Reflections on the TerrFerme Colloque: Prisons, Paradoxes and Interpretation

The recent colloquium (16-19 October 2013) organised by the TerrFerme research group in Pessac, Bordeaux, was both a hugely enjoyable and convivial event, and a real eye-opener to the fascinating and important work going on outside of the English language.

As the responses to my and Karen Morin’s recent Call for Papers for the AAG conference in 2014 are showing, carceral geography is expanding its scope and articulating itself towards a variety of aspects of contemporary critical human geography; however, the monolingualism of many authors writing in English (and I include myself in this) means that we are probably insufficiently aware of the work going on in other languages – perhaps most notably in French.

Thanks to the consideration of Benedicte Michalon and her colleagues at TerrFerme, who designed a conference with simultaneous interpretation between French and English, and to the patience of the French speakers presenting their work at a pace that allowed the interpreters to work, the conference allowed a glimpse of the wealth of fascinating work being undertaken in the French language. I’m providing just a taste of some of that here, and hope that readers of this blog will follow up with the authors to find out more.

For me, one of the key words of the colloque, and one that thankfully needs no translation, was ‘paradox’. Time after time, presenters came back to this term to understand the often conflictual coexistence of different interpretations, practices, notions, in and around the space of the prison (broadly defined).

Sarah Curtis (Durham University) opened the conference by showing that not all English speakers are monolingual – by giving a lecture in French on her work on therapeutic landscape, risk and technical safety in secure hospitals in the UK. For her, the paradox was in the balancing of wellbeing and technical safety, when risk is controlled through designing-out danger in the physical environment (for example, by removing ligature points and attempting to create environments in which no physical harm can be done to onesself or to others). She reported health workers observing that identifying a patient’s progress was challenging when there was no opportunity for them to demonstrate that they could exist safely in a context of risk, and that controlled environments encouraged playful destruction when patients became bored.

Marie Morelle and Emmanuel Chauvin (University of Paris 1) spoke about the spatial distribution of persons in prisons and refugee camps in Chad and Cameroon, offering a rare comparison of these types of confinement, in a non-first world context. They drew attention to the informal arrangements which serve to keep order in both contexts, andthe interactions and ‘power games’ which shaped these spaces, in relation to local, national, international, state and non-state actors inside and outside the facilities.

Nathalie Bernardie-Tahir (University of Limoges) spoke about the confinement of migrants on the island of Malta, and focussed on the personalisation of space, and the importance of the historical legacy of migration to Malta for contemporary understandings of this geopolitical setting in restricting migrant mobility.

Lucie Bony (University of Paris 10) spoke from her PhD research into previous residential arrangements and the experience of carceral space on the part of prison inmates. She had some fascinating insights into the ways in which age and previous living arrangements intersected with life experience and particularly travel experience, to shape the interpretation and experience of incarceration in terms of the living environment of the prison. For some, the prison mimics the neighbourhood from which they come, and they feel ‘at home’ in this setting. For others, prison recalls experiences of travel – seeing new people and new places, and prisoners experience it almost as a piece of anthropological research. These and other perspectives lead prisoners to engage differently with their prison environment, personalising the space and feeling at home within it, or distinguishing strictly between inside and outside as a form of resistance or expression of autonomy.

Barbara Baudin (University of Grenoble, Marc Bloch Centre, Berlin) and Nicolas Fischer’s (University Versailles-St Quentin en Yvelines) work discussed the vagueness of the legal situation regarding immigrant detention in France, and specifically the fact that spaces of detention and of administrative confinement (of prisoners who had reached the end of their sentences, but who were deemed too dangerous to be released) existed in space before they existed in law. Drawing on the example of the scandal of d’Arenc, they talked through the codification of this space, and the paradox of the existence of the carceral architecture in space pre-dating the codification of these spaces in law.

Marine Bobin (University Toulouse Le Mirail) gave a fascinating presentation from her PhD work on jails in Navajo territory in the USA, and the idea of the “indigenous” prison. She traced the paradoxes of the co-location of a traditional Navajo ‘peacemaking’ centre in front of a new Navajo jail, detailed the individualisation of the Navajo jail (such as a sweat lodge, and coloured floor tiles which recall Native American patterns), and linked these issues to the fractures within the Navajo community between those who believe that the prison is antithetical to traditional Navajo justice, and those who see the jail as bringing some form of welcome ‘modernisation’ to the Navajo community.

Camille Boutron (IFEA Lima) presented on the political role of incarceration for female combatants in Peru (1980-2010), and spoke passionately about the paradoxes of imprisonment for women for whom both the domestic sphere, and participation in guerrilla forces, can be seen as forms of confinement. She described the prison as a bridge between these two confinement spaces, and as a space which has performed a strategic role in Peru’s armed conflict through the politicisation of female political prisoners.

In a final session on confinement and mobility, David Scheer (University Libre de Bruxelles) spoke about internal spatial flows in three prisons in Belgium – one old decrepit prison, a newer one built to the same design, and a planned prison in which prisoners will move around carrying electronic tags which monitor geolocation and enable particular doors to be opened depending on the level of autonomy and access afforded to each individual prisoner. Reading these spaces as disciplinary, David thought through the ways in which the three spaces enabled or restricted autonomy and created or contested the notion of the docile prisoner. Read David’s blog Entre Quatre Murs /Between Four Walls here.

Caroline Touraut (Centre Max Weber, Lyon) gave a compelling example of the proximity of mobility and liberty through her study of the experience of carceral space on the part of older prisoners, who as they age and become less physically mobile, not only encounter limited mobility within prison spaces ill-designed for their needs, but also face prejudice based on assumptions (rightly or wrongly) that they are sex offenders. She presented moving testimony from interviewees which brought vividly to life the marginalisation suffered by these inmates.

Fleur Guy (University of Lyon 2) presented from her PhD research into care homes for troubled young people in France, describing the paradox of distance from the temptation of the city, with the need to keep young people close to their communities, to aid their future integration. She drew on fieldwork which showed considerable empathy with young people as they devised spatial strategies to enter and leave the semi-closed spaces of the care homes, the dislocation they felt from their previous lives, and the disturbance which resulted from repetitive moves between facilities.

Although these thumbnail sketches represent less than half of the work presented in French in Pessac, they represent a flavour of the work which appears to be most relevant for carceral geographers at this moment. Over lunch with colleagues from TerrFerme, there were discussions about the possibilities of publishing in English in ways which would point up the findings of French language research – which would be very welcome indeed.