Justice on trial: Security and safety in court spaces (RGS-IBG 2012)

David Tait and Emma Rowden of the University of Western Sydney, Australia, have put together this great session for the RGS-IBG conference in Edinburgh in July.

Sponsored by the Geographies of Justice Research Group, and entitled ‘Justice on trial; Security and safety in court spaces’, the session responds to the ‘security’ theme of the conference this year by arguing that the geography of the courthouse has become a battleground for different philosophies of security.

The three papers in the session provide 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 contrast 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.

David and Emma are part of the Justice Research Group at Western Sydney. The Group’s key research focus is the courts and other justice processes and they generate multidisciplinary evidence-based research projects that address practical policy questions while engaging with a range of theoretical literatures from psychology, sociology, media studies, architecture, forensic science and law. David Tait has a background in criminology and sociology, social statistics, guardianship and mental health, sentencing, jury research and urban sociology, and Emma Rowden’s background is in media, performance and architecture. Her particular interest is in the role of the built environment in shaping experiences of inclusion, safety, comfort, fairness and respect in public institutions.

Given the unusually interdisciplinary nature of this session, I was excited to be invited to act as discussant, and encourage colleagues attending the RGS-IBG to come along to enjoy the papers.

Prison Map: The Geography of Incarceration in the United States

Many thanks to Shaul Cohen for the recommendation of Josh Begley’s Prison Map website via Emily Badger’s piece on ‘The Stunning Geography of Incarceration’.

Josh Begley is a Masters student in Interactive Telecommunications at New York University, and the Prison Map website is part of a class project. He presents satellite images of American penitentiaries, rather than the ubiquitous statistics of mass incarceration, to highlight the sheer volume of these facilities and the resources which go into constructing places to ‘warehouse’ people.

For Begley, the take-home message is about space, not only in relation to the distribution of prisons, and the housing of urban prisoners in rural locations, (and their counting in the census where they are incarcerated, not where they are from), but also in the spaces of imprisonment themselves, viewed from above.

“The first time I was really able to look at all of these images, the thing that jumped out at me the most was that the one commonality among almost all of these prisons was that there was a baseball field there. And the baseball field mimicked the form about these buildings as well. There was something very American about it when I first saw it.”

Satellite images of prisons have been used in research very recently, for example in Robert G Morris and John L Worrall’s forthcoming paper which considers the relationship between prison design and inmate misconduct. Using aerial views, they identify ‘telegraph pole’, (several rows of parallel multistory buildings, or pavilions, connected by one or two main corridors) and ‘campus’ (freestanding buildings surrounded by a large open space, often in the shape of a rectangle) penitentiaties in Texas and analyse the relationship between these two designs and inmate misconduct, using a random sample of 2,500 inmate disciplinary histories sourced from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. They find a modest association between prison design and nonviolent misconduct, but acknowledge the drawbacks of the study, in terms of the reliance on officially reported midconduct data rather than prisoners’ insights, and the limitations of the satellite imagery in understanding the nature of prison spaces.

With prison sites often considered ‘out of sight and out of mind’, these two, very different, uses of satellite imagery remind us of the very concrete reality of carceral spaces, and invite us to consider the everyday reality of life inside of them, baseball pitches or not…

Drawing a chilling parallel between his satellite images and TV newscasting, Begley puts it like this:

“We’re used to aerial images of nation-states overseas, and we’ll see a diagram of some compound that is going to be bombed or something. But rarely do we look at these spaces in our backyard and think critically about them.”

Pseudo-carceral spaces? Replica prison cells

The ‘Choice’  Bus is making its way to middle schools in San Antonio, bringing a message about ‘the importance of education and the consequences of wrong choices’  to school children. In part, the message is conveyed through the replica prison cell installed at the back of the yellow school bus. The bunk bed, toilet and sink were donated from a prison in Alabama, and the idea is that children will find the cell off-putting enough to discourage them from offending. A short video here shows the bus, the cell and reactions of visiting children. There are numerous other examples, of  ‘deterrents’ of this kind, including this from North Wales, UK.

As recent posts show, I’m interested in challenging the inside/outside binary of the prison, and I find the creation of replica cells, and the uses to which they are put, fascinating. In these examples the message is about the powerlessness of incarceration; the lack of choice which derives from making the ‘wrong’ choice. The communication of this message through the vicarious cell experience, of course, assumes that imprisonment is in some way a deterrent to crime – itself a highly contested viewpoint…

Elsewhere, though, the creation of such pseudo-carceral spaces outside the prison, in which ‘free’ individuals experience incarceration vicariously, carries different intentions.

In the UK, for example, the Foyer of the Royal Festival Hall in London was recently the venue for the ‘Go to Jail’ exhibition, run by Rideout, a UK creative organisation working within the field of criminal justice. Visitors could enter the cell to inspect living conditions, and chat to ‘prisoners’ ‘confined’ to the cell about life inside. After visiting, there was a digital consultation about setting prisoners’ tariffs and cell facilities. Rather than explicitly to deter visitors from offending, the aim in offering a transient experience of incarceration, was to encourage them to reflect on prison conditions and the rehabilitation of inmates.

The construction and display of a replica cell is also a tactic frequently deployed by pressure groups to draw attention to particular penal regimes, for example this replica Cuban prison cell in Madrid, and this replica cell drawing attention to political prisoners in Burma.

