Prisons and prisoner behaviour – space and affect

“Very little is understood and appreciated of the behavioral influence of environmental factors on prisoners and staff. It would be difficult to find a correctional official, warden, superintendent, or line officer that does not agree that a facility’s architectural design has a corresponding influence on prisoner behavior.” (Austin 2003, 5)

I keep coming back to this passage of text from James Austin’s report for the US Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons, wondering why, and thinking that this is exactly the kind of question that carceral geography is well placed to address.

In today’s Guardian magazine, Amelia Gentleman’s piece on Halden, the world’s ‘most humane prison’ raises this question again, although in an utterly different penal regime – the decarcerative setting of Norway rather than the hyperincarcerative context of the US. One of Norway’s highest security institutions, Halden apparently smells of coffee, cells have flat screen TVs and fluffy towels, and prisoners look out over wooded landscapes within the prison grounds. Doors don’t slam shut and prisoners are out of their cells for most of the day. The prison’s architects were set a challenge of designing a space that was ‘light and positive’, and ‘shouldn’t look like a prison’. The principle, given that in Norway the maximum sentence is 21 years and all prisoners are expected to return to the world outside, was that ‘life behind the walls should be as much like life outside the walls as possible.’ As the prison governor discussed, the spatial context is just as important as the rehabilitative regime:

“Everyone who is imprisoned inside Norwegian prisons will be released… everyone… will go back to society. We look at what kind of neighbour you want to have when they come out. If you stay in a box for a few years, then you are not a good person when you come out… We don’t think about revenge in the Norwegian prison system. We have much more focus on rehabilitation. It is a long time since we had fights between inmates. It is this building that makes softer people.” (my emphasis)

Although governor Are Høidal is as convinced of the effect of the building on prisoners’ behaviour as are the correctional officers in James Austin’s report, little is known about how this effect takes place. Some fascinating work within criminology sheds some light on prison architecture, notably Michael Fiddler’s 2011 papers on the phantasmagoric prison, and the prison’s Gothic shadow, but perhaps of greatest interest to carceral geographers is Philip Hancock and Yvonne Jewkes’s recent paper ‘Architectures of incarceration; The spatial pains of imprisonment’ which calls into question the ‘enlightened humanism’ of new generation prisons like Halden, and identifies some ‘pains of imprisonment’ which arise specifically in these contexts, pointing out that the intentions of architectural design can also be lost in everyday practice. They conclude by raising questions about the future of prison architecture and design, and also ‘for the role and trajectory of… research… and particularly for our need to understand the lived experience of such spaces for all those required to inhabit them’ (p627, my emphasis).

Understanding the lived experience of spaces is, of course, at the heart of geographical enquiry. Space is recognised by geographers as more than the surface where social practices take place. As Adey (2008, 440) argues, ‘specific spatial structures… can work to organise affect to have certain effects’. Designers of spaces consider ‘seductive spatiality’ (Rose et al 2010, 347) or ‘ambient power’ (Allen 2006, 445) through which to direct or shape human behaviour within these spaces. Essentially, geographers understand that space ‘matters’, and can affect the ways people act within it.

Although almost a decade has passed since Austin noted that “There are few, if any, studies that have assessed the impact of prison architecture on prisoner behavior” (2003, 6), perhaps dialogue between criminologists and carceral geographers will go some way towards furthering our understanding of the lived experience of carceral space. And in so doing, carceral geography could address critics of geographies of affect and emotion, who argue that such studies should address more topics of relevance, and that geographers of affect should ‘seek out projects and avenues that offer grounds for critical and political thought at the same time that they open the door for participation in efforts to make positive social and political change’ (Woodward & Lea 2010, 170).

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