between prisoners and staff were also related to defecation: at a time when cells did not have in-cell sanitation, these included being let out to use the toilet, dealing with ‘shit parcels’, and the ‘slopping out’ of buckets that had been used during the night.

  7. Many interviewees declared that they had OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), with some speculating that prison ‘gives you a cleaning disorder’ (Gary).

  8. Many of our interviews were conducted before prisons in England & Wales became officially ‘smoke-free’. In any case, in practice, prisoners continue to find illicit ways of obtaining and smoking nicotine or new psychoactive substances.


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