New ESRC Research Project: Breaking the Cycle? Prison Visitation and Recidivism in the UK

The ESRC intends to fund a new research project entitled ‘Breaking the Cycle? Prison Visitation and Recidivism in the UK’, to be undertaken by carceral geographer  Dominique Moran and criminological psychologist Louise Dixon, both at the University of Birmingham, UK.

This 3-year interdisciplinary project will provide a new perspective on prison visitation and its relationship to the highly topical issue of recidivism. Macro-level statistical analysis in parallel with innovative mixed-methods research into visiting facilities will identify the nature of this relationship and its socio-spatial context, informing policy towards visitation and the design of visiting spaces, and contributing to broader debates about prisoner rehabilitation and resettlement.

In the aftermath of the 2011 UK riots, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke described the rioters as a ‘feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream’, and blamed the riots on the ‘broken penal system – one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful’. Reoffending or recidivism is key to the operation of the repetitive cycle of incarceration, re-entry, re-offending and re-incarceration, and represents a major policy challenge. In the UK, 75% of ex-inmates reoffend within nine years of release, and 39.3% within the first twelve months. Clarke’s solution as set out in the government’s “Breaking the Cycle” Green Paper is ‘payment by results’; a ‘radical and decentralising reform’ with ‘freedom to innovate’ new interventions, opening ‘the market to new providers from the private, voluntary and community sectors’. This project draws attention to prison visitation as an aspect of imprisonment which has already been demonstrated to improve the outcomes of released prisoners, but whose specific functionality is at present poorly understood. Through parallel methodologies, this project investigates the relationship between visitation and recidivism.

Research into recidivism finds that prison visitation is a significant factor in improving post-release outcomes; outcomes are in general much more positive for visited prisoners, and lower recidivism rates have been demonstrated across study populations and time periods. However, although the effect is widely observed, the causality is poorly understood. It is presumed that the maintenance of personal relationships and the feeling of ‘connectedness’ to home and community which may arise through visitation smooth reintegration after release, but this process has never been fully explored. The processes underlying persistent criminal careers remain a research gap, and very little is known about psychological change in relation to prison visits in terms of the psychological constructs which may mediate the relationship between visits and recidivism.

The project will generate both nuanced insights into the relationship between prison visitation and recidivism, and also critical insights into the socio-spatial context of prison visiting, to inform visitation policy and the design of more effective prison visiting spaces. It seizes an opportunity to influence policy and create impact, at a time when the the coalition government is consulting on policy reform, in particular in relation to recidivism. It represents convergence of cutting-edge debates in cognate disciplines of human geography, criminology, psychology and wider social theory, and resonates with policy development in individual prison institutions in the UK in the context of the ‘Breaking the Cycle’ initiative.

There will be a 2.5-year Post-Doctoral Research Assistant position created at the University of Birmingham in connection with this grant; post to be advertised in due course. For any further information please contact

Only as far away as the phone? Video visitation and prison call centres

Two stories in the news this week pertaining to prisoners’ contact with the outside world throw up some troubling questions about the nature and purpose of contact for those incarcerated.

First, many thanks to Shaul Cohen for these links to the New York Times’ piece on ‘Video Visitation’, which details the US District of Columbia’s switch to video visitation, a growing trend in the corrections field. To proponents, the video systems provide a more convenient, safer, thriftier alternative to in-person visits, reducing the need for visitors to travel to penitentiaries, to stand in line and be searched ahead of in-person visits, and the disruption to the prison regime caused by bringing prisoners to visitation suites and ensuring the security of the institution during visits. However, as the NYT reports, critics, including prisoner advocates and corrections officers concerned with how prisoners fare once they are released, fear that the video visits allow less meaningful contact with family and could damage inmates’ morale. The report quotes Angela Davis, who after her second video visit with her son, 21, said although video visitation was much more convenient, she missed watching her son walk into the visitation room and take a seat in front of her. While he walked she would observe him to make sure he had no scratches or scars while examining his body language and gestures. “He doesn’t know that, but that’s what I’d be doing,” Ms. Davis said. “I can’t really do that if he’s just sitting there and all I see is his face. You can’t really do that on a monitor.”

Sylvia Lane, a spokeswoman for the District of Columbia corrections department, claimed that the video system would double the number of visits possible each day to 400, while eliminating long queues and invasive security checks, and also lowering staff costs, saving $420,000 a year, about 64% of the $660,000 budgeted for visiting costs in 2012. She also said it would keep the jail more secure because inmates do not have to be moved around as much, and the risk of visitors smuggling contraband into jail is drastically reduced.

