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.