Early Career Perspectives June 2021

The first Early Career Perspectives seminar was held on Thursday 17 June 2021.


  • Conceptualizing “prisoners” as forced migrant and effectiveness of social networks among “prisoners”
    Unusah Aziz – PhD Researcher, University of Leeds, UK
  • Courtroom space and carceral geography
    Jack Head – MRes Researcher, Birkbeck, University of London, UK
  • SWIFT: Shifting sense of self and relational power dynamics among Colorado’s incarcerated wildland firefighters
    Ben Nevis Barron – PhD Researcher, University of Colorado, Boulder, US

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Presentations were followed by a panel discussion, audience Q&A, and networking session, which we did not record to facilitate a ‘no pressure’ environment for ECR colleagues. However, the presenters have provided some brief written answers to the questions they received (and to those we didn’t get time to address in person).

Unusah Aziz

What led you to this area of research and what do you hope that your research will allow you to contribute (perhaps in terms of your disciplinary area or as an outcome for your case study area, among other things!)?

I was curious to know how prisoners, especially those transferred from the northern part of Ghana to the southern part, are maintaining ties with relatives and whether these prisoners have a say in deciding where they want to be incarcerated. Consequently, I hope that this research will engender debate among activists, academia and policy-makers and bring into the limelight the needed attention for a vulnerable group such as prisoners.

Do we see any political discrimination for prisoners in Ghana?

Response(s) from the field indicate that political prisoners tend to receive a lot of visits from members/friends from their affiliated political party. Consequently, it tends to create human traffic on the prison facility, threatening the security of the facility. To mitigate this threat, the political inmate is transferred to a remote facility where access becomes a bit difficult for people.

In the experience of one of our audience members working in prison transfers in the UK, it seems that transfers are less a symptom of a stretched infrastructure, and more just part of the punitive function of prison. By keeping people in a state of constant movement/anticipating movement, it amounts to a continuous assault on the social fabric of prison, breaking apart support networks and curtailing the formation of groups like prisoners’ unions. Have you come across anything like this in Ghana/anywhere else in your research? For example, where the circulation of prisoners is not a symptom of a stretched infrastructure, but an integral part of the prison system’s imperative to continually reinstate people as fragmented, carceral subjects.

Based on preliminary themes from my research data, it is evident that the transfer/movement of inmates is affecting their interaction with family members and friends, sometimes leading to some inmates being abandon in the prison. Also, their transfer/movement is exacerbating the financial hardship on some families as they continue to pay high lorry fares to visit incarcerated relatives to maintain family ties.

But one cannot ignore the numerous challenges the Ghana prisons service is facing which have been confirmed in my interviews with both the key informants (i.e. prison officers, NGO’s) and the transferred prisoners. With regards to the Ghana context, the prison service is underfunded, leading to a lack of logistics (i.e. vehicle for transportation), inadequate beds, water and infirmary in most of the local prisons.       

Naturally, prisoner transfer means that prisoner could move to institutions away from where they live. How important is for prisoners in Ghana to be close to their families? For example, in Chile, families are allowed to visit their relative in prisons twice a week and they provide food and other basic stuff for living. In this context, transfers are definitively a punishment for prisoners.

The study is conducted in two prisons – a maximum and a medium-security prison where visits are allowed once in two weeks and once in one week, respectively. And it is similar in the Ghanaian context where family members are allowed to support incarcerated relatives with some assorted food and basic stuff for a living.

In terms of how important prisoners are willing to be close to family members, the majority of them would have wished to be incarcerated closed to their relatives. However, the condition(s) (i.e. availability of beds, water, exercising yard, etc.) of the prison(s) becomes a strong influence as compared to their willingness to be closer to their families. This view/perception of condition(s) of prison is based on the aftermath of their transfer.    

Jack Head

What led you to this area of research and what do you hope that your research will allow you to contribute (perhaps in terms of your disciplinary area or as an outcome for your case study area, among other things!)?

When I realised that the study of law could be about much more than just doctrine, it made sense for me to turn to thing I find most interesting, architecture. 

In the EU and beyond there are often tunnels connecting some prisons and courthouses. This speaks to a lot of your comment about courtrooms potentially being the start/an early part of a carceral journey. What’s your view on the symbolism of these tunnels? Are there other kinds of prison/court connections that might be less material?

Thinking about the site of the courtroom as the start of a person’s carceral journey is useful, I think. But it’s also useful to think about the court (in its jurisdictional rather than physical sense) as the institution which gives rise to incarceration – most obviously, through sentencing.

