Faith in Carceral Space

In her recent paper in Political Geography, JoAnn McGregor argues that removal centres for detained immigrants in the UK are acting as spaces of religious revival. By exploring why confinement for removal fosters enhanced religious engagement, her paper examines experiences of detention and deportability based on ex-detainees’ accounts, investigates institutional provision, and detainees’ own initiatives regarding faith, and treats faith in its affective, emotional, narrative and performative dimensions. McGregor finds that faith acts as as a source of resilience for non-citizens faced with legal exclusion.

McGregor’s work is amongst the first within geography to explore the importance of faith during confinement. However, in cognate disciplines there are intriguing glimpses of the role that faith plays within and beyond carceral space. For example, Revd. Peter Phillips, a mature PhD student at the University of Cardiff, UK, is working on the role of prison chaplains ‘caught in no-man’s land’ as both agents of the prison establishment and/or as counter-agents within it.  In so doing, he works with theories of liminality to explore participation in ritual-like activities, affiliation/disaffiliation, and the importance of prison chaplaincy in prison ethnography, focusing particularly on prison chapels and reception areas. Within criminology, Grant Duwe and Valerie Clark find in their study of prison visitation and recidivism in Minnesota US, that visits from clergy lowered the risk of prisoners reoffending after release by 24%. They suggest that the training that clergy often receive in helping individuals through difficult life circumstances, may mean that they are able to give offenders the kind of effective counsel and support that they need. Their study contributes to a growing body of work considering the effectiveness of faith-based rehabilitation programmes during incarceration (e.g. Dodson et al 2011), and the role of faith in facilitating ‘reintegration’ after release (such as Kerley et al’s 2011 study of a faith-based transitional centre for women in the Southern United States).

Within carceral space, recent geographical research in Russian prisons suggests that in constructing prison chapels, the Russian Orthodox Church provides spaces of retreat and escape from the oppressively communal prison environment. Women interviewed for a recently completed research project suggested that not only were chapels used as spaces for devout prayer, and for recreation in the form of choral singing, but that they also provided a rare sense of solitude and privacy within prison walls, where prisoners retreated into the privacy of the self.

McGregor’s work highlights the potential for faith to act as a “‘coping mechanism’” to help detainees “through distressing periods in detention” (2012, 243). By drawing attention to the complex role of faith in the lives of the detained (and those released after detention), though, her work points to ways in which carceral geography, along with cognate disciplines, can nuance understandings of faith in carceral space, perhaps to problematise what might be understood by the  ‘effectiveness’ of faith-based interventions.

Are you working on faith in carceral space? Let us know about your work by posting a comment below: