Contraband cellphones – the ‘porous prison’

On opposite sides of the world, in very different penal systems, penal authorities are trying to gain control of the communication technology used by inmates both to organise themselves within the prison, and to make contact with those outside. In Jakarta, Indonesia, an impromptu raid unearthed and confiscated illegal devices such as cell phones, chargers, and an iPad, and in California USA, the private company that owns the pay phones in the state’s prisons is installing technology to prevent inmates from using smuggled cell phones to make their calls.

Although the motivation in the US is partially to protect the profits of the service provider, aided by new legislation which makes smuggling a cell phone into a prison a misdemeanour punishable by a fine of up to US$5,000, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate said that the “groundbreaking and momentous technology” to be installed “will enable [the prison system] to crack down on the potentially dangerous communications by inmates.”

Under the new plan, each prison will have a cellphone tower that can be controlled by prison officials.  Cell phones supplied by the approved provider will be able to send and receive signals, but contraband phones will be useless.

The introduction of this technology in California’s jails draws attention to the porosity of the prison wall, engaging with Goffmann’s interpretation of the prison as a ‘total institution’, and to critiques which draw attention to its porosity and permeability. The blurred nature of the prison boundary has been observed by Baer and Ravneberg (2008), who in their description of Norwegian and English prisons highlight the indistinction that they perceived between outside and inside, and by Moran (in press) in relation to prison visiting spaces in the Russian Federation.

The prison wall is permeable not only in that it permits the interpenetration of material things (people, supplies) but also intangible things (ideas, the internet, emotional attachments), and this move in California could be interpreted as a means of wresting back some control over the level of porosity or permeability of the prison wall to communication technology.

Beyond spaces of confinement – papers at RGS-IBG 2012

The provisional schedule for the RGS-IBG conference in Edinburgh in July this year is now available online. For those interested in geographies of imprisonment and detention, as well as the two sessions themed around ‘Everyday Geographies of the Punitive State’, there are a number of fascinating papers in store.

Selecting just two of these, both Menah Raven-Ellison’s paper Home beyond detention  and Avril Maddrell’s paper Doing time in the charity shop: space of reparation and rehabilitation for the Licensed Prisoner? A ten year review draw attention to practices of ‘confinement’ which take place beyond formal institutonal boundaries. Abstracts, taken from the RGS-IBG provisional programme, are given below.

Home beyond detention (Menah Raven-Ellison) In the third quarter of 2011, 6,593 people were detained in the UK for the purposes of immigration control (Home Office, 2011). While 1,123 of those detained were women, major shortcomings are identified in their treatment and calls made for a more gender sensitive asylum system that meets the needs of women asylum-seekers. Although 35% of these women went on to be released there is a lack of research that investigates the on-going legacy of detention and the consequences for the belonging, social integration and mental wellbeing of ex-detainees and those close to them. This paper presents some preliminary empirical findings, drawing on in-depth narratives of ‘home’ for previously detained women living in the UK. In doing so it seeks to uncover how women’s experiences of detention may endure over time and space, often defined by the enduring indeterminacy and exceptionality of detention and the imposing ‘spectre’ of future confinement. Conceptually, this paper seeks to contribute a critical feminist perspective to the emerging geographic research on detention, imprisonment and confinement by focusing on how geographies of detention may extend beyond institutional boundaries to the home as an equally geopolitical space as experienced in the everyday lives of women.

Doing time in the charity shop: space of reparation and rehabilitation for the Licensed Prisoner? A ten year review (Avril Maddrell) Research on charity shops ten years ago showed that they fulfil a number of social functions and draw on a wide range of volunteers, including licensed prisoners on day- release from open prisons. This identified the space of the charity shop not only as a conduit for fundraising, recycling and alternative consumption, but as a complex social environment in which prisoners ‘do time’ and shadow state functions are performed by shop managers and other volunteers who undertake explicit and implicit surveillance, re-training and social rehabilitation of prisoners on licence (Maddrell 2000; Horne and Maddrell 2002). In-depth interviews with charity shop prisoners, volunteers, licensed prisoners and prison officers are used to undertake a ten year review of this scheme, the implications for prisoners, prisons, charity shops and personnel, the general public and custodial policy. Questions addressed include whether in this context the charity shop can be read as panopticon? And whether the near-compulsory nature of community service work under licence challenges definitions of what constitutes a ‘volunteer’?

