“I’m not supposed to be boiling them in their cells” Heat, climate, and the environment of punishment

In summer 2011, ten inmates of the Texas state prison system, US, died of heat-related causes, a death toll that has alarmed prisoners’ rights advocates who believe that the lack of air-conditioning in most state prisons puts inmates’ lives at risk.In the fierce heat of July and August, prisoners suffered from hyperthermia, which occurs when body temperature rises above 105 degrees, and which can be exacerbated by hypertension, obesity, heart disease or antipsychotic medications, all of which can affect the body’s ability to regulate heat.

According to the New York Times, one inmate, Alexander Togonidze, 44, was found unresponsive in his cell at an East Texas prison called the Michael Unit at 8 a.m. on Aug. 8 with a body temperature of 106 degrees. The temperature in his cell, taken by prison officials 15 minutes after he was pronounced dead, was 86.2 degrees. Although prison officials say that they take steps to help inmates on hot days, including restricting outside work activities and providing extra water and ice, in the four-story Coffield Unit near Palestine, TX, where an inmate died of hyperthermia in August 2011, dozens of windows have been broken by prisoners putting soda cans or bars of soap into socks and throwing them at the windows, hoping to increase ventilation.

One corrections officer said “I’m supposed to be watching them, I’m not supposed to be boiling them in their cells. If you’ve got a life sentence, odds are you’re going to die in the penitentiary. But what about the guy who dies from a heat stroke who only had a four-year sentence? His four-year sentence was actually a life sentence.”

These tragic stories from Texas bring home the importance of the environment of incarceration, and as the title of the New York Times article  “Heat Can Be a Death Sentence for Prisoners” suggests, the ways in which climate can exacerbate the ‘pains’ of imprisonment. Although criminologists take an active interest in the location of prison facilities, and the debates surrounding the decisions to locate facilities in particular places (see for example Eason 2010, Hooks et al 2010), within the criminological literature the main focus seems to be on the relationship between the institution and the surrounding population; there is remarkably little consideration of the environment of punishment; that is – the climatic conditions – the settings in which prisons are located, and the implications of these locations for inhabitants of the institutions.

Environment matters, though. The distance between ‘home’ and the penitentiary is not just about the number of miles between two places – it is also about the separation between those places as it is actually experienced by those concerned; the perceived differences in socially constructed phenomena such as cultural practices, and language, as well as climatic conditions. This focus on spatiality and the concept of distance is not unique to geography; as Davis (1999) notes, these issues emerged in sociological work by Simmel, Durkheim and Parsons, and in Sorokin’s theorization of ‘sociocultural distance’ and ‘nearness’. Indeed, as Young (2006, 253) observes, among human and social geographers, distance has, in fact ‘long been a primary target in the struggle against geographical determinism and absolute definitions of space’, and theorists of late modernity, postmodernity, and globalization ‘have written profusely on the annihilation of space… by time’. In contesting these stances in his exploration of rural development in Canada, Young  adopts a position informed by hybridity and actor–network theory in arguing that distance ‘ought not be considered merely as the geographic tract that separates locales, but rather as an active combination of natural, technological, and social elements‘ (2006, 254). In other words, distance should be conceptualized along three dimensions: natural or physical attributes, technological infrastructures that penetrate and/or manipulate spaces, and social relationships among persons in these spaces. By so doing, the ‘realism’ of distance is multiplied, ‘in that the potential configurations of natural, technological, and social elements are exponentially expanded’ (ibid 254), and that the discrepancy in powers to actively configure distances becomes heightened.

Conceptualisation of distance on the part of the individual is key, and the ‘natural elements’, such as the physical environment, including climate and the mitigation of its extremes, play an important role. The climate, seasonal pattern, and landscape, especially when these are new and unfamiliar, all matter for the individual in perceiving distance and ‘performing it into being’. Historically, the challenges of transporting prisoners long distances to new environments have been recognised as practical problems to be overcome, pertaining to the health and wellbeing of prisoners exposed to new and unfamiliar climates and landscapes, with their attendant risks of local pests and diseases for which new arrivals were unprepared. Shanks et al (2008), for example, have pointed out the physical challenges associated with transporting prisoners from Europe to the Andaman Islands in the 19th century, culminating in very high mortality rates due to local strains of malaria, and Wilson & Reid (1949)  report more than half of a group of Allied prisoners of war perished from malaria while acting as forced labour for the Siam-Burma Railway. The impact of climate and local physical conditions on prisoners is also well known from classic Gulag memoirs. In The Gulag Archipelago Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (1974, 575-6), for instance, described prisoners from the south of the Soviet Union arriving in Arctic Russia in February 1938:

