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.

Mother’s Day in Prison – virtual crossing of the prison wall

Mother’s Day in the US has highlighted the problems facing families trying to bridge the divide of the prison wall to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones. Some of these examples highlight the value of online advocacy and social media in bringing issues of personal communication to a wider audience

  • Media Literacy Project, Strong Families, and Thousand Kites have a Mother’s Day radio special which highlights the charges made in the US by telephone corporations to families wishing to keep in touch with their incarcerated loved ones.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union has a new  Justice Mamas feature on its website, with a series of mothers talking about what it is like to have a son behind bars and in solitary confinement
  • The Get on the Bus initiative in California brings children to visit their mothers in prison. Sixty percent of parents in state prison report being held over 100 miles from their children.

What each demonstrates is the reach that the prison has beyond its physical boundaries, into the lives of the families and friends of the incarcerated. Carceral geography has debated the apparent ‘inside/outside’ binary, (for example Baer & Ravneberg 2008, Moran in press), and within criminology, prison sociology and ethnography there is a wealth of research into the ‘collateral’ effects of incarceration (see for example the work of Helen Codd, and Megan Comfort’s recent book). Where carceral geography can contribute further, though, is in the exploration of these hybrid inside/outside spaces of collateral confinement, in which contact with the carceral, be that vicarious, for example through telephone conversations, or actual, through the entry of  ‘free’ individuals into the carceral estate, affects the lives of the family and friends of prisoners.

Just as important, though, is work which addresses the after-effects of incarceration, such as Matthew Lowen’s paper at the AAG conference in Seattle in 2011 which considered the effects of supermax confinement on prisoners’ lives after release. Matthew argued that “upon release prisoners experience social and spatial isolation as a result of limitations imposed by laws, regulations, and societal expectations.  Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that prisoners often impose social and spatial isolation upon themselves thus limiting their contact with others and in effect contributing to the re-creation of the many limiting conditions of mobility while in solitary confinement”.

Whilst Mother’s Day rightly draws attention to the suffering of the families of the incarcerated, as Matthew Lowen argues, “there is a need for a deeper analysis of the political implications the of socio-spatial (im)mobility of prisoners held in solitary confinement as well as recently released prisoners with a history of solitary confinement.” See more in the American Service Friends Committee’s report “Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in Arizona’s Prisons and Jails” (Matthew Lowen and Caroline Isaacs, 2007)

Arizona’s ‘inhumane’ isolation: Amnesty Report

The extreme isolation regime used in special prisons in the US state of Arizona is cruel and dehumanises inmates, according to Amnesty International, as it released a new report accusing the state authorities of failing to care for the basic physical and mental health of these isolated prisoners.

The report, Cruel isolation: Amnesty International’s Concerns about Conditions in Arizona Maximum Security Prisons, describes how over 2,000 prisoners are confined for months or years in conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation:

“More than 2,900 prisoners are held in Arizona’s highest security maximum custody facilities, the majority in the SMUs at ASPC-Eyman. Most are confined alone in windowless cells for 22 to 24 hours a day in conditions of reduced sensory stimulation, with little access to natural light and no work, educational or rehabilitation programs. Prisoners exercise alone in small, enclosed yards and, apart from a minority who have a cell-mate, have no association with other prisoners. Many prisoners spend years in such conditions; some serve out their sentences in solitary confinement before being released directly into the community.”

Amongst Amnesty’s recommendations are that Arizona authorities should:

  • Reduce the number of prisoners in isolation under SMU or similar maximum custody conditions to ensure that only prisoners who are a serious and continuing threat are held in maximum custody isolation facilities.
  • Provide a route out of segregation through incentive or step-down programs so that prisoners are not held long-term or indefinitely in isolation.
  • Improve conditions for prisoners in SMU or other maximum custody facilities so that they are not confined in windowless cells or denied access to natural light; have more out of cell time and better exercise facilities with appropriate equipment.

Understandings of carceral space, which include these extreme conditions of incarceration, are important for carceral geography. Geographers have a critical constructionist notion of space, understanding that it is not passive, but is constantly being produced and remade within complex relations of culture, power and difference. Although spaces of supermax prisons await this kind of socio-spatial inquiry, in her 2005 paper, “Inclusive Exclusion: Citizenship and the American Prisoner and Prison,” Agnes Czajka considered the proliferation of prisons in the United States, particularly the increasing number of supermax security or “camp” prisons, as an example of “the normalization of a state of exception”, drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben. In a very different penal context, Teresa Dirsuweit (1999) discussed the interrelationship of identity and space, mapping out the prison in terms of the physical spaces and the signification that these spaces hold for prisoners and prison authorities, and Anita Wilson’s work has produced rich ethnographic material on the personal transformation of prison spaces.

David Sibley and Bettina van Hoven argue in their 2008 paper for ‘a fuller exploration of the relationships between prison architecture, the space–time regime, and correctional officers, on one hand, and the worlds of inmates, on the other’.  They point out, though, that as Amnesty found in Arizona, prison authorities do not often facilitate this kind of research.

Perhaps the Amnesty report shows that understanding how prison works, and how institutional spaces are produced and experienced, is critical to tackling such ‘inhumane’ conditions.

Wilson A 2004 Four days and a breakfast: time, space and literacy/ies in the prison community in Leander K and Sheehy M eds Spatialising literacy research and practice Peter Lang, New York 67–90