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date: 22 October 2017

Spatialization and Carceral Geographies

Summary and Keywords

Carceral geography has emerged as a vibrant and important subdiscipline of human geography, and there is increasing, and productive, dialogue among human geographers concerned with the carceral and disciplinary scholars with longer-standing engagements with incarceration and detention. Although the geographical study of the prison and other confined or closed spaces is relatively new, this dialogue between carceral geography and cognate disciplines of criminology and prison sociology, ensures that carceral geography now speaks directly to issues of contemporary import such as hyperincarceration and the advance of the punitive state.

Carceral geography addresses a diverse audience, with geographical approaches to carceral space being taken up by and developed further within human geography, and in criminology and prison sociology. Carceral geography has emerged in concurrence with the “spatial turn” in criminology, and the spatialization of carceral studies, and the particular ways in which carceral geographers have engaged spaces and practices of incarceration—specifically with concerns for mobility, for multisensory carceral experiences, and for methodology—may offer further, and productive, avenues of collaboration between geographers and criminologists concerned with the carceral.

Keywords: carceral geography, spatial turn, mobility, methodology


The emergence of carceral geography as a vibrant and important subdiscipline of human geography has stimulated increasing, and productive, dialogue between human geographers concerned with the carceral and disciplinary scholars with longer-standing engagements with incarceration and detention. Although geographical interest in the prison and other confined or closed spaces is relatively novel, this dialogue ensures that carceral geography now addresses issues of contemporary import such as hyperincarceration and the advance of the punitive state. Using the carceral as a lens through which to view concepts with wider currency within contemporary and critical human geography, such as mobility, liminality, and embodiment, carceral geography addresses a diverse audience, with geographical approaches to carceral space now being taken up by and developed further within human geography, and in criminology and prison sociology (e.g., Crewe, Warr, Bennett, & Smith, 2014).

The coalescence of work under the heading of carceral geographies (Moran, 2013a; Moran, 2015) has occurred at a critical moment in contemporary penal practice in an Anglo-American context, with the expansion of workfare and prison-fare policies, the criminalization of immigration and the expansion of the carceral estate. Of particular note is that the focus of carceral geographies on the spaces and practices of confinement extends to mainstream incarceration, that is of individuals detained by the prevailing legal system, and to migrant detention, where irregular migrants and refused asylum seekers are confined, ostensibly pending decisions on admittance or repatriation (e.g., Moran, Gill, & Conlon, 2013).

The purpose of this article is to introduce and situate carceral geography in relation to the spatial turn in criminology and the spatialization of carceral studies, which have occurred at a particular and tragic moment in terms of the rise of hyperincarceration in Anglo-American contexts, and to outline the diversity and significance of research within carceral geography. It also suggests that the particular ways in which carceral geographers have engaged spaces and practices of incarceration—specifically with concerns for mobility, for multisensory carceral experiences, and for methodology—may offer further, productive, avenues of collaboration between geographers and criminologists concerned with the carceral.

The Spatial Turn in Criminology and Carceral Studies

Although Kindynis (2014) argued that developments provoked by the spatial turn in social theory, “have begun to offer a more sophisticated rendering of the lived experience and socio-cultural complexities of (urban) space/crime,” pointing to the work of Hayward (2004, 2012) and Campbell (2012a, 2012b), he contended that “this enterprise has thus far been a largely theoretical one” (Kindynis, 2014, p. 232). Hayward and Campbell’s work engaged directly with theorizations of space from cultural geography, notably those arising from non-representational theory (NRT), Hayward explicitly expressing an intention to offer alternative ways to interpret relationships between space and crime, “to challenge contemporary criminologists to think differently about the role and nature of space within our discipline” (Hayward, 2012, p. 459). Encouraging criminologists to consider alternative ways of interpreting the relationship between space and crime, Hayward critiqued the tendency to see “the environment simply as a geographic site and not as a product of power relations, cultural and social dynamics, or everyday values and meanings” (2012, p. 441). Instead, he drew on Campbell’s (2012a, p. 2) suggestion of the potential resonances between cultural criminology and cultural geography (as informed by NRT), in which she pointed to the benefits of an emphasis on the “subjective, affective, embodied, aesthetic, material, performative, textual, symbolic, and visual relations of space” in relation to the settings of crime. Later, Hayward (2016) reflected on the emergence, over the preceding decade, of spatial criminology, which he described as characterized by a dual focus both on specific types of spaces (such as borders, rural spaces, mega-security zones) and on spatial models and theoretical concepts (such as parafunctional space, container space, dead space, and so on).

