Time, separation and return

Fergus McNeill and Louis Abbott / 01 May 2020

I guess that, as we experience the effects of self-isolation and/or social distancing measures, many of us might also be aware of changes in how we are experiencing the passage of time. Although clock-time is defined by its strict regularity, the way we experience time is highly subjective; in other words, in different situations, we feel time and its effects differently. Hence we have common expressions, for example, to describe how time drags or how it flies.

Many people with experience of imprisonment, and many people who study imprisonment, have written about how imprisonment can seem to bend or alter time in particular ways, and about how many people in prisons try to manage time in a variety of ways, and with varying degrees of success. Time is, in some respects, the measure of the punishment; while the judge can define how many months or years have to served, no judge can make that time drag or fly. So, in an important sense, to find a way to manage time is to take back some control over the experience of being punished. Based on his research, for example, Ian O’Donnell (2014a) differentiates 7 strategies or adaptations:

  1. Rescheduling involves breaking long or indefinite periods of time into manageable chunks
  2. Removal involves becoming absorbed in everyday activities that ‘kill time’
  3. Reduction involves ‘switching time off’, for example, by sleeping or watching TV
  4. Reorientation centres on finding ways to live in and to stretch the present rather than dwelling on the past or the future
  5. Resistance involves fighting the system and challenging the time it demands as punishment (for example via appeals)
  6. Raptness involves ‘focused absorption in a goal-directed activity’; for example, getting lost in the process of painting a picture
  7. Reinterpretation is the most elusive adaptation; it occurs where people can ‘reimagine and recast their predicament’, changing its meaning.

These strategies and adaptations speak to how prisoners experience and manage time. More recently, researchers have also explored how imprisonment changes the way time is experienced in families. A year or two ago, Kirsty Deacon (whose 2019 PhD explores young people’s experiences of familial imprisonment), introduced me to the concept of ‘desynchrony’ (Thomas and Bailey, 2009). This has been written about in a number of different contexts, including seafaring, where differences in the rhythms and tempos of life on land and on the seas can cause problems for seafarers and for their families. Kirsty applied the concept in thinking about similar problems experienced by young people at home and their loved ones inside prisons. Where people’s lives within a family (or indeed any social group or network) have become de-sychronised or out of step because of separation, establishing some sort of ‘re-synchrony’ (or getting back into step with one another) can be very challenging. In certain respects, some of the strategies used by people to manage time inside prison might magnify these challenges on release.

It’s not surprising then that, across the songwriting sessions in the Distant Voices project, time has been a recurring theme. A year or two ago, in one of our quarterly ‘core group’ workshops (involving people with diverse experiences of criminal justice), we were working together to analyse materials from a specific session that had taken place in HMP Castle Huntly (Scotland’s only open prison). We noticed that time, timing and temporariness were recurring themes in that session.

Discussing this in the group prompted the recognition that reintegration after imprisonment is not just about what, who and where people return to, but also about the ‘when’ that they return to. As Kirsty’s work has shown, the separation produced by imprisonment isn’t just spatial — it is also temporal.

To explore these ideas a little further, I read or re-read work on imprisonment and time by criminologists (I’ve already mentioned Kirsty’s work and Ian O’Donnell’s, but papers by Azrini Wahidin (2006) and Sarah Armstrong (2018) were also useful). I summarised some of their ideas and some of my own in a very short working paper.

Around the same time, on a plane home from a work-related trip (a place where time really drags for me), I wrote a sort of poem (‘Her: Him: Us’) inspired by these writings and reflections. I shared both the poem and the short paper with Louis who, by training, is a percussionist, and hence a sort of specialist in using and controlling time and timing. Louis then created a soundscape that explored the same themes sonically. About his process, Louis wrote:

‘In its early stages, the musical ideas I was working on and the text Fergus had written were living separately. We had discussed the ways in which I could manipulate recorded sounds on Pro-tools [sound-recording and mixing software] using plugins like ‘Time Expansion / Compression’ – the ability to stretch or squeeze a soundwave. I experimented with a simple, repeated pattern of notes and played about with them at different tempos, keeping the pitch the same. Doing so reminded me of a piece written for string orchestra (and bell) by Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, which is essentially a canon; a cascading melody line starting at different speeds and octaves as it passes through the orchestra. This became the basis for the punchline of the piece (3.45s) with several, differently paced, descending lines played on a synthesiser. I also manipulated some ‘field’ recordings of household objects and time-stretched those; a ticking clock, a burning candle. The piece finishes with the pulsing of an ultrasound recording of a baby’s heartbeat.’

In the end, we decided we’d try to put the words and the sound together, in the audio piece that you can find here:


As with everything else on this website, do let us know what you make of it and whether it prompts any interesting thoughts or reactions. Feel free to email Fergus at Fergus.McNeill@glasgow.ac.uk


Sarah Armstrong (2018) ‘The cell and the corridor: Imprisonment as waiting, and waiting as mobile’. Time & Society 27(2): 133-154.

Kirsty Deacon (2019) Families – Inside Prison and Out: Young people’s experiences of having a family member in prison. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Ian O’Donnell (2014a) Prisoners, Solitude and Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ian O’Donnell (2014b) ‘Time and isolation as performance art: A note’. Crime Media Culture 10(1): 81-86.

Michelle Thomas and Nicholas Bailey (2009) ‘Out of Time: Work, Temporal Sychrony and Families’. Sociology43(4): 613-630.

Azrini Wahidin (2006) ‘Time and the Prison Experience’. Sociological Research Online, Volume 11, Issue 1 http://www.socresonline.org.uk /11/1/wahidin.html doi:10.5153/sro.1245.


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