Portable Prisons: Electronic Monitoring and the Creation of Carceral Territory

Reviewed by Sophie Lachapelle, PhD Student, Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Gacek, J. (2022). Portable prisons: Electronic monitoring and the creation of carceral territory. McGill-Queen’s University Press

In Portable Prisons: Electronic Monitoring and the Creation of Carceral Territory, James Gacek thoughtfully combines his empirical findings with geographical methodologies and critical theory. He does so in a way that evocatively reveals the insidious and increasingly diffuse nature of carcerality in the everyday lives of criminalized people – even, and perhaps especially, outside prison walls. Indeed, Gacek’s analysis of Electronic Monitoring (EM) in Scotland – of its infrastructure, its politics, its emotional geographies – contributes to a compelling, unsettling critique of so-called ‘community corrections’ (see, for example, De Giorgi, 2017; Miller, 2014). Can we really call EM a kind of carceral diversion? At the risk of spoiling the ending, Gacek answers with an emphatic no:

‘If the goal is to reduce the populations of bricks-and-mortar prisons, ‘digital prisons’ are not the answer, for EM is not actually ‘better’ than prison, it is just a different form of prison’ (2022, p. 121).

Startling in its implications, Portable Prisons urges us – through the project of EM – to re-examine the impact of carceral geographies not only in our own lives, but, more importantly, in the everyday lives of people already pushed to the margins.

With a structure that’s straightforward and easy to follow, Portable Prisons has seven chapters. Chapter 1 introduces Gacek’s doctoral research on EM as the subject of Portable Prisons by setting the cultural and political stages of EM in Scotland. Indeed, this is the first step in Gacek’s attempt to ‘unmask and unsettle’ the ways in which we take for granted the presence of increasingly invasive surveillance in Western societies, especially monitoring activities undertaken by private security firms (2022, p. 11). Chapter 2 is an extensive literature review of criminological and geographical scholarship where Gacek explores not only what carcerality means, but also begins to ask questions about how it feels. To do this, Gacek introduces mobilities literature (Cresswell, 2006; Gill, 2009; Peters & Turner, 2017; Sheller & Urry, 2006) into the conversation, suggesting that a critical attention to mobility in carceral contexts will help us to identify the evolution of carcerality as a banal feature of our everyday lives. This is even as it may also reveal how we might undermine the channels of power that take said carcerality for granted. Indeed, as Gacek observes: ‘while mobilities research expresses an explicit focus on how the dimensions of power are embedded in the mobile (as well as how immobility is produced through power), it can also offer a framework for better understanding the operation of power as it works to confine, detain, contain, [and] immobilize’ (p. 33). In Chapter 3, Gacek outlines his theoretical approach, where he proposes the notion of carceral territory as a new analytic through which we might understand the subtle yet methodical spread of carcerality outside of prison. Thinking through carceral territory as a strategic process rather than an object, here Gacek reveals some of the ways that EM is used to (re)construct everyday living spaces in an effort to perpetuate and/or intensify the social control of criminalized people. In the process of territorializing space for carceral ends, new boundaries are constructed that not only change the ways criminalized people organize and carry out their lives, but also the ways that life feels. For some, as Portable Prisons illustrates, EM makes life unliveable.

In the final chapters (4 – 6) Gacek analyzes his empirical findings. Methodologically rich and theoretically grounded, each of these chapters presents innovative perspectives from which to explore carceral territory. These include using institutional ethnography to explore the ways that carceral territory is established and re-enacted by Monitoring Officers at the National Electronic Monitoring Centre in Glasgow, Scotland (Chapter 4); engaging mobile methods to examine the EM installation process in the homes of criminalized people (Chapter 5); and conducting semi-structured interviews with criminalized people who have experienced EM to understand both the physical and emotional consequences of EM for people’s everyday activities, relationships, and well-being (Chapter 6). In his concluding chapter, Gacek summarizes his findings in relation to experiences of carceral territory, illuminating ‘the wider yet intricate geographies of marginalization that intimately connect people, punishment, and places and on how carcerality manifests itself within and beyond these linkages’ (2022, p. 139).

It’s clear from the language, structure, and tone of the book that Portable Prisons unapologetically targets academic audiences. Some – particularly scholar-activists and people with lived experiences of incarceration – may question the utility of yet another book that restates much of what criminalized people have been problematizing about the criminal justice system for decades. This critique is, of course, not to diminish the excellent scholarship demonstrated in Portable Prisons,but to ask ourselves – as carceral geographers – how our scholarship benefits the people we study. In this case, how does Portable Prisons benefit those people who have experienced or are currently experiencing the tumultuous, and sometimes violent, geographies of EM? Regardless, Portable Prisons is an insightful body of work that will undoubtedly raise the profile of carceral geography as a unique sub-discipline in increasingly interdisciplinary discussions of carcerality and control. At the very least, Gacek’s analysis of EM participants’ experiences opens up a new – and theoretically rich – avenue in carceral geography scholarship: that is, ‘how it feels for territory to happen, occur, or take place’ (Gacek, 2022, p. 44; emphasis original).

The most significant contribution of Portable Prisons is – by Gacek’s own admission – the theoretical development of carceral territory. What is most powerful about Gacek’s conceptualization of carceral territory is that it is not regarded simply as a thing to conquer or control, but as set of relations characterized by dominance and sovereignty. The creation of carceral territory, then, is not simply an effect of social hierarchies; rather, it is the establishment of carceral territory which makes the continuation of such hierarchies possible ‘via coordination and management of movement, time, and space’ (Gacek, 2022, p. 6). Indeed, the analytic of ‘carceral territory’ should continue to be adapted and expanded by other carceral  geographers, especially those of us interested in (settler-)colonialism, where the ongoing struggles over territorial boundaries – and the processes of carceral territorialization – take on a whole new meaning. If carceral territory ‘serves as an imaginary – but no less effective – prop for social relations… We must ask ourselves: who is drawing the boundaries, and what gives this entity the authority to draw? How are the boundaries delineated? What kinds of boundaries are being delineated? And, finally, what is the purpose of delineating these boundaries?’ (Gacek, 2022, p. 45). As critical geographers, we must consider these questions. And Portable Prisons has presented us with an innovative way of doing just that.


Cresswell, T. (2006). On the move. Routledge.

De Giorgi, A. (2017). Back to nothing: Prisoner reentry and neoliberal neglect. Social Justice 44(1), 83-120.

Gill, N. (2009). Governmental mobility: The power effects of the movement of detained asylum seekers around Britain’s detention estate. Political Geography 28(3), 186-196. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2009.05.003

Miller, R. J. (2014). Devolving the carceral state: Race, prisoner re-entry, and the micro-politics of urban poverty management. Punishment & Society 16(3), 305-335. doi: 10.1177/1462474514527487

Peters, K., & Turner, J., (2017). Carceral mobilities: A manifesto for mobilities, and agenda for carceral studies. In J. Turner & K. Peters (Eds.), Carceral mobilities: Interrogating movement in incarceration, pp. 1-15. Routledge.

Sheller, M. & Urry, J. (2006). The new mobilities paradigm. Environment and Planning A 38(2), 35-45. https://doi.org/10.1068/a37268