Max Dunbar




Panoptic Nerve

I come from the prison state of the future.

When I was growing up people were very worried about crime. The recession and decline of stable employment had led to a spike in the murder rate, and a prevalent gang culture. There was a junction in Chapel Edge where you had to jump the red lights, every time, because if you stopped or even slowed a battalion of armed maniacs would leap from the shadows and jack your car. People began to leave the city. Districts and neighbourhoods were abandoned. One time the council dragged fifty-five burning cars out of the Slight Pass woods. Something had to be done.

There was a crackdown. Armed police and dawn raids. The main gang leaders were rounded up, and thrown in the city jail on mandatory life sentences. Gun crime went through the floor. The gangbangers were left rudderless and dismayed. Politicians made long backslapping speeches. The local paper ran long backslapping headlines. But there were still issues. People still stole things, or killed each other, over petty irritations and curdled grudges. It was decided to impose natural life sentences for murder and, later, for manslaughter, robbery and burglary. We had to build new prisons, on the edge of the city, to house all the fresh convicts, and taxes went up, but jobs were created in the new prisons, and people didn’t mind paying more taxes as long as they felt safe.

We had eradicated all the crime, locked up every offender of every offence from rape to aggressive begging to 419 fraud. And yet the good citizens of the community found that their lives were still disturbed. There were still people who didn’t take their bins out, owners of unreliable car alarms, writers and artists who caused offence to authority or religion, sufferers of mental illness or autistic spectrum disorders whose appearance and behaviour were frightening to others, children who climbed trees, parents of babies that cried at night through thin walls. And so a raft of new offences had to be created to prosecute these lesser criminals who, though not violent or aggressive in the old sense, still interrupted the quality of life for the majority.

After so it came that around two thirds of the city’s population were locked up on natural life sentences, and the prison complex covered most of the outer suburbs. Only the inner of the city, a space around ten miles in radius, remained free ground. These were terrible years. I had been lifed off myself by then, for cocaine dealing, and I was sent to the inner prison, circular-shaped, that bordered the free lands. The prison was made of heavy reinforced glass. The summers were the worst. The glass was one-way and you could see the office girls dancing across pavements on late July afternoons, the bright elemental parkland and soft tower lights, crowds of friends sitting on picnic tables against busy multi-storey bars. We called them the free folk. We developed a fierce identification with certain of the people who passed along the other side of the glass that made up our segment of the inner prison ring. We speculated on their backstories and motivations. Their world, free of irritation and awkwardness, the taint of difficult lives, was like a utopia that had a story, some glamorous drama you couldn’t stop watching.

But it can’t all have been perfect, even out there, for they were still sending people in, for even more trivial offences, things like selling expired quinoa, or dropping spoilers in dinner conversation. Now the prison covered ninety-five per cent of the city. There weren’t enough guards to actually run the prison complex, because the available labour pool had shrunk at such rapid pace. The authorities lost control long ago, but it didn’t lead to the carnage you’d expect, because by now the inmate society was mainly composed of harmless eccentrics. Inside the prison complex we built libraries and restaurants. We tore up the concrete floors and planted trees. Gender segregation went long ago. The university here has Russell Group accreditation. Even the pitbulls are friendly here.

And so this is the final paradox: incarcerated without hope, we managed to create something close to paradise. And the free folk are out there circling the arid scrub of what’s left of the old city, and picking food out of the ground. One or two of the brighter ones realise we’re still here, and on cold nights they will look directly into the glass and say the ancient human wish: Please let me in.




Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction and criticism has appeared in various print and web journals. He blogs at  Twitter @MaxDunbar1.


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