New ESRC Research Project: Breaking the Cycle? Prison Visitation and Recidivism in the UK

The ESRC intends to fund a new research project entitled ‘Breaking the Cycle? Prison Visitation and Recidivism in the UK’, to be undertaken by carceral geographer  Dominique Moran and criminological psychologist Louise Dixon, both at the University of Birmingham, UK.

This 3-year interdisciplinary project will provide a new perspective on prison visitation and its relationship to the highly topical issue of recidivism. Macro-level statistical analysis in parallel with innovative mixed-methods research into visiting facilities will identify the nature of this relationship and its socio-spatial context, informing policy towards visitation and the design of visiting spaces, and contributing to broader debates about prisoner rehabilitation and resettlement.

In the aftermath of the 2011 UK riots, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke described the rioters as a ‘feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream’, and blamed the riots on the ‘broken penal system – one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful’. Reoffending or recidivism is key to the operation of the repetitive cycle of incarceration, re-entry, re-offending and re-incarceration, and represents a major policy challenge. In the UK, 75% of ex-inmates reoffend within nine years of release, and 39.3% within the first twelve months. Clarke’s solution as set out in the government’s “Breaking the Cycle” Green Paper is ‘payment by results’; a ‘radical and decentralising reform’ with ‘freedom to innovate’ new interventions, opening ‘the market to new providers from the private, voluntary and community sectors’. This project draws attention to prison visitation as an aspect of imprisonment which has already been demonstrated to improve the outcomes of released prisoners, but whose specific functionality is at present poorly understood. Through parallel methodologies, this project investigates the relationship between visitation and recidivism.

Research into recidivism finds that prison visitation is a significant factor in improving post-release outcomes; outcomes are in general much more positive for visited prisoners, and lower recidivism rates have been demonstrated across study populations and time periods. However, although the effect is widely observed, the causality is poorly understood. It is presumed that the maintenance of personal relationships and the feeling of ‘connectedness’ to home and community which may arise through visitation smooth reintegration after release, but this process has never been fully explored. The processes underlying persistent criminal careers remain a research gap, and very little is known about psychological change in relation to prison visits in terms of the psychological constructs which may mediate the relationship between visits and recidivism.

The project will generate both nuanced insights into the relationship between prison visitation and recidivism, and also critical insights into the socio-spatial context of prison visiting, to inform visitation policy and the design of more effective prison visiting spaces. It seizes an opportunity to influence policy and create impact, at a time when the the coalition government is consulting on policy reform, in particular in relation to recidivism. It represents convergence of cutting-edge debates in cognate disciplines of human geography, criminology, psychology and wider social theory, and resonates with policy development in individual prison institutions in the UK in the context of the ‘Breaking the Cycle’ initiative.

There will be a 2.5-year Post-Doctoral Research Assistant position created at the University of Birmingham in connection with this grant; post to be advertised in due course. For any further information please contact

Call for Papers: Carceral Geography at the AAG 2013

Call for Papers: Association of American Geographers (AAG) Conference 9-13 April 2013, Los Angeles, CA., USA

Carceral Geography: Debates, Developments and Directions


Dominique Moran, University of Birmingham, UK

Shaul Cohen, University of Oregon, USA

 “Against the backdrop of unfettered markets and enfeebled social-welfare programs, when the penal system has become a major engine of social stratification and cultural division in its own right, the field study of the prison ceases to be the province of the specialist in crime and punishment to become a window into the deepest contradictions and the darkest secrets of our age.” (Wacquant 2002, 389)

The so-called ‘punitive turn’ has brought new ways of thinking about geography and the state, and has highlighted spaces of incarceration as a new terrain for exploration by geographers. Geographical engagements with incarceration have put these spaces, and experiences within them, firmly on the disciplinary map. Human geography, and specifically the evolving sub-discipline of carceral geography, have much to offer to the study of incarceration, and taking the carceral as a locus of research offers useful opportunities both to invigorate ongoing developments within human geography, and to contribute to positive social change.

