In the Visitor’s Room of a prison in Oxford, at the table next to me, a middle-aged man in a turquoise shirt sips a cocktail through a straw; his face scrunches up with pleasure. The woman he is with leans in to whisper in his ear. He opens his eyes and catches me looking at him and I look down at the menu I’m holding. Three courses on Christmas Day will be £85.
This building was used to incarcerate and sometimes execute people until it was sold by the council in 1996 for £9,000 to Malmaison, a hotel chain. Today it is worth around £30 million.
For the last 10 years the Visitor’s Room has been a bar area where couples like the one next to me come to enjoy themselves. I look across again and they are kissing. She strokes his belly with the backs of her fingers.
The Malmaison Oxford embraces the history of the building; incarceration is the brand image. Cell walls have been knocked down to make larger rooms, though the original cell door has been kept in some instances. In the lobby a screen plays films and TV shows set in prison. The shelves are ornamented with the metal trays that inmates ate their meals from—and still eat their meals from in still existing prisons. It’s like visiting the London Dungeon, only you’re less likely to see groups of children on school trips. In my room, a letter greeted me headed “ENJOY YOUR PORRIDGE.”
At the Malmaison Oxford, prison gentrification is in.
‘Do any of the former inmates ever come back?’ I say.
‘One man recently,’ says the receptionist.
‘To look inside his old cell?’
‘He wasn’t a guest. I just took him around the grounds.’
‘Was he angry? Did he get upset?’
‘Oh no. It was a very special day.’
In his essay “Sex in Hotels,” Geoff Dyer describes how hotels can make the consequences of your actions invisible. A man can cheat on his wife or do an illicit deal in a hotel and afterwards someone will come in to change the sheets and make everything look as it was before. Dyer writes that hotels, especially luxury hotels, allow guests to feel “morally weightless” in this way. But the Malmaison Oxford is different. It sells the opposite of weightlessness to its guests; customers acquire that hefty feeling of being on top.
I say this because of things like the hotel’s boss Chris Steadman telling a local newspaper “I’d never been to a prison before coming here… But if this is what it’s about, you can send me down for a long stretch.” The hotel website says “Be sure to stop by our neon-lit bar, where the only clink is the sound of glasses as you raise a toast with our cunning cocktails.” I see guests chortling at these sorts of jokes during my stay. It’s a laughter reminiscent of the entertainment of 19th-century freak shows or public school teenagers guffawing at their own wit for throwing a “chav” party.
Like Dyer I can see how regular expensive hotels allow smooth materialism and cleanliness to stand in for goodness. This is what makes it easier for a man to cheat on his wife whilst forgetting the wrongness of it. However the Malmaison Oxford experience makes it impossible for guests to forget that whilst some lives are lived in confinement, as a guest you get to have what you want.
The message is gleefully clear: others get punished; you get rewards.
In one corner of the basement is a restaurant serving Cherry and Vanilla Creme Brûlée. In the other corner is a prison cell that hasn’t been converted into a hotel room. It is less than half the size of my hotel room. It contains a bunk and single bed and so holds three in total. A prisoner’s daily timetable is written in 19th-century style font on a plaque on the wall and there are leaflets for the nearby Oxford Castle. The museum-like presentation of the cell means hotel guests would be forgiven for thinking that the incarceration of people belonged to antiquity. As if a cell identical to this one isn’t musty with the agitation of three men at a prison just some 20 miles away.
I keep asking myself how it is that this place hasn’t been challenged by someone. This is Oxford after all, a place where even the moral pioneers like Peter Tatchell get no-platformed for not being radical enough. So why has no one protested this place?
Of course, the answer to this question is depressingly easy to answer. People can enjoy graceful weekends in a prison hotel because most people do not really know about prison, and even if they do, it is a part of the world they are happy to forget, either because they believe prisoners deserve to be where they are or they find prisons to be one of those grim necessities, like sewers, that they don’t want to linger on.
But there is something extra the Malmaison has that allows it to stand so invincibly in the middle of Oxford. I’m reminded of what Oscar Wilde wrote in “Reading Prison” (just some 25 miles away from here) about the difficulty of people understanding what it was like for him to be incarcerated:
“…the dreadful thing about modernity was that it put tragedy into the raiment of comedy, so that the great realities seemed commonplace or grotesque or lacking in style.”
Amongst the soft linings of the Malmaison, style is key to the relegating of tragedy. Style is what helps guests enjoy the frisson of a prison hotel whilst forgetting the reality of prison itself.
Prints of Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock, Johnny Cash’s At San Quintin and Steve McQueen’s The Great Escape are framed throughout the building. The corridors have moody black and white photos of prison wings; one is of a pair of hands tightening around bars from inside a cell. There is style in what has been altered: acoustic padding lines the ceiling of the former house blocks to take away the institutional echo that would be too evocative for an escapist weekend. It’s the style of this place that exempts it from moral challenge.
Standing in that cell, with the old fashioned font on the text, the 2016 story of Osvaldas Pagirys comes to mind. He was arrested for stealing sweets and sent to Wandsworth prison (60 miles away from the Malmaison). Three months later, when he was 18 years old, he hanged himself. Although hangings used to take place at the Malmaison Oxford, to mention Osvaldas Pagirys wouldn’t fit here, in the same way that trainers don’t fit with a cocktail dress. It would mean that one had transgressed into inelegance. By force of room service and velvet cushions on the bed, the Malmaison Oxford is a once-prison that has made prison a vulgar subject.
