Carceral Geographies at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Chicago, IL

by Jen Turner

The recent meeting of the AAG was a very fruitful event for those interested in carceral geographies, with some of the offerings in the sub-discipline comprising of the six paper sessions and panel session organised by myself and Dominique Moran. Held over two of the five days in the conference programme, the quality and variety of papers is testament to the ongoing vibrancy of the area of carceral geographies.

In the first session on “Theorisations of Confinement”, Christophe Mincke began proceedings with his paper entitled Prison: Legitimacy Through Mobility? Mincke scrutinised the relationship between prison and mobility (and the counterpart societal relations that render this problematic) to interrogate the notion of a continuum of carceral mobilities. His case study surrounding the Belgian Prison Act considered the flow and activity of spaces of incarceration. Continuing this theme, Kimberley Peters (with co-author Jennifer Turner) called for a consideration of carceral mobility that extends beyond horizontal motion in her ‘Unlock the volume’: bringing height and depth to carceral mobilities. Peters and Turner’s theorisation of volumetric carceral mobilities is drawn from archival research into voyages on board convict ships transporting prisoners to colonies in Australia in the early nineteenth century. In the final paper of this session, Stephanie Figgins took a lead from Matthew Mitchelson’s notion of bedspace in her paper Between the Sheets of the U.S. Deportation Regime. Figgins illustrated how the detention state can become numerically evaluated according to cost and availability of single bed units and detailed measures by which detainees were treated with negative associations of “docile and lazy” spaces of sleep. Acting as our first discussant, Nick Gill commented upon the variety of rich methods for theorising different aspects of movement and evaluation practices across these different carceral spaces. Gill was particularly keen to see methodological innovation for carceral geographers in order to reflect the advancement of theorisations in these areas.

The second paper session very clearly adhered to its guiding themes of “Prison Architecture and Design”. Gideon Boie turned again to Belgium in Prison Up Close: the new subject of a penitentiary spatial structure. Detailing the development of the highly contested prison masterplan, he exemplified the proposed Huizen (“houses”) which would encompass small-scale residential complexes outside of the traditional prison perimeter. Boie presented a very hopeful future for humane prison design where architects had a social responsibility for developments. In contrast, Dominique Moran (presenting work co-authored by Jennifer Turner and Yvonne Jewkes) observed how prison design in the UK disrupts notions in architectural geographies of a creative architect playing a central role in building production. In Becoming big things: Building events and the architectural geographies of incarceration in England and Wales, Moran appraised processes of commissioning and tendering, as well as design and modelling which combines to restrict the function of architects in the design process and limits their involvement in the final prison product. Taking note of these practices to produce homogenous and replicable prison spaces, I presented my paper Components of the carceral: The lived experience of prison design (which was also co-authored with Dominique and Yvonne). Here, I considered the implications of these one-size-fits-all design policies upon the irrational and non-normative bodies that these spaces house, calling for attention to the microarchitectures of prison space. Finally, taking a more positive tract, Fie Vandamme introduced a project comprising focus groups with prisoners exploring their responses to different design choices. Entitled Fit IN Stand OUT: Rules and Elements for Humane Prison Architecture, Vandamme’s paper explained how ten rules for prison design had evolved from this participatory research. These included everything from ownership over cell door keys to re-thinking spaces such as landings and corridors. In summarising these papers Lauren Martin raised questions about whether prison design can indeed engineer a way to rehabilitation and encouraged consideration of these potential counterarguments. Beyond innovation of prison design itself, Martin asked whether carceral geographers should have a role in suggesting the reduction of the prison estate as an alternative solution.

Orisanmi Burton presented first in the session entitled “Activity, Agency and Organisation”. The Politics of Containment: Prison-Based Activism in the Empire State focussed upon the ideas and practices of the Black Consciousness Coalition (BCC), an activist organisation that operates within a men’s prison in New York State. Burton’s correspondence with BCC leadership formed the basis for this paper, generating important questions about the kind of politics that can practiced by serving prisoners within carceral space due to censorship and negotiation of these restrictions. Lloyd Gray drew upon his interests in prisoner education to explore prisoner perceptions of this area. His paper was entitled How do prisoners experience and perceive the education environment within a prison? An interpretative phenomenological analysis approach. Using empirical data from interviews conducted with prisoners involved with education programmes, Gray interrogated the positive associations beyond the classroom that such involvement may generate. Geraldine Brown and Elizabeth Bos introduced their paper, A holistic evaluation of delivering a community based food growing mentoring programme in a prison setting with substance misuse offenders on behalf of their colleagues (including Geraldine Brady) at the University of Coventry. Their paper detailed the positive results of the Master Gardener Programme introduced in a male prison in the Midlands of the UK. Participants were asked to assess their own recovery journey through the development of personal ‘circles of change’ through the identification of points of change. Acting as discussant Shaul Cohen praised the research conducted by all presenters in being able to achieve meaningful interaction with serving prisoners. These collaborative data generation projects would potentially aid much fruitful research which could help discern what is happening in these activities within prison, further revealing the how and why of activity and organisation within the carceral setting.

