4B Carceral Imaginaries

Parallel Session 4B (Day 2 11.-00-12.00)


Carceral Imaginaries

 Alwyn Walsh (University of Leeds) : The Breach: Fugitivity as/and resistance in Orange is the New Black

The extraordinary popularity of Litchfield Penitentiary in the public’s understanding of women in prison allows for a critical examination of some of the central concerns of carceral geography. The paper examines prison and the carceral logic of racism, using Michelle Alexander’s critique of present day prison industrial complex in The New Jim Crow. I offer a reading of Netflix series Orange is the New Black, focusing on the storyline of prison revolt: in particular, a breach of the perimeter fence from season 2, as well as the climactic inmate death caused by an officer’s excessive force which results in an uprising. By focusing on how race constructs the women’s experiences, and the violence of Litchfield’s neoliberal regime, I consider how the series represents carcerality as well as how women construct spaces of resistance. The paper proposes that the foregrounding of race and representations in a mainstream series about prison can offer valuable materials for debating how institutions perpetuate and exacerbate inequalities for women. To do so, I draw on Stefano Harney & Fred Moten’s (2013) concept of fugitivity, which deploys a methodology of resisting representations in popular culture as fixed meanings while at the same time acknowledging the structuring forces of institutions. This suggests a style that deliberately provokes – identifying and acknowledging the existing ways meanings are forged and critiquing their limitations. This allows for an opportunity to see characters, storylines and visual tropes as questions posed of and to the institutional structures of the prison industrial complex. Such criticality sees blackness as a challenge to existing hegemonic knowledges that reinforce white supremacy as well as uphold institutional norms. This approach aims to further the understanding of how prison cultures both reflect existing oppressive structures and to inflect how academic discourse and cultural production form a counterpoint to the policies and everyday practices of carceral institutions.

Nicoletta Policek (University of Cumbria) : Emotional geographies of carceral spaces: The legacy of Goli Otok

Almost hidden in the Northern Adriatic Sea, rests Goli Otok, the Naked Island, as it is often known. Here the Tito regime created a brutal and repressive apparatus in the format of a penal colony, from which they passed, between 1949 and 1959, some 30,000 prisoners – it is estimated that 4,000 inmates died on the island. In essence, the entire island was officially made into a high-security, top secret prison and labor camp run by the authorities of FPR Yugoslavia, and it was used to incarcerate political prisoners. These included known and alleged Stalinists, but also other Communist Party members or even non-party citizens accused of exhibiting sympathy or leanings towards the Soviet Union. Many anti-communist (Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, Albanian and Italian nationals) were also incarcerated on Goli Otok, together with non-political prisoners sent to the island to serve out criminal sentences or sentenced to death.  Against a geopolitical backdrop which highlights issues pertaining to surveillance in post-communist societies, the first part of this contribution assesses some of the key methodological issues relating to the unfolding of the discursive legacy of truth telling when conversing with former inmates who, many years after their release, are still feeling under surveillance and incarcerated by the now defunct regime. Subsequently, this contribution aims to support the testimony of the Goli Otok’s ghosts – as defined by a former inmate – through the interpretative remainder of autobiographical novels and memoirs written by those who have been imprisoned at Goli Otok. The concluding section of this contribution, revisits some of the difficulties experienced by former inmates when attempting to escape material and emotional carcerality. The analytical model proposed in this contribution forms part of a wider discussion tackling the virtuosity of justice, with its arduous task of deconstructing the experience of violence both conceptually and with regard to lived carceral experiences.

Hanneke Stuit (University of Amsterdam, Literary and Cultural Analysis) : Prison Unlocked: Carceral Imaginaries in Prison Escape Room Games

In the Netherlands, about a third of the available incarceration space is currently vacant (de Volkskrant 21 March 2016). This space is sometimes used to house prisoners from other European countries like Norway and Belgium, or is made available for refugees. What seems to be a new trend, at least in the Netherlands, is that these prisons are also used for entertainment purposes, particularly escape room games. One example is the Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, which was closed as a prison in 2016. Currently, it houses 600 refugees, some of whom run the coffee bar, gourmet restaurant and hotel on the premises. Also, one can take tours through vacant parts of the prison and take part in an escape room game. I am interested in the types of narratives and discourses produced by these escape rooms, where visitors are locked up and need to escape from their cell and cellblock in order to win the game. I explore the (popular) cultural references used in producing a specific look and feel for the visitor, and ultimately how these escape rooms tie in with current discussions about incarceration as a social, political and ethical issue. The paper takes Monika Fludernik’s metaphoric notion of the “carceral imaginary” (2005) as a starting point for studying the ways in which two escape rooms in Amsterdam and Breda respectively engage with cultural representations of incarceration. What type of subject positions (Fiske 1987) and collective carceral imaginaries are presupposed and what alternative readings of prison space are made possible? To what extent is this playful and affective make-belief engagement with prison space structured by exoticism of the “foreign” prison world, rather than by punitive desires on the part of the public (Kearon 2012)? How does this trend relate to cultural beliefs about incarceration?