Carceral Geographies at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Chicago, IL

by Jen Turner

The recent meeting of the AAG was a very fruitful event for those interested in carceral geographies, with some of the offerings in the sub-discipline comprising of the six paper sessions and panel session organised by myself and Dominique Moran. Held over two of the five days in the conference programme, the quality and variety of papers is testament to the ongoing vibrancy of the area of carceral geographies.

In the first session on “Theorisations of Confinement”, Christophe Mincke began proceedings with his paper entitled Prison: Legitimacy Through Mobility? Mincke scrutinised the relationship between prison and mobility (and the counterpart societal relations that render this problematic) to interrogate the notion of a continuum of carceral mobilities. His case study surrounding the Belgian Prison Act considered the flow and activity of spaces of incarceration. Continuing this theme, Kimberley Peters (with co-author Jennifer Turner) called for a consideration of carceral mobility that extends beyond horizontal motion in her ‘Unlock the volume’: bringing height and depth to carceral mobilities. Peters and Turner’s theorisation of volumetric carceral mobilities is drawn from archival research into voyages on board convict ships transporting prisoners to colonies in Australia in the early nineteenth century. In the final paper of this session, Stephanie Figgins took a lead from Matthew Mitchelson’s notion of bedspace in her paper Between the Sheets of the U.S. Deportation Regime. Figgins illustrated how the detention state can become numerically evaluated according to cost and availability of single bed units and detailed measures by which detainees were treated with negative associations of “docile and lazy” spaces of sleep. Acting as our first discussant, Nick Gill commented upon the variety of rich methods for theorising different aspects of movement and evaluation practices across these different carceral spaces. Gill was particularly keen to see methodological innovation for carceral geographers in order to reflect the advancement of theorisations in these areas.

The second paper session very clearly adhered to its guiding themes of “Prison Architecture and Design”. Gideon Boie turned again to Belgium in Prison Up Close: the new subject of a penitentiary spatial structure. Detailing the development of the highly contested prison masterplan, he exemplified the proposed Huizen (“houses”) which would encompass small-scale residential complexes outside of the traditional prison perimeter. Boie presented a very hopeful future for humane prison design where architects had a social responsibility for developments. In contrast, Dominique Moran (presenting work co-authored by Jennifer Turner and Yvonne Jewkes) observed how prison design in the UK disrupts notions in architectural geographies of a creative architect playing a central role in building production. In Becoming big things: Building events and the architectural geographies of incarceration in England and Wales, Moran appraised processes of commissioning and tendering, as well as design and modelling which combines to restrict the function of architects in the design process and limits their involvement in the final prison product. Taking note of these practices to produce homogenous and replicable prison spaces, I presented my paper Components of the carceral: The lived experience of prison design (which was also co-authored with Dominique and Yvonne). Here, I considered the implications of these one-size-fits-all design policies upon the irrational and non-normative bodies that these spaces house, calling for attention to the microarchitectures of prison space. Finally, taking a more positive tract, Fie Vandamme introduced a project comprising focus groups with prisoners exploring their responses to different design choices. Entitled Fit IN Stand OUT: Rules and Elements for Humane Prison Architecture, Vandamme’s paper explained how ten rules for prison design had evolved from this participatory research. These included everything from ownership over cell door keys to re-thinking spaces such as landings and corridors. In summarising these papers Lauren Martin raised questions about whether prison design can indeed engineer a way to rehabilitation and encouraged consideration of these potential counterarguments. Beyond innovation of prison design itself, Martin asked whether carceral geographers should have a role in suggesting the reduction of the prison estate as an alternative solution.

Orisanmi Burton presented first in the session entitled “Activity, Agency and Organisation”. The Politics of Containment: Prison-Based Activism in the Empire State focussed upon the ideas and practices of the Black Consciousness Coalition (BCC), an activist organisation that operates within a men’s prison in New York State. Burton’s correspondence with BCC leadership formed the basis for this paper, generating important questions about the kind of politics that can practiced by serving prisoners within carceral space due to censorship and negotiation of these restrictions. Lloyd Gray drew upon his interests in prisoner education to explore prisoner perceptions of this area. His paper was entitled How do prisoners experience and perceive the education environment within a prison? An interpretative phenomenological analysis approach. Using empirical data from interviews conducted with prisoners involved with education programmes, Gray interrogated the positive associations beyond the classroom that such involvement may generate. Geraldine Brown and Elizabeth Bos introduced their paper, A holistic evaluation of delivering a community based food growing mentoring programme in a prison setting with substance misuse offenders on behalf of their colleagues (including Geraldine Brady) at the University of Coventry. Their paper detailed the positive results of the Master Gardener Programme introduced in a male prison in the Midlands of the UK. Participants were asked to assess their own recovery journey through the development of personal ‘circles of change’ through the identification of points of change. Acting as discussant Shaul Cohen praised the research conducted by all presenters in being able to achieve meaningful interaction with serving prisoners. These collaborative data generation projects would potentially aid much fruitful research which could help discern what is happening in these activities within prison, further revealing the how and why of activity and organisation within the carceral setting.

