Ageing in Prison: The ‘other life sentence’?

James Ridgway’s recent piece in Mother Jones brings clearly into view the challenges faced by elderly inmates facing lengthy periods of incarceration. His article opens by describing the situation of William “Lefty” Gilday, who 

“had been in prison 40 years when the dementia began to set in. At 82, he was already suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease and a host of other ailments, and his friends at MCI Shirley, a medium security prison in Massachusetts, tried to take care of him as best they could. Most of them were aging lifers like Lefty, facing the prospect of one day dying behind bars themselves, so they formed an ad hoc hospice team in their crowded ward. They bought special food from the commissary, heated it in an ancient microwave, and fed it to their friend. They helped him to the toilet and cleaned him up. Joe Labriola, 64, tried to see that Lefty got a little sunshine every day, wheeling his chair out into the yard and sitting with his arm around him to keep him from falling out.

But Lefty, who was serving life without parole for killing a police officer during a failed bank heist in 1970, slipped ever deeper into dementia. One day he threw an empty milk carton at a guard and was placed in a “medical bubble,” a kind of solitary confinement unit with a glass window that enables health care staffers to keep an eye on the prisoner. His friends were denied entrance, but Joe managed to slip in one day. He recalls an overpowering stench of piss and shit and a stack of unopened food containers—Lefty explained that he couldn’t open the tabs. Joe also noticed that the nurses in the adjoining observation room had blocked the glass with manila folders so they wouldn’t have to look at the old man.”

Ridgway goes on to note that as of 2010, state and federal prisons in the US housed more than 26,000 inmates aged 65 and older and nearly five times that number aged 55 and up, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. He points out the significance of both numbers, since “long-term incarceration is said to add 10 years to a person’s physical age; in prison, 55 is old”. From 1995 to 2010, as America’s prison population grew 42 percent, the number of inmates over 55 grew at nearly seven times that rate. Today, roughly 1 in 12 state and federal prison inmates is 55 or older.

Ridgway’s work draws on themes explored by criminologist Azrini Wahidin in her work on the passage of prison time, and the sense of acceleration of ageing whilst in prison, and it also draws attention to the carceral ‘timespace’ of imprisonment, which I explore in a forthcoming paper in Geografiska Annaler B. By bringing debates over experiential time within human geography and criminology/prison sociology into dialogue with one another, this paper draws attention to the imperative of considering time in the geographical study of incarceration. Informed by an understanding of space and time which sees them as analytically inseparable from each other (‘TimeSpace’), it highlights overlapping temporalities in a carceral context, and in demonstrates both the significance of perceived control over time, and the experience of the lifecourse, when past, present and future are viewed through each successive ‘now’ in a context where (clock) time ‘moves on’ but space is fixed.

Ridgway’s piece highlights the specific challenges of incarceration for some elderly inmates, which emphasise the importance of considering the embodied experience of ageing in understanding the personal experience of imprisonment:

“Lifer John Feroli told the following story in one of his letters: “A guy in his 70s I knew personally was in the [solitary confinement] unit because he failed to stand for the afternoon count. He was on the third floor of the housing unit, he was partially paralyzed from a stroke and the batteries in his hearing aid were dead and he never heard the announcement for Count Time.” Another convicted murderer, 73-year-old Billy Barnoski, wrote me in April to report that he was in solitary after a younger cellmate jumped him and beat him up. His friends came to his aid, there was a melee, and four people were thrown in the hole. Barnoski suffers from a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, which is treated with a blood thinner called coumadin. He also has high blood pressure, high cholesterol, shingles, and severe arthritis in his back and neck. He takes 25 pills daily. “There have been many times, so many, that they simply say, ‘We haven’t got that med today,'” he writes. “Mind you it has been heart meds just last week. Locked in this hole without necessary meds is torture.”

With ever longer sentences and increasing incarceration rates, the number of elderly inmates is rising, Ridgway’s article also asks whether the US can afford to incarcerate persons with the particular needs described above. However, as he also points out, there are few prison hospices nor immediate plans to build any. “By 2020, according to the state’s DOC Master Plan, Massachusetts will need three “new specialized facilities” to house an estimated 1,270 prisoners with medical or mental health issues that would preclude them being housed in “regular” prisons. “We don’t have have a position on compassionate, geriatric, or any other type of release,” a DOC spokeswoman told me via email. “That’s up to the Legislature.”” – How will the Pussy Riot band members fare in Russia’s harshest prisons?

