Carceral Geography at the AAG 2013

It’s that time of year again… the Call for Papers for the AAG in Los Angeles is open.

In previous years there have been some great themed sessions around imprisonment, migrant detention, borders, mobility, agency etc – in Seattle there was practically a conference within a conference with a day and half of fascinating papers and discussion.

Given the wealth of great work being done by members of the carceral geography network and more widely, perhaps it’s an idea to start thinking about putting together a set of themed sessions for LA next year.

If you’re interested in participating, please either post a comment below, or email me at

Identity and Imprisonment: voting, citizenship and bureaucracy

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that some prisoners in the UK should be given the right to vote, but the UK Prime Minister insists that prisoners will not be afforded this right.  Quoted in the Daily Mail, he said: ‘I have always believed that when you are sent to prison, you lose certain rights and one of those rights is the right to vote and crucially I believe this should be a matter for Parliament to decide and not a foreign court. Parliament has made its decision and I completely agree with it.’

Prisoners are allowed to vote in 14 European countries, including Ireland, Spain and Sweden, and there are 16 more where prisoners have limited voting rights, including Germany, France and Italy. Apart from the UK, the only other EU member states which deny voting rights to sentenced prisoners are Bulgaria and Romania, Hungary and Estonia.

In a recent piece in The Guardian, Caspar Walsh outlines his reasons for supporting prisoners’ right to vote; ‘A prisoner’s rehabilitation as a safe, responsible and productive member of society must include the most basic right of democratic process – the right to choose who governs us’. Prisoners’ rights (or otherwise) to vote are an aspect of their citizenship, and a form of expression of political views. In other jurisdictions, prisoners are forbidden from displaying political images in their cells. In India’s Kannur Central Prison, prison authorities removed photographs of political leaders displayed by inmates. Nearly 300 pictures, ranging from those of Latin American revolutionary icon Che Guevera to photographs of Indian Congress leaders, were removed from cells. The decision to remove the pictures was apparently in response to claims that political prisoners in Kannur had turned their confinement into “party cells”, and that the jail had become a “hot bed of party politics”.

Denial of aspects of citizenship is a problem on an entirely different level for the ‘Anonymous Aliens’ who are the subject of Melanie Griffiths’ new paper. She traces the struggles many migrant detainees in the UK have in meeting official expectations and requirements regarding the nature of identities and how they can be proved. Frequently migrants have no identity documents (or those they have are considered false), they come from countries with minimal registration systems, or are generally assumed to be lying about their identities. UK Border Agency caseworkers may also ‘disprove’ their claimed identities during refusal of asylum applications. This combination of processes, she argues, results in some individuals either lacking a bureaucratically recognised identity, or alternatively having multiple identities attached to them; both situations hindering their removal from the UK since a ‘genuine’ identity must be re-established in order for Embassies to issue valid travel documents. In her paper, Griffiths examines what happens to people in this ‘limbo’ state with one identity under dispute and another officially confirmed, arguing that individuals may become vulnerable to criminalisation and exceptional treatment such as indefinite incarceration. She argues that “people beyond identification techniques become increasingly bureaucratically problematic, making them simultaneously threatening to and vulnerable to state apparatus.

Although UK prisoners and their rights to vote, Indian prisoners and their confiscated political posters, and ‘anonymous alien’ migrant detainees with unproven identities face different challenges in different situations, the issues of identity, citizenship, empowerment and disenfranchisement are common to each. What is interesting is that in each case, the official response is motivated in part by the ‘threat’ that is perceived to emanate from these disenfranchised individuals. In India, prison wardens pronounced Kannur Central Prison impossible to manage whilst political activism was facilitated by display of images. In migrant detention, Melanie Griffiths identifies the threat to state apparatus posed by the anonymous aliens, and Caspar Walsh suggests that perhaps one of the reasons why the UK Prime Minister is so reluctant to allow prisoners to vote is because “if voting rights were given to UK prisoners, politicians… would need to canvas inside prisons for votes and listen to the voices of the wide range of citizens we have behind bars”. Although, as he points out, this canvassing could involve a genuine focus on the long-term rehabilitation of the individual, and lead to better post-imprisonment outcomes, it would undoubtedly be a considerable, and perhaps an unpalatable, challenge.