In “Gendered and Embodied ConfinementVictoria Knight’s paper Modus Vivendi: The cell, emotions, social relations and television considered the treaty or resolve prisoners might undertake in their negotiation of television-watching in shared cell spaces. Attending to the politics of scheduling and taste, Knight also interrogated the legitimisation of television access as a means of ensuring safety and appropriate cell-sharing. Jessica Bird’s paper Segregation in Scottish Prisons: A Socio-Spatial History demonstrated a recognition of geographical scholarship in the recent carceral past. The paper detailed a breadth of interests from her wider PhD thesis including a charting of architectural design from community to cellular confinement, through to the designation by prisoners of spaces of imprisonment as ‘war zones’, ‘graves’, ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘creative spaces’. William Payne provided a unique empirical example in Governmentality, performativity and sexuality – A scholarly consideration of a drag show in a prison. Focussing upon the area of the Sally Port (the area between the prison gate and the prison inside proper) he posited this space as a kind of borderland in which a complex relationship of scrutiny, surveillance and (paradoxically) movement all at once occurs. Rae Rosenberg examined transcultural identities in carceral geography through a paper entitled Transgender Embodiment in Carceral Space: Hypermasculinity and the US Prison Industrial Complex. Rosenberg recounted restrictions imposed upon transgender prisoners such as upon their physical appearance (being forced to cut hair and nails) and access to hormones. Surprisingly, his paper detailed occasions of hope and resistance whereby prisoners successfully harnessed their chosen identities through imaginative mobilities to outside space through prisoner artwork. These underlying hopeful messages were central to the summary suggestions outlined by Karen Morin. Recognising the importance of gender and embodiment in all aspects of carceral scholarship Morin drew all four papers together through purposeful activities prisoners were involved with in each of the four papers: creative enterprise, communication, negotiation and collaboration in such restrictive spaces.

In the first of two sessions focussing on “(Re)defining Boundaries”, Elizabeth Bos and Geraldine Brown returned to the case study of the Master Gardener Programme. Here their paper, We were there too: Reflexive experiences of evaluating a prison gardening intervention negotiated the complex subject of researcher positionality in the prison setting. Drawing upon their own ethnographic data, Bos and Brown interrogated the specific role of gender, religion and race in their research project. Following this, Dana Cuomo’s paper Incarceration and domestic violence: Perspectives from victims on the outside offered an analysis of public and private violence, questioning the role of incarceration for domestic violence offenders. Using qualitative data gathered during fieldwork in a domestic violence unit of a local police department, this paper examined the experiences of women following the incarceration of their abusive partners. In the following paper, Tony Sparks noted how the punitive turn in urban policy more broadly has been accompanied by an expansion by spaces of care and rehabilitation, especially as cities have come to question mass incarceration. His paper, entitled The Asylum is on These Streets: Managing Mental Illness in the Carceral Community drew upon court records, interviews, and ethnographic fieldwork conducted within San Francisco’s Behavioral Health Court to explore the ways in which ideals of community and community care are imbricated within broader logics of confinement and governmental control. In the final paper of the session, Avril Maddrell introduced The charity shop, permeable carceral spaces, gendered power relations, reparation and rehabilitation. Here, she introduced in-depth interview data from a ten-year review of a scheme employing prisoners upon day release in charity shops (thrift stores). Her paper utilised the concept of ‘bordering’ to interrogate the permeable and impermeable spaces and boundaries of what constitutes prison and the vernacularisation of carceral processes. By way of final conclusion to a successful day of papers, I had the opportunity to act as discussant. By pulling these four papers together around the theme of the session, it is clear that there is a wealth of opportunity to consider how the prison border may be conceptualised. How does the boundary come to be positive or negative, depending on the circumstances? These papers also raised questions about how researchers traverse such boundaries and the potentiality of such projects to inform/transform the lived experience of carceral space.

 

The second day of sessions was opened by Oriane Simon in our closing paper session focussing again upon “(Re)defining Boundaries”. Her paper entitled Extraordinary Rendition’s Transfers in Ambiguous Spaces was a powerful interrogation of the process of movement of these detainees itself, focusing upon the importance of the body in, for example, resisting such things as sensory deprivation during transport. Following this Vanessa Massaro’s paper (read in absentia) focused upon Prison’s revolving door and the porous boundaries of carceral spaces. By exemplifying the similarities between neighbourhood blocks and prison cell blocks, Massaro considered the reproduction of spaces from the ‘inside’ on the outside fuelled by drug activities. In doing so, this paper powerfully argues for continued attention to carceral spaces beyond the boundaries of the institution. Our final paper of the series was delivered by Stephen Sherman, who turned our attention in the direction of GIS to interrogate Why Drug-Free School Zones are Bad for Communities: Evaluating sentence enhancement zone outcomes across urban forms. Here Sherman demonstrated how policy – here the implementation of Drug-Free Zones – creates nodes of carcerality. By criminalising certain activities in particular areas, these policies introduce geographical spaces where individuals are more likely to be incarcerated. Dominique Moran as discussant shared a number of common themes between the three papers, including the recognition of multiple spaces and overlapping jurisdictions of carceral spaces; the significance of transfers between such spaces; and the constant state of becoming evident in the carceral state and its practices. This raised a number of pertinent questions including those of what a carceral identity might consist of and what indeed it may adhere to.