Distance Matters: Parenting in Prison

Where prisons are matters – not just for the local inhabitants of surrounding areas concerned for their house prices or their employment prospects, but for the families of the incarcerated who face problems in visiting prisoners when they are held at distance from home, and for imprisoned parents who want to see their children.

In New York, USA, two politicians have recently introduced bills that would establish a pilot program for 60 parents to be incarcerated near their children. According to a piece in the NY Daily News, although more than 73% of incarcerated women in New York are mothers and roughly 100,000 New York children have a parent in prison, the state Department of Corrections makes no provisions for parents when it assigns them to prisons across New York state.

The impact of distance on the experience of imprisonment, particularly for mothers with young children, is the focus of  a recently completed project looking at the experience of women in Russia’s prison system, and is discussed in a forthcoming book, as well as in a recent paper which describes Russia’s geography of punishment.

While carceral geography has tended to concentrate on the impact of the spatial distribution of places of incarceration on the communities which host or surround them, research into the impact of distance from home and family during imprisonment would complement the wealth of research within criminology and prison sociology into the ‘collateral’ effects of  incarceration.

“I can make about four steps forward before I touch the door” The embodiment of incarceration.

Incarceration is the confinement of the physical body – although the imagination may travel beyond the prison cell and the prison wall, the act of imprisonment seeks to confine the body within demarcated space. But what happens to bodies treated in this way, and to the individuals who inhabit them?

Yesterday, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox marked the forty year anniversary of their solitary confinement in Louisiana’s notorious Angola jail. As Ed Pilkington notes in The Guardian, both have spent ’23 hours of every one of the past 14,610 days locked in their single-occupancy 9ft-by-6ft cells’. Contact with the world outside the windowless room is limited to the occasional visit and telephone call, “exercise” three times a week in a caged concrete yard, and letters that are opened and read by prison guards.

In a new documentary film, “Herman’s House“, directed by Angad Bhalla and produced by Lisa Valencia-Svensson, (to shown at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival on April 27), Wallace both describes his imprisonment:(“Being in a cage for such an extended period of time, it has its downfalls. You may not feel it, you may not know it, you may think you’re OK, and you’re just perfunctory about it.”) and allows his imagination to traverse the prison wall to co-create an art installation featuring detailed plans of his “dream home”.

In additional recordings, he vividly evokes the effect of this corporeal confinement:

“Every time I stand up from the bed I could hit my hips on the table, it’s that close. As far as moving about – there is no movement. I suffer from arthritis that has come about because of being in the cell.”

“If I turn an about-face, I’m going to bump into something. I’m used to it, and that’s one of the bad things about it.”

Robert King, the third of the “Angola 3”, whose conviction was overturned and who was released in 2001, echoes the effects of close confinement

“I was in a six-by-nine cell for 29 years and I know what it did to me – it shunk the brain, it shrunk the individual. You become acclimatised to small distances.”

Amnesty International delivered a petition for the two men’s release from solitary to the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge on the date of the anniversary, and the 40 year anniversary has drawn greater attention to the practice of solitary confinement in the US, not least because of the severe and debilitating effects of this kind of incarceration on body and mind.

