What is carceral geography?

Carceral geography is defined as geographical engagement with spaces, practices and experiences of confinement and coercive control.

The carceral turn

The ‘carceral turn’ has witnessed the deployment of a new range of strategies of social control and coercion, as resentful views of the poor and vulnerable inform punitive turns in both welfare and justice policy.

This turn is epitomised by growth both in the legal, state-sanctioned incarceration of offenders and in forms of confinement for asylum seekers and refugees.

In addition, technologies of surveillance and control enable a carceral ‘fix’ to operate beyond conventional carceral spaces, even when persons are physically mobile (for example through electronic tagging) and through the far-reaching stigma associated with prior incarceration. The privatisation of carceral space also renders imprisonment and detention as ‘big business’ that is central to the economic construction of the state.

Accordingly, we see increasing numbers of people whose lives are penetrated by the criminal justice system.

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.

Carceral geography

The ‘carceral turn’ has seen parallel development in academic research into these phenomena. Such research originated within criminology, (prison) sociology and political science, and has stimulated rich interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary dialogue – with ‘carceral geography’ as a distinct field of research being the result of such dialogue!

Work in carceral geography is rich, diverse and multi-scalar:

  • It focuses 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
  • Empirical focus is often on spaces of ‘mainstream’ incarceration – e.g. prisons or immigrant detention facilities – and the overlaps and synergies between these spaces, their lifespans, and their porosity
  • However, it recognises that techniques and technologies of confinement seep out of ‘carceral’ spaces into the everyday, domestic, street, and institutional spaces, including spaces that are typically associated with ‘care’, but which often transmute into sites of coercive control
  • It also increasingly recognises ‘the carceral’ as spatial, emplaced, mobile, embodied and affective