Our final session, featured Shaul Cohen, Deirdre Conlon, Nick Gill and Dominique Moran in a panel on the subject of “Future Directions in Carceral Geographies”. In this session, panellists were asked to say a few words to situate carceral geographies within the wider discipline/alongside other disciplines and suggest areas for forthcoming attention. Beginning proceedings, Deirdre Conlon noted the encouraging attention to social, cultural, active and embodied carceral geographies – as evidenced clearly in the programme of these sessions. However, she invited scholars to (re)consider political and economic elements and their complex relationships with these other aspects. Conlon also asked carceral geographers to think about the interplay between detention centres and prisons, particularly because, firstly, the immigrant detention population is growing and, secondly, it is the site where privatisation first began. She called for research that attended specifically to migrant detainees in mainstream prisons. Continuing the discussion, Shaul Cohen posed the suggestion of people inside prison having a more active role in shaping research design, since there are insights that only people living and working within prison can have. Cohen encouraged more of these collaborations within the research design process. Cohen also noted that the prison is still often invisible to both “authorities and the ordinary”. His hope is that carceral geographers would consider the constituencies for their outputs; making policy-makers and prison administrators the targets for such research in the hope that they can be educated in how things might be different. Nick Gill echoed the preceding panellists and began his comments with an illustration of the detention centre The Verne, opened in the UK in 2014. Previously a prison, it had its security level increased and is now used to house detainees in a very peripheral location in the UK and raises some important issues. Gill considered that the importance of space, location and mobility is not necessarily known by the authorities. Judges pass sentences in terms of time, not space, and this does not take into account how hard a sentence may be in certain areas. He encouraged us to consider the symbolic aspects of location of prison. He also called for a disruption of a myth of consistency – prisons may indeed be different due to the local community, the local market conditions, the local culture, and the social injustices that may be generated by this. Gill’s second area of interest was a consideration of punishment and justice more generally. Academics (and those beyond it) ought to have a serious conversation about the role of punishment – should people be punished for the things they have done? Finally, Gill considered the role of academic research and the importance of making a difference to the current situation. He exemplified the actions of the Detention Forum in being able to prompt the first parliamentary enquiry into immigrant detention, and this should be an aim we should aspire to. However, he noted barriers to this, such as scholars being able to carve out the time to write activist responses when they are not valued by academia (REF outputs, etc). Furthermore, there may be a critical response to activism and a question of whether and when it is right to engage in this way. Dominique Moran shared some similar concerns, reminding the audience that imprisonment is not essential – we have not imprisoned in the past as we do now. We should be encouraged to pay attention to sentencing and courts to consider why society chooses to put people in jail. These considerations should extend critically to differences between UK and US policy for example. Moran also asked that we consider the purpose of our research in the carceral setting. In her experience, the prison authorities were much more open to discussions of change, but any of this impact is hard to measure (academically) and often difficult to harness at the political level, but it is there.

It is apparent, through the quality of papers being delivered, the attendance to sessions, and the lively and energetic response to presenters and panellists that research activity in carceral geography is maintaining buoyancy within geography. As such, panellists agreed that maintaining an informal network would be beneficial to those working in this area. As such, five years after it started, this blog is going collective! This means that it will be open for anyone interested in sharing thoughts and ideas, reflections, notifications, calls for papers, etc., here, to do so. If you’re interested in participating please get in touch. Furthermore, a mail list for carceral geography has now been set up via jiscmail. You can subscribe here. For those who are familiar with CRIT-GEOG-FORUM, this mail list will work pretty much like that one. It will be archived on the jiscmail website.  So, please do subscribe to this and use it to alert other subscribers to new research, CFP, conferences, events, to start discussions, etc. It’s perhaps most useful for quick things for which you don’t want to spend the time writing a blog piece!

Finally, I’d like to extend my thanks to all presenters, discussants, panellists and audience members who all contributed to a very enjoyable and thought-provoking conference programme. I look forward to hearing more from you all in the future!

Curious connections… design and punishment at the Tower of London

Basking in evening sunshine and thronged with tourists, the Tower of London looked anything but the forbidding fortress and feared prison that had earned it a fearsome reputation. However, thanks to the Learning team at Historic Royal Palaces, one floor up from the jewel room, a fascinating discussion evolved from the holding of ransom-worthy prisoners in the Tower – human jewels, if you will, to the architectures of confinement that characterise contemporary incarceration.

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Sally Dixon-Smith, Curator for Historic Royal Palaces at the Tower of London, opened discussion with a talk about the history of the Tower as a prison. Although not its original purpose, the Tower was pressed into service to hold up to 10,000 prisoners over hundreds of years. High-profile prisoners famously included Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth I. Sally explained that although the Tower had a fearsome reputation, prisoners could, depending on their status, expect to be accommodation in some style, with family accompanying them, and with right to hunt in the vicinity as long as a hostage was left in their place. Despite the grand surroundings, the Tower as a prison remained a place intended for the deprivation of liberty.