The railroad cars were opened up at night. Bonfires were lit alongside the train and disembarkation took place by their light; then a count-off, forming up and a count-off again. The temperature was 32 degrees below zero centigrade. The prisoners’ transport train had come from the Donbas, and all the prisoners had been arrested back in the summer and were wearing low shoes, Oxfords, even sandals. They tried to warm themselves at the fires, but the guards chased them away: that’s not what the fires were there for; they were there to give light. Fingers grew numb almost instantly. The snow filled the thin shoes and didn’t even melt… the doomed prisoners in their summer clothes marched through the deep snow on a totally untraveled road somewhere into the dark taiga. The northern lights gleamed… The fir trees crackled in the frost.

Conceptualising distance as the natural or physical attributes of space, the technological infrastructures that penetrate space, and the social relationships among persons in these spaces, it is clear that the physical attributes of space take on particular importance. For prisoners ‘boiling in their cells’ in Texas, it is not the literal distance from home that matters; rather the ways in which incarceration limit prisoners’ ability to deal with the climatic conditions they experience. Unlike the European prisoners in the Andaman Islands, or the Gulag prisoners experiencing their first Siberian winter, Texas state prisoners are perhaps quite accustomed to summer temperatures in the US’ southern states – but in the summer heat they cannot sit in the shade in the open air with a cold beer as they might do at home.

In Texas, inmates and their advocates have argued that the overheated conditions during summer heatwaves violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. For carceral geographers, the tragedy of these prisoner deaths in Texas points up the significance of the embodied experience of incarceration, in which the environment of punishment means more than the penal architecture or disciplinary regime of the prison, and which also encompasses temperature and humidity, and the vulnerability of prisoners’ bodies, at a distance from home which includes the technological infrastructures that penetrate and/or manipulate carceral spaces, and social relationships among persons and institutions in these spaces.

Courtroom confinement and administrative segregation: Or the difference a cage makes…

David Tait and Emma Rowden of the University of Western Sydney, Australia,  put together a terrific session for the RGS-IBG conference in Edinburgh this July. Sponsored by the Geographies of Justice Research Group, and entitled ‘Justice on trial; Security and safety in court spaces’, the session responded to the ‘security’ theme of the conference by arguing that the geography of the courthouse has become a battleground for different philosophies of security. The three papers in the session provided three Australian case studies of issues that have also been hotly debated in Europe: placing defendants in glass cages in the courtroom, providing sanctuaries for vulnerable witnesses through video links, and the use of screening, CCTV and intelligence to manage risk. These studies contrasted overt physical barriers to contain people with the soft power of surveillance and customer services; security as a set of techniques for managing danger with psychological safety as a goal for supporting victims of violence and other vulnerable justice participants.

I was fortunate to be asked to act as discussant for this session, and I was particularly struck by David Tait’s paper on courtroom cages, in which defendants are held whilst on trial. Increasingly defendants are being confined to cages within courtrooms based on security concerns, despite judgments by the European Court of Human Rights and two Australian Supreme Courts that suggest rights to a fair trial could be jeopardized by such confinement. The practice is more extensively used in England and Wales than elsewhere, where as David pointed out in his paper, the history of holding the accused in a ‘dock’ separate from their lawyers (rather than allowing them to sit alongside their attorney as is the custom in the United States) has contributed to this courtroom ‘geography’. His study reviewed the history of the practice, and the debates about physical confinement of the accused in court.

The controversy over holding defendants in cages whilst on trial stems from the concern that such confinement suggests guilt to a judge or jury, and compromises the potential for a fair trial. High profile examples of courtroom cages are numerous, from the case of Dmitri Konovalov, on trial in a steel cage in Minsk, Belarus for detonating explosives at a metro station,

to the infamous image of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak on a hospital bed inside a cage made of steel mesh and iron bars during his trial in a courtroom in Cairo.

In his recent paper, David Tait points out that even where courtroom cages are not as extreme as those in Minsk or Cairo, any form of confinement, even the glass booths which have been used in Australia, can bring fairness and security considerations into conflict. Fairness, he argues, has an architectural or spatial dimension, in that courts are designed not just to achieve functional objectives, such as adequate sightlines and good acoustics, but also to reflect values such as “trust, hope and most importantly faith in justice”.