In “Gendered and Embodied ConfinementVictoria Knight’s paper Modus Vivendi: The cell, emotions, social relations and television considered the treaty or resolve prisoners might undertake in their negotiation of television-watching in shared cell spaces. Attending to the politics of scheduling and taste, Knight also interrogated the legitimisation of television access as a means of ensuring safety and appropriate cell-sharing. Jessica Bird’s paper Segregation in Scottish Prisons: A Socio-Spatial History demonstrated a recognition of geographical scholarship in the recent carceral past. The paper detailed a breadth of interests from her wider PhD thesis including a charting of architectural design from community to cellular confinement, through to the designation by prisoners of spaces of imprisonment as ‘war zones’, ‘graves’, ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘creative spaces’. William Payne provided a unique empirical example in Governmentality, performativity and sexuality – A scholarly consideration of a drag show in a prison. Focussing upon the area of the Sally Port (the area between the prison gate and the prison inside proper) he posited this space as a kind of borderland in which a complex relationship of scrutiny, surveillance and (paradoxically) movement all at once occurs. Rae Rosenberg examined transcultural identities in carceral geography through a paper entitled Transgender Embodiment in Carceral Space: Hypermasculinity and the US Prison Industrial Complex. Rosenberg recounted restrictions imposed upon transgender prisoners such as upon their physical appearance (being forced to cut hair and nails) and access to hormones. Surprisingly, his paper detailed occasions of hope and resistance whereby prisoners successfully harnessed their chosen identities through imaginative mobilities to outside space through prisoner artwork. These underlying hopeful messages were central to the summary suggestions outlined by Karen Morin. Recognising the importance of gender and embodiment in all aspects of carceral scholarship Morin drew all four papers together through purposeful activities prisoners were involved with in each of the four papers: creative enterprise, communication, negotiation and collaboration in such restrictive spaces.

In the first of two sessions focussing on “(Re)defining Boundaries”, Elizabeth Bos and Geraldine Brown returned to the case study of the Master Gardener Programme. Here their paper, We were there too: Reflexive experiences of evaluating a prison gardening intervention negotiated the complex subject of researcher positionality in the prison setting. Drawing upon their own ethnographic data, Bos and Brown interrogated the specific role of gender, religion and race in their research project. Following this, Dana Cuomo’s paper Incarceration and domestic violence: Perspectives from victims on the outside offered an analysis of public and private violence, questioning the role of incarceration for domestic violence offenders. Using qualitative data gathered during fieldwork in a domestic violence unit of a local police department, this paper examined the experiences of women following the incarceration of their abusive partners. In the following paper, Tony Sparks noted how the punitive turn in urban policy more broadly has been accompanied by an expansion by spaces of care and rehabilitation, especially as cities have come to question mass incarceration. His paper, entitled The Asylum is on These Streets: Managing Mental Illness in the Carceral Community drew upon court records, interviews, and ethnographic fieldwork conducted within San Francisco’s Behavioral Health Court to explore the ways in which ideals of community and community care are imbricated within broader logics of confinement and governmental control. In the final paper of the session, Avril Maddrell introduced The charity shop, permeable carceral spaces, gendered power relations, reparation and rehabilitation. Here, she introduced in-depth interview data from a ten-year review of a scheme employing prisoners upon day release in charity shops (thrift stores). Her paper utilised the concept of ‘bordering’ to interrogate the permeable and impermeable spaces and boundaries of what constitutes prison and the vernacularisation of carceral processes. By way of final conclusion to a successful day of papers, I had the opportunity to act as discussant. By pulling these four papers together around the theme of the session, it is clear that there is a wealth of opportunity to consider how the prison border may be conceptualised. How does the boundary come to be positive or negative, depending on the circumstances? These papers also raised questions about how researchers traverse such boundaries and the potentiality of such projects to inform/transform the lived experience of carceral space.