While building on the earlier of these discussions, Kindynis (2014) himself was more concerned for grounded empirical work, suggesting that criminologists could develop “innovative and explicitly spatial(izing) methodologies with which to generate further empirical insights,” by better and differently utilizing cartography and maps (Kindynis, 2014, p. 232). Drawing attention to geographical research involving mapping of various kinds, he considered the potential for photo-mapping projects, in which photographs are geo-tagged and overlain onto digital maps, and for spatial transcripts, in which audio recordings are matched with a GPS log of participants’ movements, to enhance understandings of the relationship between space and (fear or experience, as well as incidence, of) crime.

While these discussions are absorbing, exciting, and full of potential, their specific orientation is intriguing, for carceral studies. This is because the focus, implicit or explicit, seems to be on public space (albeit public is itself a contested notion) rather than closed or confined spaces. Hayward’s explicit focus (2016) is on the future of criminological research into public space, and Kindynis (2014) is concerned with crime mapping, the city, and public understandings of crime and security. Kindynis (2017) elsewhere explored recreational trespass of off-limits or otherwise prohibited spaces as an embodied spatial practice, and published discourse of the spatial turn within criminology has started explicitly to consider spaces of incarceration in terms of their place within the landscape, broadly defined (for example, Jewkes & Moran, 2015; Schept, 2014; Story, 2016). However, the relative lack of discourse of this kind does not mean that that space has been overlooked entirely.

Arguably, criminology and prison sociology have traditionally tended towards conceptualizations of incarceration as a period of prison time, rather than as a space, for example through longitudinal studies of imprisonment rates, overcrowding and prisoner welfare, individual prisoners’ experiences, and adjustment to incarceration. This tendency toward temporal interpretations perhaps stems from conceptualizations of imprisonment as a discrete period of time distinguished from the rest of prisoners’ lifecourses, and from the significance of variation in, and effect of, different lengths of prison sentences, in relation to the incarceration of people at different life stages. Wright, Crewe, and Hulley (2016) and Crewe, Hulley and Wright (2016), for example, have examined the experience of long sentences for men imprisoned at an early stage in their life course. In line with the embedding of a concern for space in response to the increased prominence of spatiality within social theory and the social sciences more broadly since the mid-to-late 1980s, these disciplines now increasingly view space as significant in understanding the experience of incarceration—albeit perhaps without the type of explicit discussion that has characterized the relationship between space and crime.

The growing influence of prison ethnography contributes to this growing concern for space. As Drake and Earle noted, prison ethnographers have been “getting close to the experiences, feelings, and understandings of prison life” by accessing spaces of incarceration and observing “telling details” of prison life that bring into sharp relief the “meaning and essence of prison experiences and offer valuable means for understanding a little of what it really means to be imprisoned or to work in a prison” (Drake & Earle, 2013, pp. 12–13). In so doing, prison ethnographers make explicit a longstanding implicit awareness of the significance of space, which had remained underplayed in much scholarship to date. In an example of just this kind of development, Crewe et al. (2014, p. 56) drew attention to the emotional world of the prison, arguing that rather than constituting “environments that are unwaveringly sterile, unfailingly aggressive, or emotionally undifferentiated,” prisons instead have “emotion zones,” in which different emotional registers can be expressed. Crewe et al.’s (2014) paper is particularly significant in that it draws directly upon human and carceral geography in considering space and place as “determinants of social practice and personal experience, rather than as empty theatres or neutral backcloths within and against which they occur” (Crewe et al., 2014, p. 60).