Father’s Day at San Quentin – images of prison parenting

Many thanks to Shaul Cohen for the link to this photo montage of Father’s Day visits to San Quentin, California, US. The website details the annual Father’s Day event, “Get On The Bus” which brings children in California to visit their fathers in prison. According to The Center for Restorative Justice Works, the non-profit organization that runs the “Get on the Bus” programme, 60% of parents in state prison report being held over 100 miles (161 km) from their children. Regular prison visits seem to lower rates of recidivism for the parent, and also have benefits for the children in maintaining a relationship with their parents.

What struck me most about the montage, which includes images of children riding the bus, of parents and children reconnecting, and of fathers doing facepainting with their children, was these two images, of children wearing the purple t-shirts of the “Get on the Bus” programme, having their photos taken with their fathers, wearing prison-issue blue. In the visiting space there’s a backdrop of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, and the smiling snapshots are taken in front of it. From the images it seems that the Golden Gate is not the only backdrop option, but its the one they’ve chosen for these images, or perhaps just the one that happened to be on offer on the day.

I’m intrigued about the role of this backdrop for the fathers and their children, and why they chose to have their photos taken in front of it.

Maybe the backdrop is just decorative – more decorative than the beige walls of the visiting space. Maybe it’s just conventional that a backdrop like this is used, like in a photographer’s portrait studio. Or maybe it’s there so that children showing these treasured images to their friends don’t need to explain where they were, or what was going on – although one might anticipate that the backdrop would raise more questions than it obscures.

The backdrop image itself intrigues me too – by using a famous California landmark, there’s a reconnection to the locality, the state, and to the landscape that is familiar to the children and families on the outside. These images look almost like holiday snapshots – families on a day trip having their photo taken in front of the Golden Gate bridge. There’s an element of enactment here, heightened by the ‘stageset’ of the painted backdrop.

It’s a small detail, but perhaps a significant one in terms of understanding what goes on during prison visiting, and the ‘performances’ that are undertaken by both visitors and visited, especially when families are far apart, visits are few and far between, and everyone wants the visit to go well. It also gives a tantalising insight into what happens after the visits are over, and the importance of visual records of the visits themselves, both for parents and children, in terms of the maintenance of a narrative of parenting and family, when a parent is incarcerated.

The relationships between visiting and reduced recidivism, and visiting and children’s well being, have been observed in a range of contexts, but perhaps it is attention to details such as this, seemingly trivial issue of family photographs, that is key to understanding how these things are related to each other, and to enhancing these positive effects of visitation.

Prison design, prisoner well being and ‘green’ building – prison design from Iceland

Many thanks to Yvonne Jewkes for the recommendation of this website about the design of a planned women’s prison in Iceland, which brings together discourses about prison spaces and green building, and raises some interesting questions about the purpose of ‘green’ prison design.

In designing the prison spaces, the project team of Joaquin Millan Villamuelas, Cristina Viacario, Belen Gomez, Lurdes Martinez, Javier Urrutia, Ignacio Jimeno and Kristinn Olafsonn from OOIIO Architecture intended “to design a prison that doesn’t look like a prison, forgetting about dark spaces, small cells, and ugly grey concrete walls….. we based the building design on natural light, open spaces, and natural green materials like peat, grass and flowers.”

Instead of designing one large building (like a “typical repressive old prison”), they decided to break it into several “human-scale, connected” pavilions, which must be efficient and functional to enable the spatial separation of prisoners, but which must have “natural light and exterior views, to increase the feeling of freedom”.

The architects also have an eye to the speed and ease of construction, and to the eco standards of the building, planning to draw upon Icelandic vernacular architecture to insulate the building. The prison facade will be constructed from peat-filled cages, planted with local flowers and grasses, both to provide cheap, prefabricated thermal insulation, and to deliver a facade “that changes with the seasons”, making prison life “less monotonous and more human and natural related”.

Whether prisoners housed within this planned prison will experience heightened wellbeing as a result of the prison design or the flowering walls is yet to be seen, but recent work within criminology has drawn attention to the importance of understanding the effect of prison design. A recent paper published in Punishment and Society directly considers the  contribution that the physical environment makes to the pains of imprisonment, and Ioana-Christina Siserman (2012) considers environmental psychology as a means to understanding the effects that prison space has on transforming and shaping the behaviour of inmates. Thinking about the ‘natural’ elements of the Icelandic prison, as Laura Jackson (2003, 192) has argued “judging from the literature, the most healthful architecture exposes inhabitants to natural light and ventilation, views of greenery, and close proximity to outdoor green space”.