Carceral geography is a new but a fast-moving and fast-developing sub-discipline. Although the first paper by a geographer published squarely in this field was probably the work of Dirsuweit (1999), the enormous potential of spaces of incarceration for geographical enquiry was highlighted by Philo (2001) who turned a book review into an agenda-setting article germinating the ideas which have informed the development of this area of research, in terms of a critical engagement with spaces of confinement and a dialogue with the work of Foucault and Agamben. A decade after this paper was published, and with the sub-discipline proving an increasingly vibrant field, this session aims to provide a space for discussion of this scholarship, situating it in the context both of contemporary human geography and of the interdisciplinary literature from criminology and prison sociology upon which it draws, and to also explore a range of potential avenues of future research which are open to transdisciplinarity, which are both informed by and extend theoretical developments in geography, but which also, and critically, interface with contemporary debates over hyperincarceration and the punitive state.

This call is intentionally broad, but papers in this session could, for example, explore any of the following issues in a range of geographical contexts, in relation to ‘mainstream’ imprisonment, migrant detention, or both:

  • debates, directions, and developments within the field of carceral geography
  • synergies with criminology and prison sociology
  • the nature and experience of spaces of confinement, broadly conceived
  • the geography of systems of confinement
  • the nature of mobility within incarceration
  • hyperincarceration and the carceral ‘churn’
  • penal architecture and prison design
  •  ‘green’ or sustainable prisons
  • notions of the ‘carceral’ which extend beyond physical confinement, understanding the carceral as emplaced, mobile, gendered, embodied and affective
  • conceptualisations of timespace in incarceration
  • the tension between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of penal institutions
  • relationships between incarcerated persons and family and friends
  • experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals after release

Please submit abstracts of no more than 250 words by email to Dominique Moran ( and Shaul Cohen ( before 14th September 2012.

Successful submissions will be contacted by 1st October 2012 and will be expected to register and formally submit their abstracts online at the AAG website by October 24th 2012. Please note a range of registration fees will apply and must be paid before the formal submission of abstracts.

Only as far away as the phone? Video visitation and prison call centres

Two stories in the news this week pertaining to prisoners’ contact with the outside world throw up some troubling questions about the nature and purpose of contact for those incarcerated.

First, many thanks to Shaul Cohen for these links to the New York Times’ piece on ‘Video Visitation’, which details the US District of Columbia’s switch to video visitation, a growing trend in the corrections field. To proponents, the video systems provide a more convenient, safer, thriftier alternative to in-person visits, reducing the need for visitors to travel to penitentiaries, to stand in line and be searched ahead of in-person visits, and the disruption to the prison regime caused by bringing prisoners to visitation suites and ensuring the security of the institution during visits. However, as the NYT reports, critics, including prisoner advocates and corrections officers concerned with how prisoners fare once they are released, fear that the video visits allow less meaningful contact with family and could damage inmates’ morale. The report quotes Angela Davis, who after her second video visit with her son, 21, said although video visitation was much more convenient, she missed watching her son walk into the visitation room and take a seat in front of her. While he walked she would observe him to make sure he had no scratches or scars while examining his body language and gestures. “He doesn’t know that, but that’s what I’d be doing,” Ms. Davis said. “I can’t really do that if he’s just sitting there and all I see is his face. You can’t really do that on a monitor.”

Sylvia Lane, a spokeswoman for the District of Columbia corrections department, claimed that the video system would double the number of visits possible each day to 400, while eliminating long queues and invasive security checks, and also lowering staff costs, saving $420,000 a year, about 64% of the $660,000 budgeted for visiting costs in 2012. She also said it would keep the jail more secure because inmates do not have to be moved around as much, and the risk of visitors smuggling contraband into jail is drastically reduced.

Although at present in-person visits typically remain an option, there is a sense in which growing familiarity with online communication such as Skype may mitigate against the negative perception of video visitation. However, a more troubling extension to this argument is made by Lt. Col. Kim Spadaro, the director of Florida’s, Broward County (which adopted a video system in 2007) Department of Detention and president of the American Jail Association:

“Either way, they’re not able to have physical contact with their family members,” she said. “They stay right in their cell, they’re on their video screen, they have their privacy, and they’re still having basically the same visit as the one they had when they’re separated by glass.” In other words, because in-person visitation is typically behind shatter-proof glass and no physical contact is possible, video visitation is ‘basically the same’ in the eyes of the establishment.