“Russian prisoners’ lexicon is colourful and full of historical references. Soon, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the two members of the rock band Pussy Riot who are still imprisoned, will discover the inside of a “Stolypin wagon”, a special windowless railway carriage, divided internally into a series of iron-barred cells. These carriages, named after the Tsarist prime minister who introduced them in 1906, have been used for over a century to transport prisoners to penal colonies, many in the remote geographical margins…”

Read this Guardian piece by my colleague Judith Pallot here – How will the Pussy Riot band members fare in Russia’s ‘harshest prisons’?

Carceral Geography sessions at AAG 2013

Thanks to a great response to the Call for Papers, Shaul Cohen and I have been able to put together three sessions on Carceral Geography for the Association of American Geographers conference in Los Angeles, US, next April. The lineup is as follows:

Carceral Geography: Debates, Developments and Directions I

  • Anna Schliehe: ‘It rips my knittin’ – The nature and experience of spaces of confinement for girls and young women in Scotland
  • Elizabeth Brown: Carceral geographies from the body to the nation: The ‘will to change’, and the spatial regulation of incarcerated youth
  • Peter Wagner: Mass incarceration across the racial divide: Looking for an answer in the U.S. Census
  • Julie De Dardel: Mobile Prison Policies: Prisons as Global Forms in the Age of Mass Incarceration
  • William Damon: Community Control Outside the City: Area Restrictions and Conditional Release in B.C’s Interior

Carceral Geography: Debates, Developments and Directions II

  • Brett Story: The prison ‘outside’: A rematerialization of the prison in the everyday life of the urban ‘million-dollar block
  • Jack Norton: Prisons, Infrastructure, and Development in the New Empire State
  • Sallie Yea: “Singapore is my Prison”: Trafficked and Exploited Migrant Workers (Im)mobile Geographies in Singapore
  • Colleen McTague: Felonious restraint: are felons imprisoned by the day labor industry?
  • Kevin Raleigh: An Invisible Incarceration: How the Law Establishes Virtual Imprisonment of Employees of Temporary Day Labor Agencies in Ohio

Carceral Geography: Debates, Developments and Directions III: ‘Carceral Spaces: Mobility and Agency in Imprisonment and Migrant Detention’

This panel session coalesces around a new edited book which defines a new field in geographical research, drawing together the work of a new community of scholars and a growing body of work in carceral geography – the geographical engagement with the practices of imprisonment and migrant detention. Increasingly, these spheres overlap. Just as ‘mainstream’ prison populations have expanded over the past twenty-five years, there has also been a veritable explosion in the use of detention for irregular migrants. Migrants are increasingly scrutinized as criminals, so much so that scholars and activists now refer to this nexus as ‘crimmigration’. This book brings together scholars whose work engages practices of imprisonment and/or migrant detention with the goal of opening up a forum within geography and related interdisciplinary fields of study (critical prison studies, criminology, etc.) for conversation / dialogue across these ever more intertwined spheres. The AAG panel session will feature contributors to the book; Nick Gill, Deirdre Conlon, Julie de Dardel, Mason McWatters, Kelsey Nowakowski and Lauren Martin.

We’re excited about the three sessions, and really looking forward both to hearing the papers, and the conversations which will surround them.

Call for Seminar Papers: Carceral Coordinates

Carceral geographers may be interested in the following call for papers for a seminar organised as part of The American Comparative Literature Association’s 2012 conference, which is taking place at the University of Toronto, Canada, April 4-7th 2013. The call is posted below:
Organisers: Brett Story (University of Toronto) and Jill Stoner (University of California, Berkeley)
“An entire universe added to my Time.” – Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number
It is in the nature of imprisonment to alter the space of Time, to skew location in all its dimensions.  Prisons and their analogous cultural counterparts, so often designed according to strict Cartesian geometries and precise temporal segmentation, nevertheless establish their own geographies, and their own histories, outside these systems.We invite participants to reflect on sites and scenes imposed and invented through various states of imprisonment: solitary confinement and its attendant tactics of subversive communication; death row and its Kafkan politics of infinite postponement; urban contexts that effectively establish their carceral qualities with assortments of cameras, gates, laws and keys. 
We hope to assemble within the seminar a wide representation of genres – including conventional and new forms of literature by and about prisoners – and to chart these various discoveries onto a new, shared map that will allow us to better navigate the current landscape of incarceration in its various iterations.  Thus will emerge a new positioning system – perhaps global, perhaps not – without the conventions of latitude or longitude, its distances not measured in feet or miles.  We refer here to literature in its broadest sense: fiction, texts, documents, film, etc.
Paper proposals should go through the conference website, and acceptance is competitive. International submissions are welcome; international participants should just make sure to obtain any necessary visas well ahead of time.