Following on from Sally, I was invited to speak about my research in carceral geography – how and why prisons come to be as they are, how they are experienced by those who live and work in them, and what the implications of this are for how prison systems are managed, and what they are trying to achieve. My own work has focussed on carceral spaces in very different contexts – from Russia where prisoners inhabit communal living spaces in Soviet-era buildings constructed as part of the Stalinist Gulag; to hi-tech Scandinavian prisons which are considered the most ‘humane’ carceral environments, to both new and old prisons in the UK. In each case I’m interested in the message they were intended to convey about the purpose of prison in the eyes of the imprisoning state, and the ways in which that message is conveyed to prisoners, prison staff, and the community – both locally and nationally.

Of course this changes over time, and so do prisons – and that’s why talking about these things at the Tower of London was so interesting – in a place which has changed so much through the centuries, but which is perhaps most famous for those who have been imprisoned within these walls, and indeed who sometimes met a grisly end close by.

At the time that the Tower was a prison, imprisonment as we know it today didn’t really happen – in the 16th and 17th centuries prisons were mainly places to hold people until some other form of punishment could be meted out to them. Today, prisons are considered places where people go as punishment, not for further punishment – although this is always a contentious issue in terms of what it is that prisons are supposed to achieve. There is a balance to be struck between punishment and In the run-up to the UK general election, this was a timely debate to organise.

Just as the role of imprisonment changes over time, of course it also varies from place to place – what was thought appropriate in the Soviet Union may not suit Scandinavia, or the UK. Prison systems as they exist in bricks and mortar – or stone – or steel and glass, reflect both the current philosophy of imprisonment of the ruling administration, AND the previous philosophies that were manifest in built form in the past – relics, if you will, of those ideas.

So in the UK we have Victorian prisons still operational, alongside 21st century buildings, and of course we have other buildings, like the Tower, which were pressed into service as prisons having been initially intended for some other purpose, and when these buildings come to the end of their use as prisons, they could be used for something else again. All of these buildings, and the people affected by them, have a story to tell.

That’s what I’m interested in. In a current research project, we’re looking at the processes of designing and building new prisons in the UK and Scandinavia, asking questions about how new prisons come to be as they are, why we build what we do, and how the purpose of imprisonment, conceived of within a particular political context, is translated into buildings.

We’re also asking questions about how those buildings are experienced by those who live and work in them. What does a humane prison look like? Does the building itself matter for punishment or rehabilitation? What does a therapeutic building look like? Is colour important? What about views from windows? What do we know about the ways in which people are affected by the environment in which they live? Are new prisons necessarily better than old ones? What should modern prisons look like? Who is the audience for them?

Of course prison design is about much more than just how the prison looks from the outside. There are also thorny questions about how prison architecture affects the ways in which prisons can be managed. How levels of staffing can be changed, how certain issues can be managed through the environment itself as well as through human interaction. Where prisoners spend many hours a day confined to cells, consideration is given to ways to reduce the opportunity for prisoners to harm themselves or others, removing ligature points or potential weapons.

Underpinning this research are the very same questions that shaped the debate as a whole. What is it that a prison is fundamentally trying to achieve? How might it do that through its built form? What difference does design make to achieving those outcomes? And are the prisons that we have now, and that we will have in the future, going to be effective at delivering the outcomes we want? Of course these questions go far beyond prison design – they touch on issues of public opinion, rhetoric, media campaigns and electioneering. But they are critically important questions.

The final speaker was Christopher Liddle, Chairman of HLM Architects who have been at the forefront of custodial and justice design for more than 14 years. Chris spoke passionately about the challenges of designing effective carceral environments – ones which maintain security and safety for prisoners and staff, and which also help facilitate the rehabilitation that contributes to reducing reoffending for prisoners after release. His message was that prison buildings matter very much for the outcomes that we want prisons and prisoners to have, and that through incorporating natural daylight, fresh air, views of outside spaces, especially higher-floor views over prison walls, the environment of prisons can be moulded to improve prisoner outcomes.

Facilitated by freelance historian Lauren Johnson a large audience within the Tower posed some pertinent questions about the ability of the modern penal estate to cater for deaf prisoners; the architecture of open prisons and the ways in which this facilitates reintegration into the community; the challenges of managing long-term prisoners, and the political context for the commissioning and the designing of new prisons in the UK.

Discussion was curtailed by the Ceremony of the Keys, the traditional locking up of the Tower of London which has taken place on each and every night for at least 700 years, to protect the Crown Jewels. Prisoners are no longer held at this former royal palace, and despite the pressure on the UK prison system, neither speakers nor audience members wished to revisit the Tower as a prison…

‘Carceral Spaces’ reviewed in Antipode

moran_gen 55 cover.QXD_mobility and agencyA review of our recent book ‘Carceral Spaces: Mobility and Agency in Imprisonment and Migrant Detention’ (Ashgate 2013) has just been published in radical geography journal ‘Antipode’. Jill Williams reviews the book alongside ‘Beyond Walls and Cages’, edited by our colleagues Jenna Loyd, Matt Mitchelson and Andrew Burridge.