In two other exhibitions, replica cells are a vehicle for different messages, about prisoners’ agency within and beyond carceral space:

In “The House That Herman Built” a full-scale wooden model of Herman Wallace’s cell is contrasted with detailed plans of his dream home, allowing his imagination to traverse the prison wall.

In Prisoners Interventions a replica prison cell is used to give visitors to an exhibition of prisoners’ inventiveness and ingenuity ‘a physical and psychological understanding’ of the spaces they inhabit, and a context for the design and manufacture of their inventions. The exhibition (and a later book), a collaboration between incarcerated prisoner Angelo and ‘Temporary Services’, showcases recreations of objects made by prisoners to address the needs of their restrictive environment, from sex dolls to salt and pepper shakers, to chess pieces. In Angelo’s words, “Even the simplest of innovations presents unusual challenges, not just to make an object but in some instances to create the tools to make it and find the materials to make it from. The prison environment is designed and administered for the purpose of suppressing such inventiveness. Officially, the devices described here are considered contraband, subject to confiscation in routine cell searches. But inmates are resilient if nothing else—what’s taken today will be remade by tomorrow, and the cycle goes on and on.”

While replica cells enable different messages to be communicated and explored, this pseudo-carceral space itself awaits investigation. Different from the ‘transcarceral’ spaces discussed by Allspach (2010), we might consider them transient carceral landscapes, offering a simulacrum of the prison for the spectatorship of onlookers. What is clear, though, is that as Herman Wallace and Angelo have shown through their collaborations, the involvement of prisoners in creating replica cells shows that they can do more than act as a threatening ‘deterrent’. They can stimulate debate about prison conditions, and the purpose of incarceration, and also about the agency of prisoners in these spaces, and the unexpected and ingenious ways in which they engage with and beyond them.

Prisons and prisoner behaviour – space and affect

“Very little is understood and appreciated of the behavioral influence of environmental factors on prisoners and staff. It would be difficult to find a correctional official, warden, superintendent, or line officer that does not agree that a facility’s architectural design has a corresponding influence on prisoner behavior.” (Austin 2003, 5)

I keep coming back to this passage of text from James Austin’s report for the US Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons, wondering why, and thinking that this is exactly the kind of question that carceral geography is well placed to address.

In today’s Guardian magazine, Amelia Gentleman’s piece on Halden, the world’s ‘most humane prison’ raises this question again, although in an utterly different penal regime – the decarcerative setting of Norway rather than the hyperincarcerative context of the US. One of Norway’s highest security institutions, Halden apparently smells of coffee, cells have flat screen TVs and fluffy towels, and prisoners look out over wooded landscapes within the prison grounds. Doors don’t slam shut and prisoners are out of their cells for most of the day. The prison’s architects were set a challenge of designing a space that was ‘light and positive’, and ‘shouldn’t look like a prison’. The principle, given that in Norway the maximum sentence is 21 years and all prisoners are expected to return to the world outside, was that ‘life behind the walls should be as much like life outside the walls as possible.’ As the prison governor discussed, the spatial context is just as important as the rehabilitative regime:

“Everyone who is imprisoned inside Norwegian prisons will be released… everyone… will go back to society. We look at what kind of neighbour you want to have when they come out. If you stay in a box for a few years, then you are not a good person when you come out… We don’t think about revenge in the Norwegian prison system. We have much more focus on rehabilitation. It is a long time since we had fights between inmates. It is this building that makes softer people.” (my emphasis)

Although governor Are Høidal is as convinced of the effect of the building on prisoners’ behaviour as are the correctional officers in James Austin’s report, little is known about how this effect takes place. Some fascinating work within criminology sheds some light on prison architecture, notably Michael Fiddler’s 2011 papers on the phantasmagoric prison, and the prison’s Gothic shadow, but perhaps of greatest interest to carceral geographers is Philip Hancock and Yvonne Jewkes’s recent paper ‘Architectures of incarceration; The spatial pains of imprisonment’ which calls into question the ‘enlightened humanism’ of new generation prisons like Halden, and identifies some ‘pains of imprisonment’ which arise specifically in these contexts, pointing out that the intentions of architectural design can also be lost in everyday practice. They conclude by raising questions about the future of prison architecture and design, and also ‘for the role and trajectory of… research… and particularly for our need to understand the lived experience of such spaces for all those required to inhabit them’ (p627, my emphasis).

Understanding the lived experience of spaces is, of course, at the heart of geographical enquiry. Space is recognised by geographers as more than the surface where social practices take place. As Adey (2008, 440) argues, ‘specific spatial structures… can work to organise affect to have certain effects’. Designers of spaces consider ‘seductive spatiality’ (Rose et al 2010, 347) or ‘ambient power’ (Allen 2006, 445) through which to direct or shape human behaviour within these spaces. Essentially, geographers understand that space ‘matters’, and can affect the ways people act within it.

Although almost a decade has passed since Austin noted that “There are few, if any, studies that have assessed the impact of prison architecture on prisoner behavior” (2003, 6), perhaps dialogue between criminologists and carceral geographers will go some way towards furthering our understanding of the lived experience of carceral space. And in so doing, carceral geography could address critics of geographies of affect and emotion, who argue that such studies should address more topics of relevance, and that geographers of affect should ‘seek out projects and avenues that offer grounds for critical and political thought at the same time that they open the door for participation in efforts to make positive social and political change’ (Woodward & Lea 2010, 170).