A separate but related discourse within building design literatures focuses on prisons as ‘green buildings’, drawing attention to the use of distributed energy resources (DER) to reduce energy consumption. Such projects include rooftop photovoltaic systems, molten carbonate fuel cells, combined heat and power (CHP) units, all of which minimise energy bills and/or carbon emissions. A recent report on Santa Rita Jail near San Francisco, CA, is an example of this kind of work.

In the United States, according to Andrew Webster (2010), the building of ‘green prisons’ or the retrofitting of eco technology to existing buildings has dual benefits, first in lowering the cost of incarceration, and second in teaching prisoners valuable skills, which “could range from maintaining a solar farm to organic farming or other similar trade skills that would give them a better chance of avoiding recidivism, i.e. falling back into criminality, and therefore, a better chance of staying out of prison once they are released”. Essentially he argues that  “environmentally friendly prisons will cost less to build and operate, decreasing the cost of housing inmates; and the use of inmates to maintain the facilities will decrease the incidence of violence within the facilities and recidivism”.

‘Green’ building means lots of things – from increasing natural light and exterior ‘natural’ views, to minimising energy consumption and making prison buildings thermally efficient and carbon neutral. There are some parallels between the US drive to reduce the operating cost of its immense carceral estate through energy efficiency, and the cheap thermal insulation provided by flowering peat in Iceland, but connecting prison design to prisoner behaviour is challenging, both at the level of prisoner wellbeing during incarceration, and in determining the effect of prison design (in terms of prisoners’ rehabilitation via green technology) on post-release outcomes.

Carceral Geography, Palestinian Agency and Spatial Control – forthcoming lecture and paper

Rema Hammami, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Birzeit University, is giving a guest lecture at the Centre for Studies in Asian Cultures and Social Anthropology, Vienna, on Thursday 14th June. Entitled ‘The Carceral Geography of Late Colonialism: Palestinian Agency and Israeli Military Checkpoints – an ethnographic view’,  it focuses on spatial control over Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

Carceral geographers might be interested to see how Professor Hammami discusses human geographers’ and critical planners’ conceptualizations of this spatial control through reference to Foucauldian notions of panoptic surveillance and in terms of Agamben’s notions of Homo Sacer/Bare Life.

According to the abstract for the lecture, Rema Hammami starts from an understanding of the scale and sophistication of Israel’s regime of spatial control over Palestinians in the occupied territories as “without precedent”. Composed of a dense matrix of internal and external checkpoints, closed military areas, buffer zones, and more than 700 kilometres of concrete wall and electronic fence, she describes the spatial regime as “multi-layered, all-encompassing and overwhelming”. What is missing from existing accounts of these spaces, she argues, is Palestinian agency. “Palestinians are not simply objects of Israel’s technologies of control but are also active subjects who through a variety of everyday practices negotiate, elude, subvert and sometimes overturn the operations of the spatial regime while constantly resisting the range of impacts it has on their lives”. Through reference to ethnographic research undertaken at checkpoints in the West Bank over the past decade, the lecture aims to “shed light on the range of these resistant practices, while posing the larger question of what does Israel’s spatial regime aim to do? And what exactly does it accomplish?”

On this broad topic, and again drawing attention to agency, Adam Ramadan’s forthcoming paper is well worth a read. In ‘Spatialising the Refugee Camp’  he argues that while the repressive geographies of asylum and refuge in Europe have been the focus of academic attention in recent years, much less work in geography has focused on the refugee camp as a distinctive political space. Focusing on the particular case of Palestinian camps in Lebanon, his paper sets out an analytical strategy for refugee camp space. It takes three analytical ‘cuts’ into the space of the camp: a critical take on Agamben’s ‘space of exception’ that accounts for the complex, multiple and hybrid sovereignties of the camp; an analysis of the camp as an assemblage of people, institutions, organisations, the built environment and the relations between them that produce particular values and practices; and an analysis of the constrained temporality of the camp, its enduring liminality and the particular time-space from which it draws meaning. This spatial analysis of the camp offers a way of grounding geopolitics, seeing its manifestations and negotiations in the everyday lives and practices of ordinary people. The camp is much more than an anonymous terrain of conflict or a tool of international agencies, and understanding its spatiality is essential for seeing the everyday politics and material practices of refugees.

Taking carceral geography out of the conventional ‘confines’ of the prison or the detention centre, this forthcoming lecture and paper both offer fascinating empirical and conceptual insights.