For carceral geography, the effect, or affect, of solitary confinement on the incarcerated is a direct example of the influence of space on behaviour. Space is, after all, is not just a passive backdrop to social practice; it has ‘seductive spatiality’ (Rose et al 2010, 347) and ‘ambient power’ (Allen 2006, 445)  to affect how those encountering it act, both consciously and subconsciously. Contemporary human geography’s concern for the corporeal and the embodied resonates with the work of criminologist Azrini Wahidin, and her work on the corporeal effects of imprisonment, with prisoners’ bodies remade and reinscribed in the penal context.

Carceral geography has the opportunity to deploy geographies of affect, emotion and embodiment to enhance understandings of the effects of solitary confinement, and to do so in a way which contributes to efforts to make positive social and political change.

Abandoned or converted prisons – transient carceral landscapes

Joliet prison, owned by the state of Illinois, US, closed in 2002, and although it has since been used as a filmset by TV and movie crews, it lacks a long term future plan.  With a large bill for renovation, and no immediate source of funding, as Bob Okon writes, there will be ‘no fast redevelopment’ at Joliet.

Joliet is an example of the dilemma facing those involved in dealing with prison buildings once they reach the end of their penal function, and the conversion, adaptation or destruction of these sites is often a contentious and highly politicised process. Geographers researching memory and landscape have investigated some of these sites.

Carolyn Strange and Michaela Kempa’s work on Alcatraz, for example, identifies this defunct prison, now converted into a museum and heritage site, as a popular tourist experience, and they consider the nature of  ‘dark tourism’ at Alcatraz  in terms of memory management. In contrast, Brian Graham and Sara McDowell focus on Long Kesh/Maze prison in Northern Ireland, one of the key heritage sites of the Northern Ireland conflict/Troubles, and site of contestation between various stakeholders in the peace process. Concluding that only one stakeholder group has a ‘clearly defined sense of the heritage value of the Maze and an understanding as to how the site might be appropriated and exploited as an iconic place for remembering, contestation and resistance’, they anticipate the problematic future of the site (initially cleared, to be the site of an EU-funded Peace Building and Conflict Resolution facility but more recently sold to the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society to accommodate an agricultural show and centre of excellence).

The commercial exploitation of former prisons is widespread, either deploying the prison’s own heritage, as in the case of Patarei prison in Tallinn, Estonia, or Kilmainham jail in Dublin, Ireland, or converting it for profitable use, as in the case of the Malmaison hotel in Oxford, UK or Katajanokka hotel in Helsinki, Finland.

Relatively little geographical scholarship has tracked such conversions, although Chin-Ee Ong, Claudio Minca and James Sidaway’s forthcoming paper at the RGS-IBG this July will do so. The Empire and its Hotel: The Changing Biopolitics of Hotel Lloyd, Amsterdam, The Netherlands traces the early days of the hotel’s beginnings as a node for housing immigrants,  to its ‘carceral’ phase as an adult prison and juvenile detention centre, to its contemporary use as a hotel and cultural embassy for a mobile travelling society. The authors interrogate the discursive and spatial practices for producing disciplined subjects and bodies in the refugees, prisoners and, in a ‘punitive turn’, the disciplining of contemporary tourists and modern-day tourism workers.

Arizona’s ‘inhumane’ isolation: Amnesty Report

The extreme isolation regime used in special prisons in the US state of Arizona is cruel and dehumanises inmates, according to Amnesty International, as it released a new report accusing the state authorities of failing to care for the basic physical and mental health of these isolated prisoners.

The report, Cruel isolation: Amnesty International’s Concerns about Conditions in Arizona Maximum Security Prisons, describes how over 2,000 prisoners are confined for months or years in conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation:

“More than 2,900 prisoners are held in Arizona’s highest security maximum custody facilities, the majority in the SMUs at ASPC-Eyman. Most are confined alone in windowless cells for 22 to 24 hours a day in conditions of reduced sensory stimulation, with little access to natural light and no work, educational or rehabilitation programs. Prisoners exercise alone in small, enclosed yards and, apart from a minority who have a cell-mate, have no association with other prisoners. Many prisoners spend years in such conditions; some serve out their sentences in solitary confinement before being released directly into the community.”

