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!

Arizona is Maxed Out! Prison Siting and Prison Conditions

Within carceral geography, the debate over prison siting has often centred around the perceived merits and demerits of location of prisons in terms of impact on crime rates, real estate values and community relations, as well as the contentious argument that prisons can act as stimuli for economic development. In Arizona, US, this debate is taking a new and critical turn, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona (ACLU AZ) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) have joined forces to demand that Arizona’s Governor Brewer cancel plans to build 500 new maximum-security prison beds in the state at a cost of $50 million.

As the ACLU point out on their website, the argument here revolves around both the diversion of funds away from essential services and towards prison building, and around the appalling record of Arizona’s existing maximum security prisons, in terms of the lack of medical and mental health care for prisoners, and the impact that confinement in isolation has on former prisoners after release.

They argue that “Arizona’s budget priorities are backwards. This year, the Arizona State Legislature passed, and Governor Brewer approved, a $50 million plan to build 500 new maximum-security prison beds. But Arizona’s prison population is not growing. In fact, it decreased last year and the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) projects zero growth in the adult prison population for the next two years.  Like other states across the country, Arizona’s budget reflects severe cuts to essential services and agencies across the board. How does Governor Brewer plan to pay for 500 new maximum-security prison beds? The current state budget takes $50 million from the mortgage crisis settlement fund that was intended to help communities devastated by foreclosures. Those millions of dollars then get moved to the state’s general fund, and suddenly, the state has $50 million for 500 new maximum-security prison beds.”

In a Community Forum of the “Arizona is Maxed Out!” Campaign ACLU Staff Attorney, James Duff Lyall will discuss and provide updates on the class-action lawsuit that has been filed against the Arizona Department of Corrections for lack of adequate medical and mental health care for prisoners, and AFSC Program Coordinator, Matthew Lowen will highlight the findings of the recently published report, “Lifetime Lockdown: How Isolation Impacts Prisoner Reentry”. The Community Forum takes place on Wednesday Sept 19th in Tucson, Arizona.

This movement in Arizona focuses attention on prison siting, but not in terms of the conventional arguments either of NIMBY-ism (e.g. Martin & Myers 2005) or of communities competing for prison location as a growth stimulus (e.g. Cherry & Kunce 2001, Glasmeier & Farrigan 2007). It recalls Anne Bonds’ argument in her 2009 paper that “representations of poverty and criminality are entangled with processes of economic restructuring and the localization of economic development and social welfare”.

In this case, Arizona’s apparent diversion of mortgage crisis settlement funds towards prison building seems to be a permutation of Bonds’ observation that “states in desperate fiscal predicaments are endeavoring to finance their ever-burgeoning prisons systems—fueled and reinforced by punitive policies—which further redirect limited resources away for social investments” (2009, 434) – although in Arizona’s case the predicted zero growth in the adult prison population begs the question why such prison building is necessary at all.

As a recent article in the Arizona Guardian points out, Governor Brewer plans to spend $124 million on new prison construction compared to about $9 million on new school construction. Assistant House Minority Leader Steve Farley observed that “Of course if you build fewer schools you’re going to have to build more prisons. We’d be a lot better off if we built more schools and gave those kids a great education so they don’t end up in prison in the first place.”

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)

“I can make about four steps forward before I touch the door” The embodiment of incarceration.

Incarceration is the confinement of the physical body – although the imagination may travel beyond the prison cell and the prison wall, the act of imprisonment seeks to confine the body within demarcated space. But what happens to bodies treated in this way, and to the individuals who inhabit them?

Yesterday, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox marked the forty year anniversary of their solitary confinement in Louisiana’s notorious Angola jail. As Ed Pilkington notes in The Guardian, both have spent ’23 hours of every one of the past 14,610 days locked in their single-occupancy 9ft-by-6ft cells’. Contact with the world outside the windowless room is limited to the occasional visit and telephone call, “exercise” three times a week in a caged concrete yard, and letters that are opened and read by prison guards.

In a new documentary film, “Herman’s House“, directed by Angad Bhalla and produced by Lisa Valencia-Svensson, (to shown at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival on April 27), Wallace both describes his imprisonment:(“Being in a cage for such an extended period of time, it has its downfalls. You may not feel it, you may not know it, you may think you’re OK, and you’re just perfunctory about it.”) and allows his imagination to traverse the prison wall to co-create an art installation featuring detailed plans of his “dream home”.

In additional recordings, he vividly evokes the effect of this corporeal confinement:

“Every time I stand up from the bed I could hit my hips on the table, it’s that close. As far as moving about – there is no movement. I suffer from arthritis that has come about because of being in the cell.”

“If I turn an about-face, I’m going to bump into something. I’m used to it, and that’s one of the bad things about it.”

Robert King, the third of the “Angola 3”, whose conviction was overturned and who was released in 2001, echoes the effects of close confinement

“I was in a six-by-nine cell for 29 years and I know what it did to me – it shunk the brain, it shrunk the individual. You become acclimatised to small distances.”

Amnesty International delivered a petition for the two men’s release from solitary to the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge on the date of the anniversary, and the 40 year anniversary has drawn greater attention to the practice of solitary confinement in the US, not least because of the severe and debilitating effects of this kind of incarceration on body and mind.

For carceral geography, the effect, or affect, of solitary confinement on the incarcerated is a direct example of the influence of space on behaviour. Space is, after all, is not just a passive backdrop to social practice; it has ‘seductive spatiality’ (Rose et al 2010, 347) and ‘ambient power’ (Allen 2006, 445)  to affect how those encountering it act, both consciously and subconsciously. Contemporary human geography’s concern for the corporeal and the embodied resonates with the work of criminologist Azrini Wahidin, and her work on the corporeal effects of imprisonment, with prisoners’ bodies remade and reinscribed in the penal context.

Carceral geography has the opportunity to deploy geographies of affect, emotion and embodiment to enhance understandings of the effects of solitary confinement, and to do so in a way which contributes to efforts to make positive social and political change.

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