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?

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