Amongst Amnesty’s recommendations are that Arizona authorities should:

  • Reduce the number of prisoners in isolation under SMU or similar maximum custody conditions to ensure that only prisoners who are a serious and continuing threat are held in maximum custody isolation facilities.
  • Provide a route out of segregation through incentive or step-down programs so that prisoners are not held long-term or indefinitely in isolation.
  • Improve conditions for prisoners in SMU or other maximum custody facilities so that they are not confined in windowless cells or denied access to natural light; have more out of cell time and better exercise facilities with appropriate equipment.

Understandings of carceral space, which include these extreme conditions of incarceration, are important for carceral geography. Geographers have a critical constructionist notion of space, understanding that it is not passive, but is constantly being produced and remade within complex relations of culture, power and difference. Although spaces of supermax prisons await this kind of socio-spatial inquiry, in her 2005 paper, “Inclusive Exclusion: Citizenship and the American Prisoner and Prison,” Agnes Czajka considered the proliferation of prisons in the United States, particularly the increasing number of supermax security or “camp” prisons, as an example of “the normalization of a state of exception”, drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben. In a very different penal context, Teresa Dirsuweit (1999) discussed the interrelationship of identity and space, mapping out the prison in terms of the physical spaces and the signification that these spaces hold for prisoners and prison authorities, and Anita Wilson’s work has produced rich ethnographic material on the personal transformation of prison spaces.

David Sibley and Bettina van Hoven argue in their 2008 paper for ‘a fuller exploration of the relationships between prison architecture, the space–time regime, and correctional officers, on one hand, and the worlds of inmates, on the other’.  They point out, though, that as Amnesty found in Arizona, prison authorities do not often facilitate this kind of research.

Perhaps the Amnesty report shows that understanding how prison works, and how institutional spaces are produced and experienced, is critical to tackling such ‘inhumane’ conditions.

Wilson A 2004 Four days and a breakfast: time, space and literacy/ies in the prison community in Leander K and Sheehy M eds Spatialising literacy research and practice Peter Lang, New York 67–90

Death Row documentary – geography and mobility

“Most people do not know when and how they will die. Death Row inmates do. They are told the exact day, hour and minute of their death, including all the precise details, procedures and rituals of their execution.

Death Row is a documentary series written and directed by legendary feature filmmaker Werner Herzog, telling the fascinating and controversial story of crime and the death penalty. Over the period of a year, Herzog interviewed inmates in America as they awaited their death, uncovering brutal stories of rape and murder.

Death Row is not so much a series about capital punishment as a deep and intriguing insight into the limits of human experience, asking what it feels like to know how and when you will die.” (Channel 4, UK)

There are a few days left for viewers in the UK to watch the first documentary on 4oD. It’s a fascinating piece of TV – particularly because the death row interviewee, Hank Skinner, describes the unusual experience of moving from the holding facility to the execution facility, only to be given a stay of execution, and to return once again to his holding cell.  Herzog teases out Skinner’s thoughts on food, the body, the passage of time, and the 40-mile journey between the holding facility and the execution facility. As Sam Wollaston notes in his review, ‘what Skinner saw out of the truck’s window, the other-worldliness, the noise of the tyres going over the joints in the bridge, the smell of the lake they drove by and the memories that the smell conjured up, memories of freedom’ are particularly evocative.

Although not focusing on the transportation of death row inmates per se, some recent work within geography has considered the transportation of prisoners and has theorised this movement in terms of mobilities and liminality, a state of ‘betweenness’. For example, Nick Gill’s recent paper argues that the increasing mobility of asylum seekers around the UK’s detention estate has significant implications for both the advocacy groups and professionals who hold influence over their experiences, and Dominique Moran et al’s paper contends that contemporary prisoner transport in the Russian Federation serves as an illustration both of punitive power expressed through mobility and of mobility in the carceral context.