Pseudo-carceral spaces? Replica prison cells

The ‘Choice’  Bus is making its way to middle schools in San Antonio, bringing a message about ‘the importance of education and the consequences of wrong choices’  to school children. In part, the message is conveyed through the replica prison cell installed at the back of the yellow school bus. The bunk bed, toilet and sink were donated from a prison in Alabama, and the idea is that children will find the cell off-putting enough to discourage them from offending. A short video here shows the bus, the cell and reactions of visiting children. There are numerous other examples, of  ‘deterrents’ of this kind, including this from North Wales, UK.

As recent posts show, I’m interested in challenging the inside/outside binary of the prison, and I find the creation of replica cells, and the uses to which they are put, fascinating. In these examples the message is about the powerlessness of incarceration; the lack of choice which derives from making the ‘wrong’ choice. The communication of this message through the vicarious cell experience, of course, assumes that imprisonment is in some way a deterrent to crime – itself a highly contested viewpoint…

Elsewhere, though, the creation of such pseudo-carceral spaces outside the prison, in which ‘free’ individuals experience incarceration vicariously, carries different intentions.

In the UK, for example, the Foyer of the Royal Festival Hall in London was recently the venue for the ‘Go to Jail’ exhibition, run by Rideout, a UK creative organisation working within the field of criminal justice. Visitors could enter the cell to inspect living conditions, and chat to ‘prisoners’ ‘confined’ to the cell about life inside. After visiting, there was a digital consultation about setting prisoners’ tariffs and cell facilities. Rather than explicitly to deter visitors from offending, the aim in offering a transient experience of incarceration, was to encourage them to reflect on prison conditions and the rehabilitation of inmates.

The construction and display of a replica cell is also a tactic frequently deployed by pressure groups to draw attention to particular penal regimes, for example this replica Cuban prison cell in Madrid, and this replica cell drawing attention to political prisoners in Burma.

In two other exhibitions, replica cells are a vehicle for different messages, about prisoners’ agency within and beyond carceral space:

In “The House That Herman Built” a full-scale wooden model of Herman Wallace’s cell is contrasted with detailed plans of his dream home, allowing his imagination to traverse the prison wall.

In Prisoners Interventions a replica prison cell is used to give visitors to an exhibition of prisoners’ inventiveness and ingenuity ‘a physical and psychological understanding’ of the spaces they inhabit, and a context for the design and manufacture of their inventions. The exhibition (and a later book), a collaboration between incarcerated prisoner Angelo and ‘Temporary Services’, showcases recreations of objects made by prisoners to address the needs of their restrictive environment, from sex dolls to salt and pepper shakers, to chess pieces. In Angelo’s words, “Even the simplest of innovations presents unusual challenges, not just to make an object but in some instances to create the tools to make it and find the materials to make it from. The prison environment is designed and administered for the purpose of suppressing such inventiveness. Officially, the devices described here are considered contraband, subject to confiscation in routine cell searches. But inmates are resilient if nothing else—what’s taken today will be remade by tomorrow, and the cycle goes on and on.”

While replica cells enable different messages to be communicated and explored, this pseudo-carceral space itself awaits investigation. Different from the ‘transcarceral’ spaces discussed by Allspach (2010), we might consider them transient carceral landscapes, offering a simulacrum of the prison for the spectatorship of onlookers. What is clear, though, is that as Herman Wallace and Angelo have shown through their collaborations, the involvement of prisoners in creating replica cells shows that they can do more than act as a threatening ‘deterrent’. They can stimulate debate about prison conditions, and the purpose of incarceration, and also about the agency of prisoners in these spaces, and the unexpected and ingenious ways in which they engage with and beyond them.