Destabilising the fabric of the prison

The recent opening of HMP Berwyn, the UK’s newest prison, was heralded by two fascinating news reports. In the first, the Welsh Daily Post reported that ‘Anarchists claim they sabotaged the foundations of Wrexham’s new prison making it “structurally unsound”’. The attacks, claimed on the anonymous ‘325’ blog, allegedly took place in 2015; “a strong acidic powder was poured into the excavations of the groundfloor slabs of two of the prison’s houseblocks. This has made two of these buildings structurally unsound – their foundations will eventually crumble and the buildings could collapse over time”. The UK Ministry of Justice denied the claims, saying “There is absolutely no evidence to suggest the foundations of any building at the prison have been tampered with.” In the second news report, journalists reflected on the ‘unique environment’ of HMP Berwyn, describing its colourful nature, the presence of wall art and inspirational messages, and the philosophy of the institution, explained by Governor Russ Trent as an integral part of the rehabilitative ethos of the prison.

For carceral geographers, these pieces, which both focus, albeit in starkly different ways, on the built environment and its propensity to enable challenge to the assumed function of imprisonment, stimulate reflection on the significance of spaces of incarceration.

The prison ‘fabric’ frequently comes under attack from the ‘inside’, via disturbances and riots, including those which have happened over the past few months in the UK, targeting the materiality of the building. At HMP Birmingham in late 2016, for example, an estimated £2m of damage was done to the fabric of the prison buildings by prisoners aggrieved at conditions and staffing levels. But attacks on the fabric of a prison from the ‘outside’ are less common. Anarchists posting on the 325 blog claimed that their alleged attacks on the foundation slabs of the prison were “dedicated to every human being that has died in the prison system at the hands of the State” and part of their wider “opposition to all mega prisons being built and the continuing growth of the prison-industrial complex”. In apparently targeting the fabric of the buildings in addition to protesting outside of them, such actions draw attention to the propensity of the built environment to crystallise and express punitive philosophy.

But arguably the built environment of HMP Berwyn is itself attempting to destabilise ideas about what prison is ‘for’ and what it can ‘do’.  With Justice Secretary Liz Truss enshrining ministerial duty to rehabilitate prisons into UK law for the first time, HMP Berwyn seems to be attempting, (within the context of a building commissioned and designed some time ago), to enhance the rehabilitative potential of the prison’s built environment, and the ways in which it is to be managed by a staffing group selected with the rehabilitative ethos in mind.

A recent paper emerging out of an ongoing project considers the processes of procurement, commissioning, tendering, project management and bureaucratisation – termed ‘architectural assembly’ – that shape (what will become) carceral spaces.  In focusing on what happens before a building takes physical form, albeit overlooking such anarchistic ‘attacks’ on incomplete buildings, it draws attention to the to the ‘inhabitation’ of buildings: an awareness of the situated and everyday practices through which a building is used. Thus seen, buildings are sites in which a myriad of users and things come into contact in numerous, complex, planned, spontaneous and unexpected ways; encounters are embodied and multi-sensory; and resonant of the power structures that exist both within and outwith the building.

Concern for the ‘inhabitation’ of prison buildings, therefore, may lead us to consider direct ‘attacks’ on their materiality – from both the ‘inside’ and, less conventionally, the ‘outside’, but also their ongoing modification, and the everyday interactions which take place spatially within them. Arguably both may serve to challenge and ‘destabilise’ the prison; or at least, our ideas about its functional purpose.