The second day of sessions was opened by Oriane Simon in our closing paper session focussing again upon “(Re)defining Boundaries”. Her paper entitled Extraordinary Rendition’s Transfers in Ambiguous Spaces was a powerful interrogation of the process of movement of these detainees itself, focusing upon the importance of the body in, for example, resisting such things as sensory deprivation during transport. Following this Vanessa Massaro’s paper (read in absentia) focused upon Prison’s revolving door and the porous boundaries of carceral spaces. By exemplifying the similarities between neighbourhood blocks and prison cell blocks, Massaro considered the reproduction of spaces from the ‘inside’ on the outside fuelled by drug activities. In doing so, this paper powerfully argues for continued attention to carceral spaces beyond the boundaries of the institution. Our final paper of the series was delivered by Stephen Sherman, who turned our attention in the direction of GIS to interrogate Why Drug-Free School Zones are Bad for Communities: Evaluating sentence enhancement zone outcomes across urban forms. Here Sherman demonstrated how policy – here the implementation of Drug-Free Zones – creates nodes of carcerality. By criminalising certain activities in particular areas, these policies introduce geographical spaces where individuals are more likely to be incarcerated. Dominique Moran as discussant shared a number of common themes between the three papers, including the recognition of multiple spaces and overlapping jurisdictions of carceral spaces; the significance of transfers between such spaces; and the constant state of becoming evident in the carceral state and its practices. This raised a number of pertinent questions including those of what a carceral identity might consist of and what indeed it may adhere to.

Our final session, featured Shaul Cohen, Deirdre Conlon, Nick Gill and Dominique Moran in a panel on the subject of “Future Directions in Carceral Geographies”. In this session, panellists were asked to say a few words to situate carceral geographies within the wider discipline/alongside other disciplines and suggest areas for forthcoming attention. Beginning proceedings, Deirdre Conlon noted the encouraging attention to social, cultural, active and embodied carceral geographies – as evidenced clearly in the programme of these sessions. However, she invited scholars to (re)consider political and economic elements and their complex relationships with these other aspects. Conlon also asked carceral geographers to think about the interplay between detention centres and prisons, particularly because, firstly, the immigrant detention population is growing and, secondly, it is the site where privatisation first began. She called for research that attended specifically to migrant detainees in mainstream prisons. Continuing the discussion, Shaul Cohen posed the suggestion of people inside prison having a more active role in shaping research design, since there are insights that only people living and working within prison can have. Cohen encouraged more of these collaborations within the research design process. Cohen also noted that the prison is still often invisible to both “authorities and the ordinary”. His hope is that carceral geographers would consider the constituencies for their outputs; making policy-makers and prison administrators the targets for such research in the hope that they can be educated in how things might be different. Nick Gill echoed the preceding panellists and began his comments with an illustration of the detention centre The Verne, opened in the UK in 2014. Previously a prison, it had its security level increased and is now used to house detainees in a very peripheral location in the UK and raises some important issues. Gill considered that the importance of space, location and mobility is not necessarily known by the authorities. Judges pass sentences in terms of time, not space, and this does not take into account how hard a sentence may be in certain areas. He encouraged us to consider the symbolic aspects of location of prison. He also called for a disruption of a myth of consistency – prisons may indeed be different due to the local community, the local market conditions, the local culture, and the social injustices that may be generated by this. Gill’s second area of interest was a consideration of punishment and justice more generally. Academics (and those beyond it) ought to have a serious conversation about the role of punishment – should people be punished for the things they have done? Finally, Gill considered the role of academic research and the importance of making a difference to the current situation. He exemplified the actions of the Detention Forum in being able to prompt the first parliamentary enquiry into immigrant detention, and this should be an aim we should aspire to. However, he noted barriers to this, such as scholars being able to carve out the time to write activist responses when they are not valued by academia (REF outputs, etc). Furthermore, there may be a critical response to activism and a question of whether and when it is right to engage in this way. Dominique Moran shared some similar concerns, reminding the audience that imprisonment is not essential – we have not imprisoned in the past as we do now. We should be encouraged to pay attention to sentencing and courts to consider why society chooses to put people in jail. These considerations should extend critically to differences between UK and US policy for example. Moran also asked that we consider the purpose of our research in the carceral setting. In her experience, the prison authorities were much more open to discussions of change, but any of this impact is hard to measure (academically) and often difficult to harness at the political level, but it is there.

It is apparent, through the quality of papers being delivered, the attendance to sessions, and the lively and energetic response to presenters and panellists that research activity in carceral geography is maintaining buoyancy within geography. As such, panellists agreed that maintaining an informal network would be beneficial to those working in this area. As such, five years after it started, this blog is going collective! This means that it will be open for anyone interested in sharing thoughts and ideas, reflections, notifications, calls for papers, etc., here, to do so. If you’re interested in participating please get in touch. Furthermore, a mail list for carceral geography has now been set up via jiscmail. You can subscribe here. For those who are familiar with CRIT-GEOG-FORUM, this mail list will work pretty much like that one. It will be archived on the jiscmail website.  So, please do subscribe to this and use it to alert other subscribers to new research, CFP, conferences, events, to start discussions, etc. It’s perhaps most useful for quick things for which you don’t want to spend the time writing a blog piece!

Finally, I’d like to extend my thanks to all presenters, discussants, panellists and audience members who all contributed to a very enjoyable and thought-provoking conference programme. I look forward to hearing more from you all in the future!