What isn’t the same, though, is the level of scrutiny of the visits themselves. As the DC corrections department information video makes clear, amongst the straightforward demonstrations of how to register for visits and book them online, the need for ID at the visitation centre and the various advantages of time and money savings for both visitors and institutions, all visits are ‘monitored and subject to recording’ (9:49). There’s no further information about the storage or use of these recordings, but one might anticipate that the knowledge that their conversations are being surveilled and filed might deter prisoners and visitors from speaking as openly as they might like to…

Video visitation raises all kinds of questions about how carceral geographers theorise visitation and visiting spaces. Although the visiting suite inside prison has been thought of as a liminal space between freedom and confinement for both prisoners and visitors (Moran 2011), video visitation casts this conceptualisation in a new light, both by denying prisoners the opportunity to meet face to face with loved ones away from their everyday carceral surroundings, and by bringing the prison, albeit in its virtual incarnation of online bookings and video screens, into new spatial contexts – the DC General Hospital in this case – with the potential to reach right into the homes of prisoners’ friends and families.

In the other story this week, The Guardian revealed the UK Ministry of Justice’s plans to support the establishment of call centres inside prisons, as part of prisoners’ work programmes. Not only could the scheme ‘lower costs and overheads’ for companies participating, but it could provide prisoners with paid work inside prison, contributing to their rehabilitation and increasing their prospects of employment after release. Quite apart from the fact that prisoners’ pay of £3 per day potentially undercuts pay rates for free workers (which MoJ defended by arguing that “All contracts with outside employers must comply with a strict code of practice which sets out that prisoners cannot be used to replace existing jobs in the community. Prisoner wages, for those in closed prisons, are set by prison governors and companies have no control over the level of payment”), there are concerns that putting call centres inside prisons would be one of the first instances of prisoners serving lengthy sentences coming into direct commercial contact with the public, and concerns about prison call centres’ compliance with data protection legislation.

Scholars have already pointed to conventional call centres’ panoptical surveillance strategies, using Foucault to theorise these regimes (e.g. Ball & Margulis 2011), but the idea of the prison acting as a site of ‘offshore outsourcing’ of call centre activity, where not only are wages very low but prisoners are also in the right time zone and have the appropriately reassuring regional accents, is intriguing. Debate over prisoners’ low wages and the effect of these on the competitiveness of firms employing free labour have been ongoing for some time, but it isn’t usually in relation to a ‘customer-facing’ commercial role such as this one. (Although Jackson (2011) notes that prisoners already work in call centres in India).

Two things seem to link video visitation in DC and the proposed prisoner call centres in the UK. Firstly the financial advantage that can be gained from deploying technology to connect prisoners and the outside world, be that either in cost savings for penitentiaries organising fewer face-to-face visits, or higher profits for commercial firms paying less for their call centre workers. Second is the nature of  contact – which in both cases is technologically mediated, monitored and recorded, and disembodied, either through video screen or telephone headset, and which arguably serves to separate the prisoner ever further from family and community.

Resisting the Eclipse: An International Symposium on Prison Ethnography

The International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research (ICCCR) is organising a conference on prison ethnography at the Open University, Milton Keynes, UK on 18/19th September 2012. I was recently alerted to the conference by Andrew Jefferson of the Global Prisons Network, and Ben Crewe, of the Prisons Research Centre, Institute of Criminology at Cambridge, who will both be presenting, and it sounds like something that carceral geographers would find fascinating.

There’s further information here, and the full programme is available here.

Essentially, the conference responds directly to Loïc Wacquant’s 2002 warning of  ‘a curious eclipse of prison ethnography in an age of mass incarceration’. It asks whether reports of the demise of prison ethnography are exaggerated? Speakers, panels and workshops will explore what prison ethnography has got to offer in an era of mass incarceration.
Although all of the sessions look fascinating, carceral geographers might be particularly interested to hear Andrew Jefferson, Mahuya Bandyopadhyay, and Thomas Ugelvik speak about ‘Prison Spaces’.

Registration is open now, and it’s free to attend, although spaces are limited so early booking is essential.