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:

Mother’s Day in Prison – virtual crossing of the prison wall

Mother’s Day in the US has highlighted the problems facing families trying to bridge the divide of the prison wall to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones. Some of these examples highlight the value of online advocacy and social media in bringing issues of personal communication to a wider audience

  • Media Literacy Project, Strong Families, and Thousand Kites have a Mother’s Day radio special which highlights the charges made in the US by telephone corporations to families wishing to keep in touch with their incarcerated loved ones.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union has a new  Justice Mamas feature on its website, with a series of mothers talking about what it is like to have a son behind bars and in solitary confinement
  • The Get on the Bus initiative in California brings children to visit their mothers in prison. Sixty percent of parents in state prison report being held over 100 miles from their children.

What each demonstrates is the reach that the prison has beyond its physical boundaries, into the lives of the families and friends of the incarcerated. Carceral geography has debated the apparent ‘inside/outside’ binary, (for example Baer & Ravneberg 2008, Moran in press), and within criminology, prison sociology and ethnography there is a wealth of research into the ‘collateral’ effects of incarceration (see for example the work of Helen Codd, and Megan Comfort’s recent book). Where carceral geography can contribute further, though, is in the exploration of these hybrid inside/outside spaces of collateral confinement, in which contact with the carceral, be that vicarious, for example through telephone conversations, or actual, through the entry of  ‘free’ individuals into the carceral estate, affects the lives of the family and friends of prisoners.

Just as important, though, is work which addresses the after-effects of incarceration, such as Matthew Lowen’s paper at the AAG conference in Seattle in 2011 which considered the effects of supermax confinement on prisoners’ lives after release. Matthew argued that “upon release prisoners experience social and spatial isolation as a result of limitations imposed by laws, regulations, and societal expectations.  Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that prisoners often impose social and spatial isolation upon themselves thus limiting their contact with others and in effect contributing to the re-creation of the many limiting conditions of mobility while in solitary confinement”.

Whilst Mother’s Day rightly draws attention to the suffering of the families of the incarcerated, as Matthew Lowen argues, “there is a need for a deeper analysis of the political implications the of socio-spatial (im)mobility of prisoners held in solitary confinement as well as recently released prisoners with a history of solitary confinement.” See more in the American Service Friends Committee’s report “Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in Arizona’s Prisons and Jails” (Matthew Lowen and Caroline Isaacs, 2007)