New papers in carceral geography: space, privacy, affect and the carceral habitus

Over the past few months a number of new papers have emerged which may be of interest to carceral geographers. Written by both geographers and criminologists, they address a range of issues but share a common concern with the importance and significance of carceral space.

First, Thomas Ugelvik’s book chapter “The Bellman and the Prison Officer: Customer Care in Imperfect Panopticons” is a fascinating piece which contrasts the ‘gaze’ of the prison officer and the hotel bellman, as they observe prisoners and hotel guests in ways which balance professional customer care with concerns for security and control. He calls this a ‘dual optic’, ‘partly focused on the needs of others, partly on the potential problems these others represent’ (Ugelvik 2013, 192). Drawing on the penal context of Norway, he also draws attention to the issue of privacy as experienced in carceral spaces and in hotels, in that in neither context can prisoners nor hotel guests completely close off ‘their’ spaces from the officer or the bellman – although he points out the lack of fit between the ‘panoptical’ prison model and Norwegian prison cells, where prisoners are afforded a legal right to privacy.

Next, taking up the notion of prisoner privacy, a paper in press emerges from research into women’s imprisonment in Russia, focusing squarely on the elusiveness of privacy in carceral space. By deploying a theoretical engagement with the concepts of ‘public’ and ‘private’, the paper exlores the experience of surveilled carceral space, specifically the ways in which imprisoned women negotiate and engage with apparently ‘public’ spaces to construct the ‘private’ by deploying a range of personal tactics such as retreat into the self, or intentional violation of prison rules, to experience the ‘punishment’ of solitary confinement. “Privacy in Penal Space: Women’s Imprisonment in Russia” by Dominique Moran, Judith Pallot and Laura Piacentini, is available in early view at Geoforum.

Jennifer Turner’s recent review paper “Disciplinary Engagements with Prisons, Prisoners and the Penal System” calls for ‘renewed interest in the relational, fluid, contradictory and nuanced spaces of imprisonment’ , particularly in regard to ‘the affective nature of imprisonment’ (Turner 2013, 41). She points out the value of perspectives from cultural geography in drawing attention to these nuanced spaces, and in drawing out their significance ‘to open up the political at a more ‘personal’ level’ (ibid 35).

Turner’s call for attention to be paid to the affective potential of penal space is the focus of Dominique Moran’s new paper “Carceral geography and the spatialities of prison visiting: visitation, recidivism and hyperincarceration“, which draws together recent work in human geography on emotion and affect, as a means of understanding the personal experience of carceral space – specifically the experience of prison visiting rooms as liminal transformative spaces for prisoners and visitors alike. In so doing, it argues that in advancing understandings of the affective dimension of human experience in carceral space, carceral geography could not only exemplify a concept, but also participate in efforts to make positive social and political change.

Finally, engaging with carceral space in a very different way, Judah Schept’s forthcoming paper “‘A lockdown facility…with the feel of a small, private college’: Liberal politics, jail expansion, and the carceral habitus‘ discusses ways in which communities participate in the production of the carceral state in the United States, and specifically, the ways in which mass incarceration imbues even oppositional politics, as communities reformulate and adapt the material manifestations of mass incarceration to fit specific local contexts. Schept contends that ‘mass incarceration is both more forceful and more subject to diverse and context-specific formulations than has previously been argued’, and he argues that ‘the corporal and discursive inscription of carcerality into individual and community bodies’ suggests the presence of what he terms a ‘carceral habitus’. This term,  in the context of his paper, offers a way to understand the ways in which mass incarceration pervades even those people and communities ‘which purport to reject it’ suggests that mass incarceration is not just ‘out there’ in media representations, political rhetoric and everyday penal functionings, but also ‘in here’ in the ‘everyday negotiations and productions of the social world’ .

Considering habitus as as an ‘always sociospatially contextualized, nature of practice’ (Holt 2008, 228) enables the notion of carceral habitus as a shared consciousness to be mapped onto tangible spaces, potentially opening a space for carceral geography to consider the ‘carceral’  as emplaced and affective, as a social construction ‘relevant both within and outside physical spaces of incarceration’ (Moran 2013, 176) and to inform future research into the relationship between the carceral and a punitive state.