On the point about tunnels, I’d love to do some research on this. The tunnel serves an ostensibly practical function as well as being symbolic, and it would really interesting to explore whether these two (competing?) purposes can really be separated. HMP Belmarsh, for example, is on the same site as Woolwich Crown Court, and I’d be interested to know whether there’s some intricate system of tunnels linking them (and the other prisons there).  

In your paper, you discuss Foucault’s idea of the birth of institutions and buildings, which you brought to life (excuse the pun ..) convincingly with reference to courthouses. Later on in your paper you then spoke to the spaces left behind, sort of spectres, ghosts or space memories, of law’s carceral power and continued (although perhaps no longer physical/concrete) power.  I wondered if there was a tension here, between birth and death, or rather the evasion of death (of ongoing presence, mutable and precisely more powerful for it) that speaks to the ongoing power of law in everyday landscapes? I liked the idea that even in their very absence (demolition, destruction, effacement, re-purposing), courthouses are present, and this presence within the landscape is a continued embodiment of law’s power.

Certain court buildings do seem to be quite obstinate in their refusal to disappear entirely; to die. There are ‘bits’ of old courts which have ended up in strange places, endowing long-demolished buildings with a sort of material afterlife I suppose…busts of judges from the old Manchester Assize Court which have found their way to a rural café in Yorkshire, for example.

On the more general point, there’s a lot of literature on this, but yes there’s obviously a tension in law between birth and death, which (at least metaphorically) is exemplified by the precedential nature of the common law: a system in which judges constantly give birth to new legal principles, but in many ways refuse to allow old ones to die. Of course (some) judges have noticed these parallels, and taken advantage of their stylistic potential, with Lord Denning famously talking about the law of equity not being ‘past the age of childbearing.’

Ben Nevis Barron

What led you to this area of research and what do you hope that your research will allow you to contribute (perhaps in terms of your disciplinary area or as an outcome for your case study area, among other things!)?

I learned about Colorado’s inmate firefighting program, SWIFT, through a news article in 2014, and was immediately fascinated. The topic exists at the intersection of so many interesting and complex dynamics – incarceration, climate change, labor, race, gender, and so on. I hope that my work contributes in a small way to a broader push to bring the humanity of incarcerated people to the fore, informing how we might do things differently than we do in our current systems. In terms of the discipline, I hope to open and deepen connections and conversation between carceral geography and more-than-human geography. 

Could you tell us a bit more about each of the more ‘creative’ ethnographic methods that your project will employ?

In addition to more standard ethnographic methods (semi-structured interviews, participant observation, solicited diaries, etc.), I intend to employ two qualitative methods designed to access – imperfectly, of course – the felt experience of my research participants across space and time. The first method is called body mapping, which originated as a therapeutic practice and was brought into geography as a research method by Elizabeth Sweet and Sara Ortiz Escalante. The interviewer and participant sit down with a life-size paper outline of the participant’s body, and the participant is encouraged to respond creatively to questions by adding words, images, scrapbook materials, or other details to the outline. The second method is the memory walk, in which an interview is conducted while actively moving through a place that has some connection to the interview content. In my case, I hope to bring former SWIFT members who have been released from prison on walks through burn scars from wildfires which they fought. The idea is that the landscape itself will act mnemonically, calling up stories, memories, thoughts, and embodied feelings that might not arise in a conventional interview.

We understand that you have trained to be a member of this firefighting programme. Is there something here that you will need to think about in terms of your own positionality in relation to this research?

Yes, absolutely. An ongoing reflexive consideration of one’s positionality is ethically indispensable for any ethnography, particularly during participant observation. One’s presence as a researcher always has some influence – for this reason, ethnography aims to produce not an account of objective truth, but instead an inevitably flawed and incomplete but nonetheless robust qualitative description of life as it is actually lived. The physical risks of this particular type of participant observation would demand extra considerations. If I am unable to participate on the fire team without creating extra risk for the team members, I will not participate. While participation on the fire team could create bonds and blur roles in ways that complicate my research findings, it will also provide a deep and nuanced perspective on what SWIFT participants physically go through, as well as a lens onto what they actually do on the fireline (as opposed to what they say about what they do).  In this endeavor, I draw inspiration and guidance from Lindsay Raisa Feldman, who conducted ethnographic research with three inmate fireteams in Arizona, serving alongside them on over thirty fires.

The next event will be held in Autumn 2021. Watch this space for more info!

Get involved

If you would be interested in presenting your research at a future event in this series, please email Eleanor March, Research Fellow in Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Birmingham: e.march@bham.ac.uk