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)

Contraband cellphones – the ‘porous prison’

On opposite sides of the world, in very different penal systems, penal authorities are trying to gain control of the communication technology used by inmates both to organise themselves within the prison, and to make contact with those outside. In Jakarta, Indonesia, an impromptu raid unearthed and confiscated illegal devices such as cell phones, chargers, and an iPad, and in California USA, the private company that owns the pay phones in the state’s prisons is installing technology to prevent inmates from using smuggled cell phones to make their calls.

Although the motivation in the US is partially to protect the profits of the service provider, aided by new legislation which makes smuggling a cell phone into a prison a misdemeanour punishable by a fine of up to US$5,000, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate said that the “groundbreaking and momentous technology” to be installed “will enable [the prison system] to crack down on the potentially dangerous communications by inmates.”

Under the new plan, each prison will have a cellphone tower that can be controlled by prison officials.  Cell phones supplied by the approved provider will be able to send and receive signals, but contraband phones will be useless.

The introduction of this technology in California’s jails draws attention to the porosity of the prison wall, engaging with Goffmann’s interpretation of the prison as a ‘total institution’, and to critiques which draw attention to its porosity and permeability. The blurred nature of the prison boundary has been observed by Baer and Ravneberg (2008), who in their description of Norwegian and English prisons highlight the indistinction that they perceived between outside and inside, and by Moran (in press) in relation to prison visiting spaces in the Russian Federation.

The prison wall is permeable not only in that it permits the interpenetration of material things (people, supplies) but also intangible things (ideas, the internet, emotional attachments), and this move in California could be interpreted as a means of wresting back some control over the level of porosity or permeability of the prison wall to communication technology.