The Eclipse of Prison Ethnography? Reflections on the Symposium

I had the pleasure of attending the first day of the International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research (ICCCR)’s “Resisting the Eclipse: An International Symposium on Prison Ethnography” event at the Open University, and was lucky enough to hear terrific papers by eminent prison ethnographers.

The theme for the event was a response to Loïc Wacquant’s paper The Curious Eclipse of Prison Ethnography“, in which he expressed incredulity at the scarcity of ethnographic field studies of American jails and prisons, horrified to discover that, at a time when such examinations are most urgently needed, they appear to be disappearing under the weight of more conventional ‘correctional’ research. The response at the symposium was perhaps most strongly expressed by the lack of empty chairs in the seminar room at the OU – it was packed with people who either already engage directly in prison ethnography, or are planning to do so.

A theme emerging from the first day was of the ‘punctum’ as a point of entry into or heightened awareness of, a situation or context. In her keynote address Lorna Rhodes spoke about ethnographers in general and prison ethnographers in particular, identifying ‘punctums’ or punctuation points as a way of making known or understandable what is going on in a particular wider context. She used the example of a waste bin filled with discarded prison ID cards, each with the face of a prisoner staring out of it, as a punctum which had brought home to her the passage of time in prison and the aging of prisoners as their ID card photo remained the same. In her keynote address, Yvonne Jewkes observed that an ‘eclipse’ is a veiling or an invisibility, rather than an absence, and pointed out that prison ethnography is alive and well in contexts other than the United States, to which Wacquant referred. As a contributor to a forthcoming book in carceral geography, she drew attention to the prison scholarship going on outside of criminology. She also called for prison ethnographers to write and speak not only about their own experiences of research, but also about the sometimes unpalatable positive features of imprisonment, as a counter to a Critical Criminology discourse which tends to marginalise discussion of the humour, enlightenment, humanity and agency which can occur in prison, in what are often unrelentingly negative portrayals of prison life.

Rod Earle, Coretta Phillips, Abigail Rowe and Martyn Hammersley considered the actual experience of undertaking prison ethnography, speaking about the challenges they had faced whilst conducting research in prisons. Abigail Rowe’s experiences were particularly pertinent to the ‘punctum’ theme, as she described the numerous occasions on which she was mistaken for a prisoner whilst undertaking research in a women’s prison in the UK, and the insights this gave her into the way the prison operated when a researcher was not (thought to be) present – one small detail illuminating a wider system in uniquely useful way.

Ben Crewe and Laura Piacentini responded to their brief of ‘Writing and Reading a Prison?’ by discussing, respectively, the ways in which prison ethnography can delve deeply into prisoners’ backstories to illuminate their present of imprisonment, in that affording an audience for prisoners’ lifestories enables them to express thoughts and feelings which may often be suppressed in prison; and the integrity of prison ethnography, in terms of the prison ethnographer’s work flowing from a value system, and their work taking the form of that of an ethno-cultural specialist for their particular site, with appropriate insights into the context and consciousness in which penality exists.

Finally, Jennifer Sloan, Deborah Drake and Alison Liebling talked to their title “Thrown in or Drawn in? Sinking or Swimming in prison research and ethnography”, again drawing on their own experiences of researching inside prisons. The three speakers spanned the demographic of the researchers in the room, from Jennifer Sloan speaking as a new PhD graduate, sharing salutory lessons with the many PhD, masters and undergraduate students in the room, to Alison Liebling reflecting on returning to prisons she had researched within a decade ago, and reflecting on the changes which had taken place. Alison’s talk also recalled the ‘punctum’ theme, through her story of remaining in contact with a prisoner she interviewed some time ago, who had since been released, and whom she now knew as a free individual – drawing attention to the importance of the ‘front story’ in the same way as Ben Crewe had highlighted the ‘back story’.

All in all, a hugely successful, enlightening and positive event, with candid exchanges between people genuinely interested in, and supportive of, each other’s work. For carceral geographers, an encouragement to delve deeper into the work of criminologists and prison ethnographers, to learn from the enormous wealth of expertise and experience demonstrated by these speakers and the symposium delegates. I only wish the arrival of a new crop of undergraduates at Birmingham hadn’t prevented me from attending the second day!

reblog: Television in prison: how ‘they’ are watching ‘us’

Television in prison: how ‘they’ are watching ‘us’

Very interesting blog post here by Jennifer Turner, a PhD student at Aberystwyth University, UK, in which she draws upon findings from her own research to draw out some of the salient issues surrounding the watching of television in prisoners’ cells; not just the controversy around prisoners receiving such a ‘privilege’, but the interpretations of watching and being watched in this context of confinement.