Post-Doctoral Opportunities: Immigrant Detention, Prisons and Mobility

There are two Post-Doctoral Fellowships available at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. Details are:

Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship, “Home and away: Gender, nation, deportation.” [Grade 7: £29,249-£35,938, fixed term for 42 months]

The Centre for Criminology is looking to appoint a suitably qualified person to a full-time Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship entitled “Home and away: Gender, nation, deportation” for a fixed period of 42 months.  The fellow will carry out a program of original research into the experiences of immigration detention in Britain and return.  The person appointed will have research expertise in a relevant field and an academic publishing record commensurate with stage of career. They will publish academic articles and a monograph, participating in the wider ERC funded-research project, led by Dr Mary Bosworth, of which this is part, organising conferences and an edited collection.

Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship, “The postcolonial prison: citizenship, punishment and mobility.” [Grade 7: £29,249-£35,938, fixed term for 42 months]

The Centre for Criminology is looking to appoint a suitably qualified person to a full-time Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship on “The postcolonial prison: citizenship, punishment and mobility” for a fixed period of 42 months. The fellow will carry out a program of original research on foreign national prisoners in England and Wales and another European country. She/he will have research expertise in a relevant field and an academic publishing record commensurate with stage of career. She/he will publish academic articles and a monograph, and participate in the wider ERC funded-research project of which this is part, led by Dr Mary Bosworth.

Although the parameters of the studies are described here in brief, these are designed as independent pieces of research to be lead by the applicant.

In all cases, only applications received before midday on Friday November 23 can be considered. Applications are to be made online. To apply, please visit and search for the relevant vacancy in the jobs section.

Build Your Own Prison – ‘Prison Architect’

‘The Gamer’s Hub’ recently previewed UK Introversion Software’s Prison Architect, on display at the Eurogamer Expo at Earl’s Court, London. It’s a game about building prisons: “In it, you’re handed a prison warden’s truncheon and the responsibility for managing the day-to-day to-and-fro of the goings on within your jail…. the aim is to build an economically-viable business, while meeting the needs of inmates and investors alike.”

Gamers create a prison in their own image, giving the institution the facilities it needs, “from cells and generators to toilets and adequate lighting” with the opportunity to construct “an execution chamber for a waiting inmate, guilty of the murder of his wife and her lover”. Whilst the gamer designs the space, “he and a priest sit in one of the cells awaiting the inevitable. As you complete each rudimentary objective, brief flashbacks of his path to the pen are recalled – polaroid snapshots and comic-book stills capture the moments before his arrest, as the prisoner tells of his motives, malice and regret.”

One of the designers behind the game, Mark Morris, admitted in a recent interview that Introversion hadn’t really given a lot of thought to the contentious nature of prisons, especially in the US: “I think they have a very different view on incarceration than we do in the UK… We’re not trying to stamp down on our own views of prisons and incarceration, but we want to make an accurate-ish model where you can explore punishment vs. rehabilitation, those sorts of things. Learning quite quickly that we didn’t have an understanding of all this, we reached out to quite a prevalent rehabilitated prisoner and currently serving prison officers to talk to them about whether there was anything ridiculous in our game. We’re not trying to make a serious model for the Home Office. It’s a game. But it’s also an interesting and in-depth project.”

Human geographers have recently begun to explore virtual worlds such as Second Life, with for example Li et al (2010) discussing the notion of the ‘multiple spaces’ in which we live, some of which are virtual social worlds far beyond computer games. In their paper they examine the interplays and connections among these different spaces, and their social implications. In terms of Prison Architect, although the potentially controversial nature of the game’s subject matter appears to have escaped the attention of its designers until rather late in the day, perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye. Although in its early stages of development and release ‘Prison Architect offers few variations on a predictable theme of prison design, apparently as it develops further there will be more ‘political’ choices to make; the Games Hub reviewer was told by the designers that “we can expect much more licence to build a slammer in our own moral image further down the line…we can expect anything from Darth Vader style dungeons to left-wing, liberal holiday homes – whichever best suits your mood.” However, the overall logic of the game seems to remain the economic viability of the prison…

Prison Architect raises interesting questions about the view of prisons and imprisonment held by the general public, and the extent to which the game panders to ‘presumably punitive’ public opinion. In a special issue of the Prison Service Journal on representations of imprisonment, in January 2012, Tony Kearon examined the ways in which fictional accounts of imprisonment intersect with dominant narratives within news media, and in his editorial to the special edition, Michael Fiddler points out that many contemporary media challenge the messages projected by ‘standard’ representations of imprisonment, forcing us to ‘look anew’.