Jill Williams’ review highlights the differences between the two volumes, but notes that both make ‘important contributions to the existing critical geographic scholarship on imprisonment and migrant detention’. Read the full review here.

Call for Papers: RGS-IBG 2013 “exploring social reintegration and rehabilitation into the ‘everyday’”

Agatha Herman and Kim Ward are organising a fascinating session at the RGS-IBG conference later this year, and have issued the following Call for Papers. The session highlights reintegration and rehabilitation, and carceral geographers may be interested in presenting papers which could focus on carceral spaces and the challenges of release from incarceration.

RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, London, 28-30 August 2013

Creativity and transition: exploring social reintegration and rehabilitation into the ‘everyday’

Organizers: Agatha Herman (University of Plymouth) and Kim Ward (University of Cardiff).

This session is sponsored by the Geographies of Justice Research Group and the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group.

Adjusting to ‘civilian’ life can be a challenge whether, within the UK context, you’re one of the 170,000 offenders released each year to the probation service or one of the 20,000 currently leaving the British armed forces annually.  Employment, relationships, finances, mental health, housing… all can become issues for those returning to ‘civilian’ spaces.  Considering the numbers and needs of those transitioning out of military or carceral institutions, particularly against the contemporary backdrop of austerity, highlights the necessity of effective and sustainable reintegration and rehabilitation for economic, social, political and moral reasons.  However, individuals worldwide and outside of these particular spaces can also struggle with exclusion from the ‘everyday’.

This session explores in particular how creative practices can support the reintegration and rehabilitation of those who, in the broadest sense, have become separated from everyday social spaces, practices and communities.  In particular we are looking to explore innovative and resourceful methods of engaging with those in transition, as well as the creative methods that can be used to connect with, and support, reintegration and rehabilitation experiences.  Contributions are welcome from a range of areas across and beyond geography, including engagements from outside academia.

Potential questions/topics for discussion include:

  • Can creativity be inclusive?
  • Theatre, music and arts-based projects
  • Social responsibility towards veterans?
  • Social exclusion, substance abuse and homelessness
  • Mental health
  • Carceral spaces
  • Creative methodologies to engage with social exclusion
  • Challenges of working in disciplinary environments
  • Performing rehabilitation

Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words to Agatha Herman (agatha.herman@plymouth.ac.uk) by Tuesday 5th February 2013.

Resisting the Eclipse: An International Symposium on Prison Ethnography

The International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research (ICCCR) is organising a conference on prison ethnography at the Open University, Milton Keynes, UK on 18/19th September 2012. I was recently alerted to the conference by Andrew Jefferson of the Global Prisons Network, and Ben Crewe, of the Prisons Research Centre, Institute of Criminology at Cambridge, who will both be presenting, and it sounds like something that carceral geographers would find fascinating.

There’s further information here, and the full programme is available here.

Essentially, the conference responds directly to Loïc Wacquant’s 2002 warning of  ‘a curious eclipse of prison ethnography in an age of mass incarceration’. It asks whether reports of the demise of prison ethnography are exaggerated? Speakers, panels and workshops will explore what prison ethnography has got to offer in an era of mass incarceration.
Although all of the sessions look fascinating, carceral geographers might be particularly interested to hear Andrew Jefferson, Mahuya Bandyopadhyay, and Thomas Ugelvik speak about ‘Prison Spaces’.

Registration is open now, and it’s free to attend, although spaces are limited so early booking is essential.

“I’m not supposed to be boiling them in their cells” Heat, climate, and the environment of punishment

In summer 2011, ten inmates of the Texas state prison system, US, died of heat-related causes, a death toll that has alarmed prisoners’ rights advocates who believe that the lack of air-conditioning in most state prisons puts inmates’ lives at risk.In the fierce heat of July and August, prisoners suffered from hyperthermia, which occurs when body temperature rises above 105 degrees, and which can be exacerbated by hypertension, obesity, heart disease or antipsychotic medications, all of which can affect the body’s ability to regulate heat.

According to the New York Times, one inmate, Alexander Togonidze, 44, was found unresponsive in his cell at an East Texas prison called the Michael Unit at 8 a.m. on Aug. 8 with a body temperature of 106 degrees. The temperature in his cell, taken by prison officials 15 minutes after he was pronounced dead, was 86.2 degrees. Although prison officials say that they take steps to help inmates on hot days, including restricting outside work activities and providing extra water and ice, in the four-story Coffield Unit near Palestine, TX, where an inmate died of hyperthermia in August 2011, dozens of windows have been broken by prisoners putting soda cans or bars of soap into socks and throwing them at the windows, hoping to increase ventilation.

One corrections officer said “I’m supposed to be watching them, I’m not supposed to be boiling them in their cells. If you’ve got a life sentence, odds are you’re going to die in the penitentiary. But what about the guy who dies from a heat stroke who only had a four-year sentence? His four-year sentence was actually a life sentence.”