On the one hand, the prison institution and in this case Her Majesty’s Prison system in the UK, can regulate the channels available to particular prisoners, making this information publicly available; on the other, as Turner points out, the channels being watched by prisoners in turn provide them with a partial view of the world ‘outside’ into which they will hopefully reintegrate after release.

For me this issue recalls Paul Adams’ 1992 paper “Television as Gathering Place” in which he explored television as a ‘center of meaning and as a social context‘ supporting the concept of ‘a place without a location‘.  ‘Television‘, he argued, ‘functions as a social context, providing sensory communion and social congregation; it also functions as a center of meaning, helping a society define “us” and “them,” conferring value on persons and objects, and, possibly, supporting hegemonic social control‘.

In her blog Turner suggests that there is some mileage in further investigating this issue, and it would seem that for carceral geographers interested in the place or perhaps the placelessness of prison, the television both as a ‘window’ on the outside and a means of control and surveillance on the ‘inside’, or perhaps as a liminal space between outside and in, demands further study.

Final Call for Papers: Carceral Geography at the AAG 2013

Final 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. 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 30th September 2012 **note new deadline**.

Successful submissions will be contacted by 4th 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.

Prisoners in Medical Research: Consent, Incentive and the Confined Body

Many thanks to Ebru Ustundag for alerting me to this recent paper arising from a national study led by Dr. Flora I. Matheson, a research scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital’s Centre for Research on Inner City Health, Toronto, Canada. The paper, published in the American Journal of Public Health, draws attention to the use of prisoners in Canada’s correctional system for medical and behavioural research, and in particular to the variety of policies and practices which surround the use of incentives for prisoners to take part in such research.

The paper points out that although prisoners are considered a vulnerable population in Canada, there is no specific regulation for ethical considerations for research involving prisoners, in terms of the use of incentives (anything offered to participants, monetary or otherwise, for participation in research). The authors point out the complications in offering incentives to prisoners: i.e. that for some, incentives could act as an undue inducement which could affect the voluntariness of consent; that offering incentives to nonoffenders but not to offenders could be seen as discriminatory; that some could argue that since prisoners are being ‘punished’ for breaking the law, they should not be ‘rewarded’ in any way for participation in research; and that providing incentives to offenders who meet research eligibility criteria (e.g. age, gender) but not to those who are not eligible, could create resentment within the prison environment. The paper concludes by suggesting ways forward for policy development in Canada to ensure effective and equitable engagement between researchers and the prison population, and an improved code of ethics for this population.

Whilst drawing attention to a particular issue of incentives and consent, this paper highlights in a broader sense the potential effects of confinement of the prisoner body; i.e. that confinement of the body places the body in a vulnerable position in relation to those who have a use to which it can be put. As the authors point out, ‘in history, offenders have been used in a variety of medical and behavioural studies without a properly informed consent process, often with little choice over their participation’ (Matheson et al 2012, 1438). Extreme examples, of course, include Nazi experimentation on thousands of concentration camp prisoners without their consent, and the recent revelations that American PoWs in Japan were apparently dissected alive. The bodies of dead prisoners have commonly been utilised for dissection and anatomical research: a 2007 Japanese study into the sources of cadavers for dissection by medical students found that in the mid Edo era, the bodies of executed prisoners were used to study internal body parts. Later, unclaimed bodies, including those from prisons, were used for dissection.

The disenfranchisement of prisoners apparently extended to the use of their bodies after death; according to research conducted by Ross Jones, in 1862, when the first Australian medical school was established in Melbourne, corpses were in such short supply that the Victorian Parliament passed the Anatomy Act to legalise the collection and dissection of cadavers. At the time, the inmates of the main benevolent asylum in North Melbourne feared that after they died, their bodies would be taken, without consent and used by medical students. They set up a petition against the Act demanding their bodies not be sent to the university but their concerns were ignored. In the same year, the Electoral Act  disenfranchised any person receiving charity in a public institution, and from then on, inmates had effectively no say in the disposal of their bodies. Although many advocates agitated about this inequity and argued for institutionalised Australians to be given the same rights as other citizens, the provision wasn’t discarded in Victoria until 1975.