Although at present in-person visits typically remain an option, there is a sense in which growing familiarity with online communication such as Skype may mitigate against the negative perception of video visitation. However, a more troubling extension to this argument is made by Lt. Col. Kim Spadaro, the director of Florida’s, Broward County (which adopted a video system in 2007) Department of Detention and president of the American Jail Association:

“Either way, they’re not able to have physical contact with their family members,” she said. “They stay right in their cell, they’re on their video screen, they have their privacy, and they’re still having basically the same visit as the one they had when they’re separated by glass.” In other words, because in-person visitation is typically behind shatter-proof glass and no physical contact is possible, video visitation is ‘basically the same’ in the eyes of the establishment.

What isn’t the same, though, is the level of scrutiny of the visits themselves. As the DC corrections department information video makes clear, amongst the straightforward demonstrations of how to register for visits and book them online, the need for ID at the visitation centre and the various advantages of time and money savings for both visitors and institutions, all visits are ‘monitored and subject to recording’ (9:49). There’s no further information about the storage or use of these recordings, but one might anticipate that the knowledge that their conversations are being surveilled and filed might deter prisoners and visitors from speaking as openly as they might like to…

Video visitation raises all kinds of questions about how carceral geographers theorise visitation and visiting spaces. Although the visiting suite inside prison has been thought of as a liminal space between freedom and confinement for both prisoners and visitors (Moran 2011), video visitation casts this conceptualisation in a new light, both by denying prisoners the opportunity to meet face to face with loved ones away from their everyday carceral surroundings, and by bringing the prison, albeit in its virtual incarnation of online bookings and video screens, into new spatial contexts – the DC General Hospital in this case – with the potential to reach right into the homes of prisoners’ friends and families.

In the other story this week, The Guardian revealed the UK Ministry of Justice’s plans to support the establishment of call centres inside prisons, as part of prisoners’ work programmes. Not only could the scheme ‘lower costs and overheads’ for companies participating, but it could provide prisoners with paid work inside prison, contributing to their rehabilitation and increasing their prospects of employment after release. Quite apart from the fact that prisoners’ pay of £3 per day potentially undercuts pay rates for free workers (which MoJ defended by arguing that “All contracts with outside employers must comply with a strict code of practice which sets out that prisoners cannot be used to replace existing jobs in the community. Prisoner wages, for those in closed prisons, are set by prison governors and companies have no control over the level of payment”), there are concerns that putting call centres inside prisons would be one of the first instances of prisoners serving lengthy sentences coming into direct commercial contact with the public, and concerns about prison call centres’ compliance with data protection legislation.

Scholars have already pointed to conventional call centres’ panoptical surveillance strategies, using Foucault to theorise these regimes (e.g. Ball & Margulis 2011), but the idea of the prison acting as a site of ‘offshore outsourcing’ of call centre activity, where not only are wages very low but prisoners are also in the right time zone and have the appropriately reassuring regional accents, is intriguing. Debate over prisoners’ low wages and the effect of these on the competitiveness of firms employing free labour have been ongoing for some time, but it isn’t usually in relation to a ‘customer-facing’ commercial role such as this one. (Although Jackson (2011) notes that prisoners already work in call centres in India).

Two things seem to link video visitation in DC and the proposed prisoner call centres in the UK. Firstly the financial advantage that can be gained from deploying technology to connect prisoners and the outside world, be that either in cost savings for penitentiaries organising fewer face-to-face visits, or higher profits for commercial firms paying less for their call centre workers. Second is the nature of  contact – which in both cases is technologically mediated, monitored and recorded, and disembodied, either through video screen or telephone headset, and which arguably serves to separate the prisoner ever further from family and community.

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.

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)

Distance Matters: Parenting in Prison

Where prisons are matters – not just for the local inhabitants of surrounding areas concerned for their house prices or their employment prospects, but for the families of the incarcerated who face problems in visiting prisoners when they are held at distance from home, and for imprisoned parents who want to see their children.

In New York, USA, two politicians have recently introduced bills that would establish a pilot program for 60 parents to be incarcerated near their children. According to a piece in the NY Daily News, although more than 73% of incarcerated women in New York are mothers and roughly 100,000 New York children have a parent in prison, the state Department of Corrections makes no provisions for parents when it assigns them to prisons across New York state.

The impact of distance on the experience of imprisonment, particularly for mothers with young children, is the focus of  a recently completed project looking at the experience of women in Russia’s prison system, and is discussed in a forthcoming book, as well as in a recent paper which describes Russia’s geography of punishment.

While carceral geography has tended to concentrate on the impact of the spatial distribution of places of incarceration on the communities which host or surround them, research into the impact of distance from home and family during imprisonment would complement the wealth of research within criminology and prison sociology into the ‘collateral’ effects of  incarceration.