For carceral geographers interested in the construction and the experience of carceral spaces, and understandings of them outside of the context of imprisonment, Prison Architect is a not just a representation of prison life created as spectacle for the entertainment of an audience, with the potential to shape the views and opinions that they hold: it requires the active and interested participation of the audience in active designing the penal space itself; arguably the experience is reflexive, enabling experimentation and reflection. In any case, this game offers the opportunity to consider virtual carceral space as a one of the ‘multiple spaces’ in which we live, the interplay and connections between this and other lived spaces, and the social implications of that interplay.

Non-human, or more-than-human geographies of incarceration?

In this piece, the Times of India reports that twenty prisoners from Alipore jail attended an art workshop in front of cages of monkeys in Alipore zoo. Mantu Das, one of the prisoners serving a life term, said that “The workshop was a big change for us, for we rarely get to step out of the jail premises. We are always confined to our cells. But today we are on the other side and getting to watch caged animals. This art therapy is really helping us to get rid of the frustration and drudgery of our life in prison.”

At the same time, in the United States, Reuters reported that  a federal judge said that the infestation of a prison cell with mice and cockroaches may violate US constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, even if the inmate is not physically harmed. The case in question was brought by Calvin Thomas, serving a 7-year prison term for burglary, who claimed he was forced to endure unhealthy conditions in his cell at the Vienna Correction Center, Illinois, because it had been infested by pests, and because rainwater came through a missing window pane. It was said in the case that “heavy, protracted infestation” could justify damages even if a prisoner escaped disease or distress, and that it is “pretty obvious” that living in a small cell infested with mice and cockroaches could cause psychological harm.

Both of these piece draw attention to what carceral geographers might consider the ‘non-human’ or ‘more-than-human’ geographies of incarceration. Despite the growing interest in non-human or more-than-human geographies (essentially the relations between human and non-human animals), in geographical scholarship more widely, within carceral geography scholarship to date, very little attention has been directed towards such society-nature relations within carceral space. In a recent review paper for Progress in Human Geography, Ruth Panelli points out that “important questions of social difference and unequal power relations remain relevant for more-than-human geographies”, and the two examples above alone demonstrate that carceral spaces are multi-species spaces, occupied by both human and non-human animals whose relations to each other reveal and highlight power relations in the carceral context.

For Mantu Das, ‘released’ from his own confinement only to gaze upon the confinement of the non-human, to Calvin Thomas, claiming that the presence of the non-human in his Illinois cell constituted a violation of the protection he could expect from the US constitution, the human/non-human interactions in carceral space would seem to merit further investigation.

Job Opportunities: Research in Immigration Detention

A quick update on two job opportunities in immigration detention: these are excellent opportunities both for postdoctoral work led by outstanding scholars, and in critical areas – brief details and links are below:

Fellow of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law (Part-time) to research The Rule of Law and Immigration Detention in Europe

The Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law is seeking to appoint one strong candidate to assist with research for a study on The Rule of Law and Immigration Detention in Europe. The post is part-time (equivalent to three days per week) and consists of research with no teaching duties. The post will enable the Fellow to work directly with a broad network of scholars, practitioners, judges, government officials, international institutions and others working in this field.

The aim of the study is to explore existing international, European and domestic standards regarding the use of immigration detention with a view toward producing a report and a set of Guidelines. The Guidelines will streamline existing standards and update them into a single document that takes into account domestic and international practice and case law, as well as standards derived from existing declarations, resolutions and other soft law instruments. They are intended for consultation by those people who make decisions relating to detention on a daily basis, and as a source for individuals currently in detention or facing detention proceedings to understand their rights, and any limitations thereof. The full project description is available here.

Associate Research Fellow

The University of Exeter College of Life and Environmental Sceinces is looking to appoint a Associate Research Fellow to support Dr. Nick Gill’s investigation into disparities in asylum appeal success rates at different courts around the UK. This unique ESRC funded post is available from January 2013 on an 18 month fixed term contract. The successful applicant will become part of a dynamic research team based at the University of Exeter with links to legal scholars at both Plymouth University and University College London. They will work at the University of Exeter for part of the contract period, conducting literature reviews and drafting both academic and non-academic outputs. They will also conduct a three month ethnography of an immigration court in the UK and another six month detailed observation of a different court in the UK.