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The ‘punitive’ or ‘carceral turn’ has brought about new ways of thinking about geography and the state, and has highlighted spaces of incarceration as a new terrain for exploration by geographers. Carceral geography, as a new subdiscipline of human geography, has developed to directly address this punitive turn, and has contributed to a wider ‘carceral turn’ in social sciences scholarship over recent years.

The Carceral Geography Working Group (CGWG), as the group within the RGS-IBG that brings together geographers and others interested in the spaces, practices and experiences of incarceration, broadly defined, exists to support the development of this activity.

The Carceral Geography Working Group is run by the Committee, who are supported by the Advisory Board.

Our aims

The Carceral Geography Working Group intends:

  • To advance a broad view of carceral geography, defined as geographical engagement with the spaces, practices and experiences of confinement (imprisonment, migrant detention and other forms of custody). The Carceral Geography Working Group is the research group of the RGS-IBG that brings together geographers and others interested in the spaces, practices and experiences of incarceration, broadly defined.
  • To bring together and provide a forum for geographers working in this field, to provide the level of focus this work justifies and to foster greater communication, networking and sense of community among scholars, particularly the wealth of early career scholars shaping this fast-moving field.
  • To foster dialogue and collaboration between carceral geographers working in the Global North and South. Research in the Global North dominates in this discipline, as it does in criminology, but it shares many common themes with work on the South and both would benefit from greater cross-fertilisation.
  • To foster and provide a platform for dialogue between carceral geographers and criminologists, prison sociologists and legal scholars also concerned with spaces and experiences of incarceration, and to support the cross-disciplinary dialogue which already characterises work in this field.
  • To promote a focus upon the current prioritisation of custodial policy by the UK and other national governments, and in doing so to advance geographical understandings of confinement, custody, incarceration and detention.
  • To interrogate the place of policies affecting carceral environments across a range of spatial scales and at varying levels of formality.
  • To promote research practice which informs teaching, discourse and policy and promotes justice, including the development of appropriate methodologies, the transformation of personal practices, the exploration of linkages with pedagogy, and modes of research dissemination, influence and academic engagement within and beyond the academic community of geographers.

What is carceral geography?

Geographical work in this field is rich, diverse and multi-scalar, focusing on wider structural, political and institutional contexts as well as on everyday experiences, practices and agency; it is sensitive to change and difference across space and time, space/time, and between cultures and jurisdictions. Of particular note is the breadth of empirical focus of carceral geography; on spaces of ‘mainstream’ incarceration of ‘criminals’ for custodial sentences imposed by the prevailing legal system; spaces of migrant detention which confine irregular or non-status migrants pending decisions on admittance or removal; the overlaps and synergies between these spaces, their functional and post-functional lives, and also their porosity, in recognising that techniques and technologies of confinement seep out of ‘carceral’ spaces into the everyday, domestic, street, and institutional spaces with which both former inmates and their loved ones (such as prison visitors) come into contact. It also increasingly recognises ‘the carceral’ as spatial, emplaced, mobile, embodied and affective.

The ‘carceral turn’ – the deployment of a new range of strategies of social control and coercion, has seen resentful views of the poor and vulnerable inform punitive turns in both welfare and justice policy. This turn is epitomised both by growth in the legal, state-sanctioned incarceration of offenders sentenced to ever-longer prison terms in punitive conditions, and by a trend towards the extra-penal mass supervision of increasing numbers of people whose lives are thus penetrated by the criminal justice system. It has also prefigured the use of semi-sanctioned forms of confinement for asylum seekers and refugees, identified as targets for collective fears and dissatisfactions, who are subject to intimidation, violence and detention. Technologies of surveillance and control enable a carceral ‘fix’ to operate beyond conventional carceral spaces, and even when persons are physically mobile – for example through electronic tagging, and through the far-reaching stigma associated with prior incarceration. Nation-states out-source imprisonment to neighbouring countries, renting bedspace in under-capacity facilities; funding overseas facilities to facilitate deportation or extradition, and commodifying the (im)mobility inherent in prisoners’ confinement, whilst at the same time migrants are detained outside of the territories they wish to enter; contesting established notions of state sovereignty.

As aspects of confinement are privatised, and the construction of places of detention becomes big business, the premises thought appropriate for confinement in one jurisdiction differ markedly from those built for same purpose elsewhere. Debate continues over the legitimacy of incarceration in all of its manifestations – a debate which both transcends and is differentiated by local and national cultural norms and practices. In short, the carceral age is one in which there is unprecedented fluidity between forms of confinement, be they state-sanctioned, quasi-legal, ad-hoc, illicit, spatially fixed, mobile, embodied or imagined, and in which the scale of deployment of carceral techniques and infrastructures demands critical attention.

The ‘carceral turn’ has seen parallel development in academic research into these phenomena, originating within criminology, (prison) sociology and political science, but increasingly stimulating interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary dialogue between these disciplines and fields such as carceral geography. In recent years, a rich and diverse research dialogue has started to coalesce around the notion of the ‘carceral’ – asking what this term means, what it signifies, what its explanatory and critical purchase might be, and the extent to which it is anchored in or limited by its etymology in relation to the prison. It is clear that the interrogation of these questions requires academic disciplines which already speak to one another at a certain level to deepen their interdisciplinary engagement, namely through the development of a new community of scholars adept at navigating the disciplinary terrain of their different histories, traditions, terminologies, guiding principles, philosophies, and methodologies.

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