Transcarceral spaces – (dis)empowerment in release from confinement

Heading back from the IBG conference in Edinburgh, I reflected on two fascinating papers on similar themes but drawing very different conclusions.

Menah Raven-Ellison described the experience of women released from immigrant detention in the UK and ‘dispersed’ into poor quality accommodation in towns and cities often distant from any existing family or support networks these women may previously have had. Although Menah is only part way through her PhD fieldwork, her impression so far is that these women experience extreme disempowerment, so much so that in her paper she characterised their status as ‘bare life’, after Agamben – beings entirely without agency.

By contrast, Avril Maddrell’s paper on UK male prisoners released ‘on licence’ from open prisons, detailed their experience of working in high street charity shops, and the positive effect that this activity seemed to have on their sense of self worth, and their motivation to find work on release.

Clearly it’s difficult to draw parallels between these two groups of previously or ‘semi’ incarcerated individuals. Both occupy what might be considered ‘transcarceral’ spaces after Allspach (2010), in that they are released from formal incarceration – in the case if the migrant women, no longer in formal detention, and for the men, on day release from open prison. Both still experience ‘re-confinements’ though – for the women, in the distant locations of their dispersal destinations, and the conditions of the accommodation in which they must remain, and for the men in the monitoring performed by the charity shop managers and the frequent reports back to the prison.

The outcomes, though, according to Raven-Ellison and Maddrell, are very different. For the migrant women these spaces of reconfinement represent for Raven-Ellison extreme denial of agency, whereas for the male prisoners, there is a certain degree of empowerment, with Maddrell describing some prisoners taking on a ‘security’ and surveillance role in charity shops and ‘spotting’ potential shoplifters, in a curious reversal of their own ‘surveilled’ status; and of charity shop work leading to shop management roles for some some prisoners after release.

In an RGS-IBG conference themed around Security of Geography/Geography of Security, these and many other papers provoked the audience to think about what security means. Given the overarching logics of confining asylum seekers and ‘mainstream’ prisoners, and of managing their release in ways which differ so widely in the outcomes for individuals, whose security is really being protected?

Carceral Geography, Palestinian Agency and Spatial Control – forthcoming lecture and paper

Rema Hammami, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Birzeit University, is giving a guest lecture at the Centre for Studies in Asian Cultures and Social Anthropology, Vienna, on Thursday 14th June. Entitled ‘The Carceral Geography of Late Colonialism: Palestinian Agency and Israeli Military Checkpoints – an ethnographic view’,  it focuses on spatial control over Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

Carceral geographers might be interested to see how Professor Hammami discusses human geographers’ and critical planners’ conceptualizations of this spatial control through reference to Foucauldian notions of panoptic surveillance and in terms of Agamben’s notions of Homo Sacer/Bare Life.

According to the abstract for the lecture, Rema Hammami starts from an understanding of the scale and sophistication of Israel’s regime of spatial control over Palestinians in the occupied territories as “without precedent”. Composed of a dense matrix of internal and external checkpoints, closed military areas, buffer zones, and more than 700 kilometres of concrete wall and electronic fence, she describes the spatial regime as “multi-layered, all-encompassing and overwhelming”. What is missing from existing accounts of these spaces, she argues, is Palestinian agency. “Palestinians are not simply objects of Israel’s technologies of control but are also active subjects who through a variety of everyday practices negotiate, elude, subvert and sometimes overturn the operations of the spatial regime while constantly resisting the range of impacts it has on their lives”. Through reference to ethnographic research undertaken at checkpoints in the West Bank over the past decade, the lecture aims to “shed light on the range of these resistant practices, while posing the larger question of what does Israel’s spatial regime aim to do? And what exactly does it accomplish?”

On this broad topic, and again drawing attention to agency, Adam Ramadan’s forthcoming paper is well worth a read. In ‘Spatialising the Refugee Camp’  he argues that while the repressive geographies of asylum and refuge in Europe have been the focus of academic attention in recent years, much less work in geography has focused on the refugee camp as a distinctive political space. Focusing on the particular case of Palestinian camps in Lebanon, his paper sets out an analytical strategy for refugee camp space. It takes three analytical ‘cuts’ into the space of the camp: a critical take on Agamben’s ‘space of exception’ that accounts for the complex, multiple and hybrid sovereignties of the camp; an analysis of the camp as an assemblage of people, institutions, organisations, the built environment and the relations between them that produce particular values and practices; and an analysis of the constrained temporality of the camp, its enduring liminality and the particular time-space from which it draws meaning. This spatial analysis of the camp offers a way of grounding geopolitics, seeing its manifestations and negotiations in the everyday lives and practices of ordinary people. The camp is much more than an anonymous terrain of conflict or a tool of international agencies, and understanding its spatiality is essential for seeing the everyday politics and material practices of refugees.

Taking carceral geography out of the conventional ‘confines’ of the prison or the detention centre, this forthcoming lecture and paper both offer fascinating empirical and conceptual insights.