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.