New papers for carceral geographers – stuckness, life space, prison poetry and Californian missions.

The new year has brought a crop of great new – and very different – papers (many of which are open access) that the CGWG wanted to bring to the attention of carceral geographers and others interested in scholarship of carceral spaces. Happy reading!

First, the whole of Stuckness and Confinement: Reflections on Life in Ghettos, Camps and Prisons , 2019’s first Issue of Ethnos, is well worth a read. In their Introduction: On Stuckness and Sites of Confinement, Andrew Jefferson, Simon Turner and Steffen Jensen make clear the appeal of this special issue to carceral geographers, as they develop “a theoretical argument around the interrelations of space and time in sites of confinement by exploring the relationships between ghettos, camps, places of detention, prisons and the like with a focus on those people who are confined, encamped, imprisoned, detained, stuck, or forcibly removed and who are doing their utmost to cope or escape”. They elegantly navigate the diverse disciplinary and interdisciplinary understandings of and interests in confinement, and their own approach resonates with work in carceral geography, which they note is “concerned with multiple sites considering specifically the analytical entwining of imprisonment and migrant detention and with the subjective experiences of confinement”.

Focusing on different types of spaces, three new papers consider the lived experience of confinement, using different conceptual framings, and diverse data sources.

First, looking at secure forensic psychiatric units, Paula Reavey, Steven D Brown, Ava Kanyeredzi, Laura McGrath and Ian M. Tucker’s paper Agents and spectres: Life-space on a medium secure forensic psychiatric unit just out in Social Science & Medicine, examines how forensic psychiatric environments contribute to the shaping of recovery, by examining key features such as social interactions and agency. Drawing connections between the design of forensic psychiatric spaces and prisons, they use a concept of life space to explore the idea that occupants of these spaces “engage with the built environment in terms of it how shapes relationality”. They note that “markers of detention, such as locked door and high walls, may not necessarily act as the limits of psychological space”, if relationships to others can be maintained through porous boundaries, and that “freedom of movement…, such as the use of outside spaces and communal areas, might well diminish rather than expand a sense of agency” if relational possibilities are not enhanced. They argue that the built environment “should… be explored from the perspective of the relationally defined life space of the patient, rather than in terms of its spatial affordances only”.

Next, drawing on research in asylum detention, Marielle Zill, Ilse van Liempt, Bas Spierings and Pieter Hooimeijer have published Uneven geographies of asylum accommodation: Conceptualizing the impact of spatial, material, and institutional differences on (un)familiarity between asylum seekers and local residents in Migration Studies. Considering variation in asylum accommodation at the level of the everyday, they argue that “more ‘open’ forms of asylum accommodation may foster familiarity between asylum seekers and local residents through the development of closer everyday social relations, and more ‘closed’ forms of asylum accommodation may enforce feelings of unfamiliarity by strengthening processes of categorization and everyday bordering” Differentiating between ‘spatial’, ‘material’ and ‘institutional’ dimensions of openness of asylum accommodation, they “aim to understand ‘(un)familiarity’ as expression of people’s experiences, knowledge and perceptions of social distance”. 

Thirdly, drawing on literary representations of the prison, Anna Kędra-Kardela and Aleksandra Kędzierska have published a fascinating paper in Roczniki Humanistyczne, From the Profane to the Sacred: Prison-Space Transformations in G.G. Byron’s “The Prisoner of Chillon” and O. Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”” in which they use the concept of ‘story space’ to argue that the changing perception of space in these poems reflects a spiritual transformation for their protagonists. In the first poem, they argue, the experience of confinement leads the protagonist to the acceptance of prison life to the point of the dungeon becoming “a second home”, whereas in the second, incarceration has a transformative function, culminating in spiritual awakening. As a result, prison “becomes a space of prayer, turning thereby from the profane into the sacred”. 

And finally, the prison system of California feels familiar to carceral geographers, following the seminal work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, but in California’s First Mass Incarceration System: Franciscan Missions, California Indians, and Penal Servitude, 1769–1836, published in Pacific Historical Review, Benjamin Madley offers a perspective which will be new to many. Arguing that California’s missions came to resemble a mass incarceration system, he examined the “changing policies of recruitment, spatial confinement, regimentation, surveillance, physical restraint, and corporal punishment as well as California Indian resistance” to trace the ways in which missions and their military allies deployed carceral practices. He argues persuasively that “colonial-era carceral systems may have contributed to the evolution of local penal institutions as well as the long history of incarceration in the United States as a whole”.

Taken together, these diverse and intriguing papers offer much to reflect upon for carceral geographers and others interested in the theorisation of confinement, the development and design of carceral systems and institutions, and their lived experience. Looking forward to much more fascinating work like this in 2019!