These tragic stories from Texas bring home the importance of the environment of incarceration, and as the title of the New York Times article  “Heat Can Be a Death Sentence for Prisoners” suggests, the ways in which climate can exacerbate the ‘pains’ of imprisonment. Although criminologists take an active interest in the location of prison facilities, and the debates surrounding the decisions to locate facilities in particular places (see for example Eason 2010, Hooks et al 2010), within the criminological literature the main focus seems to be on the relationship between the institution and the surrounding population; there is remarkably little consideration of the environment of punishment; that is – the climatic conditions – the settings in which prisons are located, and the implications of these locations for inhabitants of the institutions.

Environment matters, though. The distance between ‘home’ and the penitentiary is not just about the number of miles between two places – it is also about the separation between those places as it is actually experienced by those concerned; the perceived differences in socially constructed phenomena such as cultural practices, and language, as well as climatic conditions. This focus on spatiality and the concept of distance is not unique to geography; as Davis (1999) notes, these issues emerged in sociological work by Simmel, Durkheim and Parsons, and in Sorokin’s theorization of ‘sociocultural distance’ and ‘nearness’. Indeed, as Young (2006, 253) observes, among human and social geographers, distance has, in fact ‘long been a primary target in the struggle against geographical determinism and absolute definitions of space’, and theorists of late modernity, postmodernity, and globalization ‘have written profusely on the annihilation of space… by time’. In contesting these stances in his exploration of rural development in Canada, Young  adopts a position informed by hybridity and actor–network theory in arguing that distance ‘ought not be considered merely as the geographic tract that separates locales, but rather as an active combination of natural, technological, and social elements‘ (2006, 254). In other words, distance should be conceptualized along three dimensions: natural or physical attributes, technological infrastructures that penetrate and/or manipulate spaces, and social relationships among persons in these spaces. By so doing, the ‘realism’ of distance is multiplied, ‘in that the potential configurations of natural, technological, and social elements are exponentially expanded’ (ibid 254), and that the discrepancy in powers to actively configure distances becomes heightened.

Conceptualisation of distance on the part of the individual is key, and the ‘natural elements’, such as the physical environment, including climate and the mitigation of its extremes, play an important role. The climate, seasonal pattern, and landscape, especially when these are new and unfamiliar, all matter for the individual in perceiving distance and ‘performing it into being’. Historically, the challenges of transporting prisoners long distances to new environments have been recognised as practical problems to be overcome, pertaining to the health and wellbeing of prisoners exposed to new and unfamiliar climates and landscapes, with their attendant risks of local pests and diseases for which new arrivals were unprepared. Shanks et al (2008), for example, have pointed out the physical challenges associated with transporting prisoners from Europe to the Andaman Islands in the 19th century, culminating in very high mortality rates due to local strains of malaria, and Wilson & Reid (1949)  report more than half of a group of Allied prisoners of war perished from malaria while acting as forced labour for the Siam-Burma Railway. The impact of climate and local physical conditions on prisoners is also well known from classic Gulag memoirs. In The Gulag Archipelago Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (1974, 575-6), for instance, described prisoners from the south of the Soviet Union arriving in Arctic Russia in February 1938:

The railroad cars were opened up at night. Bonfires were lit alongside the train and disembarkation took place by their light; then a count-off, forming up and a count-off again. The temperature was 32 degrees below zero centigrade. The prisoners’ transport train had come from the Donbas, and all the prisoners had been arrested back in the summer and were wearing low shoes, Oxfords, even sandals. They tried to warm themselves at the fires, but the guards chased them away: that’s not what the fires were there for; they were there to give light. Fingers grew numb almost instantly. The snow filled the thin shoes and didn’t even melt… the doomed prisoners in their summer clothes marched through the deep snow on a totally untraveled road somewhere into the dark taiga. The northern lights gleamed… The fir trees crackled in the frost.

Conceptualising distance as the natural or physical attributes of space, the technological infrastructures that penetrate space, and the social relationships among persons in these spaces, it is clear that the physical attributes of space take on particular importance. For prisoners ‘boiling in their cells’ in Texas, it is not the literal distance from home that matters; rather the ways in which incarceration limit prisoners’ ability to deal with the climatic conditions they experience. Unlike the European prisoners in the Andaman Islands, or the Gulag prisoners experiencing their first Siberian winter, Texas state prisoners are perhaps quite accustomed to summer temperatures in the US’ southern states – but in the summer heat they cannot sit in the shade in the open air with a cold beer as they might do at home.

In Texas, inmates and their advocates have argued that the overheated conditions during summer heatwaves violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. For carceral geographers, the tragedy of these prisoner deaths in Texas points up the significance of the embodied experience of incarceration, in which the environment of punishment means more than the penal architecture or disciplinary regime of the prison, and which also encompasses temperature and humidity, and the vulnerability of prisoners’ bodies, at a distance from home which includes the technological infrastructures that penetrate and/or manipulate carceral spaces, and social relationships among persons and institutions in these spaces.

