New papers in carceral geography: space, privacy, affect and the carceral habitus

Over the past few months a number of new papers have emerged which may be of interest to carceral geographers. Written by both geographers and criminologists, they address a range of issues but share a common concern with the importance and significance of carceral space.

First, Thomas Ugelvik’s book chapter “The Bellman and the Prison Officer: Customer Care in Imperfect Panopticons” is a fascinating piece which contrasts the ‘gaze’ of the prison officer and the hotel bellman, as they observe prisoners and hotel guests in ways which balance professional customer care with concerns for security and control. He calls this a ‘dual optic’, ‘partly focused on the needs of others, partly on the potential problems these others represent’ (Ugelvik 2013, 192). Drawing on the penal context of Norway, he also draws attention to the issue of privacy as experienced in carceral spaces and in hotels, in that in neither context can prisoners nor hotel guests completely close off ‘their’ spaces from the officer or the bellman – although he points out the lack of fit between the ‘panoptical’ prison model and Norwegian prison cells, where prisoners are afforded a legal right to privacy.

Next, taking up the notion of prisoner privacy, a paper in press emerges from research into women’s imprisonment in Russia, focusing squarely on the elusiveness of privacy in carceral space. By deploying a theoretical engagement with the concepts of ‘public’ and ‘private’, the paper exlores the experience of surveilled carceral space, specifically the ways in which imprisoned women negotiate and engage with apparently ‘public’ spaces to construct the ‘private’ by deploying a range of personal tactics such as retreat into the self, or intentional violation of prison rules, to experience the ‘punishment’ of solitary confinement. “Privacy in Penal Space: Women’s Imprisonment in Russia” by Dominique Moran, Judith Pallot and Laura Piacentini, is available in early view at Geoforum.

Jennifer Turner’s recent review paper “Disciplinary Engagements with Prisons, Prisoners and the Penal System” calls for ‘renewed interest in the relational, fluid, contradictory and nuanced spaces of imprisonment’ , particularly in regard to ‘the affective nature of imprisonment’ (Turner 2013, 41). She points out the value of perspectives from cultural geography in drawing attention to these nuanced spaces, and in drawing out their significance ‘to open up the political at a more ‘personal’ level’ (ibid 35).

Turner’s call for attention to be paid to the affective potential of penal space is the focus of Dominique Moran’s new paper “Carceral geography and the spatialities of prison visiting: visitation, recidivism and hyperincarceration“, which draws together recent work in human geography on emotion and affect, as a means of understanding the personal experience of carceral space – specifically the experience of prison visiting rooms as liminal transformative spaces for prisoners and visitors alike. In so doing, it argues that in advancing understandings of the affective dimension of human experience in carceral space, carceral geography could not only exemplify a concept, but also participate in efforts to make positive social and political change.

Finally, engaging with carceral space in a very different way, Judah Schept’s forthcoming paper “‘A lockdown facility…with the feel of a small, private college’: Liberal politics, jail expansion, and the carceral habitus‘ discusses ways in which communities participate in the production of the carceral state in the United States, and specifically, the ways in which mass incarceration imbues even oppositional politics, as communities reformulate and adapt the material manifestations of mass incarceration to fit specific local contexts. Schept contends that ‘mass incarceration is both more forceful and more subject to diverse and context-specific formulations than has previously been argued’, and he argues that ‘the corporal and discursive inscription of carcerality into individual and community bodies’ suggests the presence of what he terms a ‘carceral habitus’. This term,  in the context of his paper, offers a way to understand the ways in which mass incarceration pervades even those people and communities ‘which purport to reject it’ suggests that mass incarceration is not just ‘out there’ in media representations, political rhetoric and everyday penal functionings, but also ‘in here’ in the ‘everyday negotiations and productions of the social world’ .

Considering habitus as as an ‘always sociospatially contextualized, nature of practice’ (Holt 2008, 228) enables the notion of carceral habitus as a shared consciousness to be mapped onto tangible spaces, potentially opening a space for carceral geography to consider the ‘carceral’  as emplaced and affective, as a social construction ‘relevant both within and outside physical spaces of incarceration’ (Moran 2013, 176) and to inform future research into the relationship between the carceral and a punitive state.

New ESRC Research Project: Breaking the Cycle? Prison Visitation and Recidivism in the UK

The ESRC intends to fund a new research project entitled ‘Breaking the Cycle? Prison Visitation and Recidivism in the UK’, to be undertaken by carceral geographer  Dominique Moran and criminological psychologist Louise Dixon, both at the University of Birmingham, UK.

This 3-year interdisciplinary project will provide a new perspective on prison visitation and its relationship to the highly topical issue of recidivism. Macro-level statistical analysis in parallel with innovative mixed-methods research into visiting facilities will identify the nature of this relationship and its socio-spatial context, informing policy towards visitation and the design of visiting spaces, and contributing to broader debates about prisoner rehabilitation and resettlement.

In the aftermath of the 2011 UK riots, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke described the rioters as a ‘feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream’, and blamed the riots on the ‘broken penal system – one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful’. Reoffending or recidivism is key to the operation of the repetitive cycle of incarceration, re-entry, re-offending and re-incarceration, and represents a major policy challenge. In the UK, 75% of ex-inmates reoffend within nine years of release, and 39.3% within the first twelve months. Clarke’s solution as set out in the government’s “Breaking the Cycle” Green Paper is ‘payment by results’; a ‘radical and decentralising reform’ with ‘freedom to innovate’ new interventions, opening ‘the market to new providers from the private, voluntary and community sectors’. This project draws attention to prison visitation as an aspect of imprisonment which has already been demonstrated to improve the outcomes of released prisoners, but whose specific functionality is at present poorly understood. Through parallel methodologies, this project investigates the relationship between visitation and recidivism.

Research into recidivism finds that prison visitation is a significant factor in improving post-release outcomes; outcomes are in general much more positive for visited prisoners, and lower recidivism rates have been demonstrated across study populations and time periods. However, although the effect is widely observed, the causality is poorly understood. It is presumed that the maintenance of personal relationships and the feeling of ‘connectedness’ to home and community which may arise through visitation smooth reintegration after release, but this process has never been fully explored. The processes underlying persistent criminal careers remain a research gap, and very little is known about psychological change in relation to prison visits in terms of the psychological constructs which may mediate the relationship between visits and recidivism.

The project will generate both nuanced insights into the relationship between prison visitation and recidivism, and also critical insights into the socio-spatial context of prison visiting, to inform visitation policy and the design of more effective prison visiting spaces. It seizes an opportunity to influence policy and create impact, at a time when the the coalition government is consulting on policy reform, in particular in relation to recidivism. It represents convergence of cutting-edge debates in cognate disciplines of human geography, criminology, psychology and wider social theory, and resonates with policy development in individual prison institutions in the UK in the context of the ‘Breaking the Cycle’ initiative.

There will be a 2.5-year Post-Doctoral Research Assistant position created at the University of Birmingham in connection with this grant; post to be advertised in due course. For any further information please contact