I speak with a woman who works in the bar. She tells me that when the building was being extended and they were digging the foundations they found skeletons in the ground that were thought to be the bones of prisoners who had been executed here.
I ask ‘Has there ever been any trouble here? Has anyone ever come by and protested?’
‘What do you mean?’ she says.
‘Do people ever come in and complain about the theme of the prison? I mean the theme of the hotel.’
‘We had one group who visited a while back.’
‘What did they do?’
‘They were looking to open another prison hotel somewhere else. But theirs fell through.’
‘So were they protesting?’
‘No. This is still only one of two prison hotels in the world. The other one is in America.’
Maybe the American prison hotel the staff member in the bar was referring to was the Liberty Hotel in Boston. In fact, there are many prisons-turned-hotels in the world; in the Netherlands and Turkey and Sweden and Germany, to name a few. The fact that there is one in America seems congruent with the fact that prisons are a lucrative business in the U.S. If companies can make money by incarcerating people then why shouldn’t hotels get excited about jailhouses too?
In the U.K., the current shape of things is different. The current government’s austerity budget has created understaffing issues in prison. Combine this with a tough-on-crime policy that has led to overcrowded jails (the prison population has doubled in the U.K. without the amount of spaces growing in tandem; single cells have become double cells and double cells have become triple cells). Thus there is not enough security staff and too many prisoners. That goes some way to explaining the riots at HMP Birmingham last year.
The Malmaison’s rooms are priced from £150 to £465 per night. In one of the most expensive rooms is framed art work of tally lines, the type inmates would use to track the number of days they had been inside. On top of the tallies is perched a bird—“bird” being East London slang for prison sentence.
A sum as big as £465 brings to mind John Healy’s vagrant memoirs The Grass Arena. Like so many of Britain’s underclass, prison was a refuge for him. He describes being held in HMP Pentonville (less than 60 miles away from the Malmaison Oxford) and feeling reluctant to leave when a friend a bought him out of jail before the end of his sentence:
“Sometimes you have only been given seven days’ nick and you are just about getting the drink out of your system and begging to get a good sleep and rest, when someone buys you out and you don’t want to go. But once the fine is paid you’re out on the street again. The fourteen days’ lay-down in prison for drunken fines is the only restful bed winos get; saves lives, really.”
“You don’t want to go.” I wonder if the brand designers at the Malmaison Oxford had read Healy when on the website they chose to advertise a suite by saying “This is a room you won’t want to break away from.”
With princely indulgence, I lay in my Malmasion bed eating chocolate from the minibar. I am positioned to know exactly what Jean Genet was getting at in The Thief’s Journal when he said “Prison offers the same sense of security to the convict as does a royal palace to a king’s guest.” I flick through late-night television channels. At this hour, each program bristles with the possibility of sex and violence. It would not go against my setting were I to feel titillated. Both hotels and prisons are loaded with sexual tension. In the Malmaison arousal is over-determined.
In prison, it’s not just the awaiting of a conjugal visit or forbidden homoeroticism that makes up the sexual ambience. In his letters to Norman Mailer, Jack Henry Abbott wrote that after taking beatings from the guards:
“I was so constantly and arbitrarily attacked in my cell there, after a while my desire for physical relief was so powerful and all-pervading that when the guards would finally leave off the attack and exit my cell, I would sometimes achieve an erection out of despair and pain. I have on those occasions had to masturbate to relieve myself, but not masturbate with any vision in my mind, my imagination. The pure psychical act of caressing the penis after numberless exposures to attack is enough. It is entirely a physical thing, entirely involuntary.”
With Abbott at the back of my mind, I think back to the couple I saw back in the bar earlier that evening, her stroking his belly with the backs of her fingers.
‘How young were the children that used to be incarcerated in my room?’ I say.
’Women and children,’ the receptionist says. ‘When prisoners gave birth.’
‘What if the mothers were to be executed?’
‘Don’t worry sir, hangings only took place in the part of the building that’s now used as the staff area.’
The receptionist and I go on having exchanges like this. Me trying to make her morally uncomfortable and her trying to ensure I, as a paying guest, am comfortable. Talking to her brings to mind an idea from Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others:
“Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronting evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.”
As I try to emphasize words like “execution” and “child prisoner,” I’m met by the receptionist’s implacable smile. After a few minutes of her immovable hospitality my anger starts to take on an indeterminate status to me. Am I just being petulant? Am I acting like a moody adolescent?
The receptionist is so relentlessly convivial to me that I start to doubt my own criticisms of this hotel. Do I just need to become less incredulous at the insensitivity of Malmaison? The other guests and staff don’t have a problem with the idea of a prison hotel. It’s me that’s the odd one out. Does the fact that I find this place cruel speak of my immature constitution?
The receptionist goes on smiling. This hotel is so blithe about jail that it could almost be taken for some kind of authority on the subject.
Image Credit: Flickr/Neil Conway.