This balance between fairness and security is perhaps also behind the practice, as shown in this image, of administrative segregation prisoners taking part in a ‘group therapy’ session at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, US on June 8 2012.

I found this image, part of set published online, profoundly shocking, partly for the commentary that such confinement was “undoubtedly for their own good”, but mainly out of incredulity that such an arrangement of cages could be thought to create an atmosphere conducive to rehabilitative therapy. Whether administrative segregation protects the institution from violent prisoners, or provides protective custody for vulnerable inmates, to my eyes these boxes create an image of inmates as caged animals.

Although in the context of San Quentin, the concerns of prejudicing juries which inform debates over courtroom cages do not apply, the question of the effect of these cages both on prisoners’ own self-awareness and the perceptions of them which are generated by others, still remains.

Whereas the “fairness” of a court of law may not be at issue here, the “fairness” of treating social beings in this way surely is. In a recent Written Statement to the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch stated that “based on years of research and analysis, we are convinced the unnecessary, counter-productive, and devastating use of this harsh form of confinement in many US prisons cannot be squared with respect for human rights”.

Although HRW’s focus in this statement is of course on the ‘misery and suffering’ of those directly experiencing administrative segregation as a form of solitary confinement, there are questions to be asked, too, about the effect of these cages on those working with or visiting these prisoners. In many cases,  those working with prisoners in ‘ad seg’, for example conducting interviews to protect their constitutional rights, or facilitating therapy as detailed in this image, conduct meetings with men in cages.

Just as juries struggle to overlook cages in maintaining a presumption of innocence in the courtroom, holding prisoners in cages must make engaging in meaningful, constructive dialogue with these prisoners, and treating them as thinking, feeling individuals, an immense challenge, and must surely have an impact on the wellbeing of those professionals asked to undertake this work.

The Justice on trial session at RGS-IBG raised fascinating questions about the function and use of space, and the conscious or unconscious impressions created by certain spatial arrangements and confinements. Taking these questions into the prison itself, it seems that if, as David Tait argues, fairness and security are in conflict in the courtroom, in the prison, security has triumphed.

Transcarceral spaces – (dis)empowerment in release from confinement

Heading back from the IBG conference in Edinburgh, I reflected on two fascinating papers on similar themes but drawing very different conclusions.

Menah Raven-Ellison described the experience of women released from immigrant detention in the UK and ‘dispersed’ into poor quality accommodation in towns and cities often distant from any existing family or support networks these women may previously have had. Although Menah is only part way through her PhD fieldwork, her impression so far is that these women experience extreme disempowerment, so much so that in her paper she characterised their status as ‘bare life’, after Agamben – beings entirely without agency.

By contrast, Avril Maddrell’s paper on UK male prisoners released ‘on licence’ from open prisons, detailed their experience of working in high street charity shops, and the positive effect that this activity seemed to have on their sense of self worth, and their motivation to find work on release.

Clearly it’s difficult to draw parallels between these two groups of previously or ‘semi’ incarcerated individuals. Both occupy what might be considered ‘transcarceral’ spaces after Allspach (2010), in that they are released from formal incarceration – in the case if the migrant women, no longer in formal detention, and for the men, on day release from open prison. Both still experience ‘re-confinements’ though – for the women, in the distant locations of their dispersal destinations, and the conditions of the accommodation in which they must remain, and for the men in the monitoring performed by the charity shop managers and the frequent reports back to the prison.

The outcomes, though, according to Raven-Ellison and Maddrell, are very different. For the migrant women these spaces of reconfinement represent for Raven-Ellison extreme denial of agency, whereas for the male prisoners, there is a certain degree of empowerment, with Maddrell describing some prisoners taking on a ‘security’ and surveillance role in charity shops and ‘spotting’ potential shoplifters, in a curious reversal of their own ‘surveilled’ status; and of charity shop work leading to shop management roles for some some prisoners after release.

In an RGS-IBG conference themed around Security of Geography/Geography of Security, these and many other papers provoked the audience to think about what security means. Given the overarching logics of confining asylum seekers and ‘mainstream’ prisoners, and of managing their release in ways which differ so widely in the outcomes for individuals, whose security is really being protected?