Courtroom confinement and administrative segregation: Or the difference a cage makes…

David Tait and Emma Rowden of the University of Western Sydney, Australia,  put together a terrific session for the RGS-IBG conference in Edinburgh this July. Sponsored by the Geographies of Justice Research Group, and entitled ‘Justice on trial; Security and safety in court spaces’, the session responded to the ‘security’ theme of the conference by arguing that the geography of the courthouse has become a battleground for different philosophies of security. The three papers in the session provided three Australian case studies of issues that have also been hotly debated in Europe: placing defendants in glass cages in the courtroom, providing sanctuaries for vulnerable witnesses through video links, and the use of screening, CCTV and intelligence to manage risk. These studies contrasted overt physical barriers to contain people with the soft power of surveillance and customer services; security as a set of techniques for managing danger with psychological safety as a goal for supporting victims of violence and other vulnerable justice participants.

I was fortunate to be asked to act as discussant for this session, and I was particularly struck by David Tait’s paper on courtroom cages, in which defendants are held whilst on trial. Increasingly defendants are being confined to cages within courtrooms based on security concerns, despite judgments by the European Court of Human Rights and two Australian Supreme Courts that suggest rights to a fair trial could be jeopardized by such confinement. The practice is more extensively used in England and Wales than elsewhere, where as David pointed out in his paper, the history of holding the accused in a ‘dock’ separate from their lawyers (rather than allowing them to sit alongside their attorney as is the custom in the United States) has contributed to this courtroom ‘geography’. His study reviewed the history of the practice, and the debates about physical confinement of the accused in court.

The controversy over holding defendants in cages whilst on trial stems from the concern that such confinement suggests guilt to a judge or jury, and compromises the potential for a fair trial. High profile examples of courtroom cages are numerous, from the case of Dmitri Konovalov, on trial in a steel cage in Minsk, Belarus for detonating explosives at a metro station,

to the infamous image of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak on a hospital bed inside a cage made of steel mesh and iron bars during his trial in a courtroom in Cairo.

In his recent paper, David Tait points out that even where courtroom cages are not as extreme as those in Minsk or Cairo, any form of confinement, even the glass booths which have been used in Australia, can bring fairness and security considerations into conflict. Fairness, he argues, has an architectural or spatial dimension, in that courts are designed not just to achieve functional objectives, such as adequate sightlines and good acoustics, but also to reflect values such as “trust, hope and most importantly faith in justice”.

This balance between fairness and security is perhaps also behind the practice, as shown in this image, of administrative segregation prisoners taking part in a ‘group therapy’ session at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, US on June 8 2012.

I found this image, part of set published online, profoundly shocking, partly for the commentary that such confinement was “undoubtedly for their own good”, but mainly out of incredulity that such an arrangement of cages could be thought to create an atmosphere conducive to rehabilitative therapy. Whether administrative segregation protects the institution from violent prisoners, or provides protective custody for vulnerable inmates, to my eyes these boxes create an image of inmates as caged animals.

Although in the context of San Quentin, the concerns of prejudicing juries which inform debates over courtroom cages do not apply, the question of the effect of these cages both on prisoners’ own self-awareness and the perceptions of them which are generated by others, still remains.

Whereas the “fairness” of a court of law may not be at issue here, the “fairness” of treating social beings in this way surely is. In a recent Written Statement to the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch stated that “based on years of research and analysis, we are convinced the unnecessary, counter-productive, and devastating use of this harsh form of confinement in many US prisons cannot be squared with respect for human rights”.

Although HRW’s focus in this statement is of course on the ‘misery and suffering’ of those directly experiencing administrative segregation as a form of solitary confinement, there are questions to be asked, too, about the effect of these cages on those working with or visiting these prisoners. In many cases,  those working with prisoners in ‘ad seg’, for example conducting interviews to protect their constitutional rights, or facilitating therapy as detailed in this image, conduct meetings with men in cages.

Just as juries struggle to overlook cages in maintaining a presumption of innocence in the courtroom, holding prisoners in cages must make engaging in meaningful, constructive dialogue with these prisoners, and treating them as thinking, feeling individuals, an immense challenge, and must surely have an impact on the wellbeing of those professionals asked to undertake this work.

The Justice on trial session at RGS-IBG raised fascinating questions about the function and use of space, and the conscious or unconscious impressions created by certain spatial arrangements and confinements. Taking these questions into the prison itself, it seems that if, as David Tait argues, fairness and security are in conflict in the courtroom, in the prison, security has triumphed.

Father’s Day at San Quentin – images of prison parenting

Many thanks to Shaul Cohen for the link to this photo montage of Father’s Day visits to San Quentin, California, US. The website details the annual Father’s Day event, “Get On The Bus” which brings children in California to visit their fathers in prison. According to The Center for Restorative Justice Works, the non-profit organization that runs the “Get on the Bus” programme, 60% of parents in state prison report being held over 100 miles (161 km) from their children. Regular prison visits seem to lower rates of recidivism for the parent, and also have benefits for the children in maintaining a relationship with their parents.

What struck me most about the montage, which includes images of children riding the bus, of parents and children reconnecting, and of fathers doing facepainting with their children, was these two images, of children wearing the purple t-shirts of the “Get on the Bus” programme, having their photos taken with their fathers, wearing prison-issue blue. In the visiting space there’s a backdrop of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, and the smiling snapshots are taken in front of it. From the images it seems that the Golden Gate is not the only backdrop option, but its the one they’ve chosen for these images, or perhaps just the one that happened to be on offer on the day.