This gory history of live experimentation and cadaver dissection is a backdrop to contemporary debates about the embodiment of imprisonment. Criminologist Azrini Wahidin‘s work explores the embodied nature of imprisonment, considering the particular ways in which prison time is inscribed upon the ageing imprisoned body, and the ways in which prisoners seek to deploy agency to resist the carceral control of the prison. For carceral geographers, considering imprisonment in this way opens a space for conceptualising  the experience of imprisonment as inherently embodied, drawing on scholarship in feminist geography which recognises both the mutually constitutive relationship between bodies and spaces, and a variety of bodily subjectivities (e.g. Johnson 2008). Bodies are understood as sites of  ‘textual inscription’  which shapes identities and social relations as well as the conceptual and actual spaces in which bodies move. The body, always in the process of becoming through the experiences of embodiment, is corporeally inscribed by imprisonment, in that the corporeal inscriptions acquired during incarceration act to construct bodily subjectivities which can stigmatise and disadvantage prisoners both during confinement and after release.

Returning to the Canadian example, participation in medical and behavioural research to which prisoners may consent, and for which they may or may not be offered incentives, could be viewed as enabled or encouraged by the carceral prism in which prisoners’ bodies are held during confinement, and also as a form of corporeal inscription of incarceration. Thankfully ethical regulations governing research in prisons are strict, and access procedures include detailed discussion of issues of consent, incentive and dissemination of information to participants. However, the thorny methodological and ethical issue of what constitutes ‘informed consent’ in a prison context remains, whether the research in question involves potentially risky medical research, or apparently benign questionnaire survey…

Arizona is Maxed Out! Prison Siting and Prison Conditions

Within carceral geography, the debate over prison siting has often centred around the perceived merits and demerits of location of prisons in terms of impact on crime rates, real estate values and community relations, as well as the contentious argument that prisons can act as stimuli for economic development. In Arizona, US, this debate is taking a new and critical turn, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona (ACLU AZ) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) have joined forces to demand that Arizona’s Governor Brewer cancel plans to build 500 new maximum-security prison beds in the state at a cost of $50 million.

As the ACLU point out on their website, the argument here revolves around both the diversion of funds away from essential services and towards prison building, and around the appalling record of Arizona’s existing maximum security prisons, in terms of the lack of medical and mental health care for prisoners, and the impact that confinement in isolation has on former prisoners after release.

They argue that “Arizona’s budget priorities are backwards. This year, the Arizona State Legislature passed, and Governor Brewer approved, a $50 million plan to build 500 new maximum-security prison beds. But Arizona’s prison population is not growing. In fact, it decreased last year and the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) projects zero growth in the adult prison population for the next two years.  Like other states across the country, Arizona’s budget reflects severe cuts to essential services and agencies across the board. How does Governor Brewer plan to pay for 500 new maximum-security prison beds? The current state budget takes $50 million from the mortgage crisis settlement fund that was intended to help communities devastated by foreclosures. Those millions of dollars then get moved to the state’s general fund, and suddenly, the state has $50 million for 500 new maximum-security prison beds.”

In a Community Forum of the “Arizona is Maxed Out!” Campaign ACLU Staff Attorney, James Duff Lyall will discuss and provide updates on the class-action lawsuit that has been filed against the Arizona Department of Corrections for lack of adequate medical and mental health care for prisoners, and AFSC Program Coordinator, Matthew Lowen will highlight the findings of the recently published report, “Lifetime Lockdown: How Isolation Impacts Prisoner Reentry”. The Community Forum takes place on Wednesday Sept 19th in Tucson, Arizona.

This movement in Arizona focuses attention on prison siting, but not in terms of the conventional arguments either of NIMBY-ism (e.g. Martin & Myers 2005) or of communities competing for prison location as a growth stimulus (e.g. Cherry & Kunce 2001, Glasmeier & Farrigan 2007). It recalls Anne Bonds’ argument in her 2009 paper that “representations of poverty and criminality are entangled with processes of economic restructuring and the localization of economic development and social welfare”.

In this case, Arizona’s apparent diversion of mortgage crisis settlement funds towards prison building seems to be a permutation of Bonds’ observation that “states in desperate fiscal predicaments are endeavoring to finance their ever-burgeoning prisons systems—fueled and reinforced by punitive policies—which further redirect limited resources away for social investments” (2009, 434) – although in Arizona’s case the predicted zero growth in the adult prison population begs the question why such prison building is necessary at all.

As a recent article in the Arizona Guardian points out, Governor Brewer plans to spend $124 million on new prison construction compared to about $9 million on new school construction. Assistant House Minority Leader Steve Farley observed that “Of course if you build fewer schools you’re going to have to build more prisons. We’d be a lot better off if we built more schools and gave those kids a great education so they don’t end up in prison in the first place.”