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.