I’m intrigued about the role of this backdrop for the fathers and their children, and why they chose to have their photos taken in front of it.

Maybe the backdrop is just decorative – more decorative than the beige walls of the visiting space. Maybe it’s just conventional that a backdrop like this is used, like in a photographer’s portrait studio. Or maybe it’s there so that children showing these treasured images to their friends don’t need to explain where they were, or what was going on – although one might anticipate that the backdrop would raise more questions than it obscures.

The backdrop image itself intrigues me too – by using a famous California landmark, there’s a reconnection to the locality, the state, and to the landscape that is familiar to the children and families on the outside. These images look almost like holiday snapshots – families on a day trip having their photo taken in front of the Golden Gate bridge. There’s an element of enactment here, heightened by the ‘stageset’ of the painted backdrop.

It’s a small detail, but perhaps a significant one in terms of understanding what goes on during prison visiting, and the ‘performances’ that are undertaken by both visitors and visited, especially when families are far apart, visits are few and far between, and everyone wants the visit to go well. It also gives a tantalising insight into what happens after the visits are over, and the importance of visual records of the visits themselves, both for parents and children, in terms of the maintenance of a narrative of parenting and family, when a parent is incarcerated.

The relationships between visiting and reduced recidivism, and visiting and children’s well being, have been observed in a range of contexts, but perhaps it is attention to details such as this, seemingly trivial issue of family photographs, that is key to understanding how these things are related to each other, and to enhancing these positive effects of visitation.

Prison design, prisoner well being and ‘green’ building – prison design from Iceland

Many thanks to Yvonne Jewkes for the recommendation of this website about the design of a planned women’s prison in Iceland, which brings together discourses about prison spaces and green building, and raises some interesting questions about the purpose of ‘green’ prison design.

In designing the prison spaces, the project team of Joaquin Millan Villamuelas, Cristina Viacario, Belen Gomez, Lurdes Martinez, Javier Urrutia, Ignacio Jimeno and Kristinn Olafsonn from OOIIO Architecture intended “to design a prison that doesn’t look like a prison, forgetting about dark spaces, small cells, and ugly grey concrete walls….. we based the building design on natural light, open spaces, and natural green materials like peat, grass and flowers.”

Instead of designing one large building (like a “typical repressive old prison”), they decided to break it into several “human-scale, connected” pavilions, which must be efficient and functional to enable the spatial separation of prisoners, but which must have “natural light and exterior views, to increase the feeling of freedom”.

The architects also have an eye to the speed and ease of construction, and to the eco standards of the building, planning to draw upon Icelandic vernacular architecture to insulate the building. The prison facade will be constructed from peat-filled cages, planted with local flowers and grasses, both to provide cheap, prefabricated thermal insulation, and to deliver a facade “that changes with the seasons”, making prison life “less monotonous and more human and natural related”.

Whether prisoners housed within this planned prison will experience heightened wellbeing as a result of the prison design or the flowering walls is yet to be seen, but recent work within criminology has drawn attention to the importance of understanding the effect of prison design. A recent paper published in Punishment and Society directly considers the  contribution that the physical environment makes to the pains of imprisonment, and Ioana-Christina Siserman (2012) considers environmental psychology as a means to understanding the effects that prison space has on transforming and shaping the behaviour of inmates. Thinking about the ‘natural’ elements of the Icelandic prison, as Laura Jackson (2003, 192) has argued “judging from the literature, the most healthful architecture exposes inhabitants to natural light and ventilation, views of greenery, and close proximity to outdoor green space”.

A separate but related discourse within building design literatures focuses on prisons as ‘green buildings’, drawing attention to the use of distributed energy resources (DER) to reduce energy consumption. Such projects include rooftop photovoltaic systems, molten carbonate fuel cells, combined heat and power (CHP) units, all of which minimise energy bills and/or carbon emissions. A recent report on Santa Rita Jail near San Francisco, CA, is an example of this kind of work.

In the United States, according to Andrew Webster (2010), the building of ‘green prisons’ or the retrofitting of eco technology to existing buildings has dual benefits, first in lowering the cost of incarceration, and second in teaching prisoners valuable skills, which “could range from maintaining a solar farm to organic farming or other similar trade skills that would give them a better chance of avoiding recidivism, i.e. falling back into criminality, and therefore, a better chance of staying out of prison once they are released”. Essentially he argues that  “environmentally friendly prisons will cost less to build and operate, decreasing the cost of housing inmates; and the use of inmates to maintain the facilities will decrease the incidence of violence within the facilities and recidivism”.

‘Green’ building means lots of things – from increasing natural light and exterior ‘natural’ views, to minimising energy consumption and making prison buildings thermally efficient and carbon neutral. There are some parallels between the US drive to reduce the operating cost of its immense carceral estate through energy efficiency, and the cheap thermal insulation provided by flowering peat in Iceland, but connecting prison design to prisoner behaviour is challenging, both at the level of prisoner wellbeing during incarceration, and in determining the effect of prison design (in terms of prisoners’ rehabilitation via green technology) on post-release outcomes.

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.