With prison ethnography bringing to the fore a concern for the experience of prison spaces, another area of scholarship within criminology (e.g., Fiddler, 2010; Hancock & Jewkes, 2011; Jewkes, 2013; Moran & Jewkes, 2015) highlights the importance of carceral space, through attention to the relationship between prison design and philosophies of punishment, in ways that resonate with, but differ significantly from, situational control research within psychology (e.g., Wener, 2012; Wortley, 2002).

If the interior spaces of prisons are increasingly being viewed by criminologists, prison sociologists, and prison ethnographers as more than just containers for the “experiences and practices that few other members of society have the opportunity to see” (Drake & Earle, 2013, p. 12), then there is also an appreciation that the prison is not the only site with the “social realm” under the influence of incarceration, or, as Smith (2013, p. 167) has put it, that the “penal state is operative in sites where we might not be accustomed to look for it: not only within the prison interior … but also, peculiarly, in cities that have been emptied of their ‘troublesome poverty’ and transformed into smooth, clean zones for the enjoyment of ‘consumers of urban space’.” Reviewing Wacquant’s (2009) Prisons of Poverty, Smith (2013) was intrigued by his accounts of public space, especially the space of the metropolitan center, and the ways in which the spaces of the prison open out into these urban spaces of marginality in the context of hyperincarceration. These “smooth, clean zones,” of course, are the results of the exclusion of criminalized underclasses from the affluent “forbidden cities” described by Davis (1990, 2006), in which the security infrastructure of the prison seeps into urban space in complex ways. As Shabazz (2009, 2015a, 2015b) has argued, security infrastructure, such as barred windows and turnstiles, installed in public housing, vividly recalls carceral spaces, and thus acclimatizes young men to imprisonment, with “hyperpolicing” converting impoverished inner-city areas into intensely regulated, prisonlike spaces. At the same time, the forbidden cities of affluent neighborhoods are also protected by security technologies, in this context generating insulated spaces “rich with atmospheres of wellbeing” (Adey, Brayer, Masson, Murphy, Simpson, & Tixier, 2013, p. 301).

Here, perhaps, in the context of hyperincarceration, with its porous carceral boundaries, and seepage of carceral techniques and technologies into spaces far beyond the prison, we see the potential for the subversive counter-mapping described by Kindynis (2014), of, for example, spaces of prohibition (of otherwise legal activities, such as drinking alcohol, dog walking, or political protest) in London, and the U.S. carceral estate (through the curation of a collection of satellite photographs of otherwise hidden penal architecture). By drawing attention to the carceral spaces and carceral effects concealed, but operational, within ostensibly public space, these projects perhaps hint at the potential for spatial criminology, and cartography within critical criminology, to explore carceral spaces in ways that resonate with approaches within carceral geography.

Carceral Geographies

It is perhaps no surprise that the emergence of carceral geography itself, as a vibrant subdiscipline of human geography, coincided with major changes in the scale and the scope of incarceration in many parts of the Anglophone world with regard both to those imprisoned by the prevailing legal system and to those detained in relation to their migration status. In what Wacquant (2011a, p. 3) has described as “the great penal leap backward,” the impacts of mass incarceration and, in the United States in particular, highly racialized incarcerative practices are felt far beyond prison walls. Wacquant’s (2011b) thesis is that the penalization of poverty seen in the United States in recent decades (and arguably extending into Western Europe and elsewhere through the exporting of U.S. penal ideas and management systems; see Downes, 2007, p. 118, in Gottschalk, 2009) comprises a punitive revamping of public policy by tackling urban marginality through punitive containment. Hyperincarceration, having in the United States thrown its “carceral mesh” (Wacquant, 2011b, p. 13) around the hyper-ghetto, is argued to have established a “single carceral continuum” between the ghetto and the prison system in a “self-perpetuating cycle of social and legal marginality with devastating personal and social consequences” (Wacquant, 2000, p. 384).

The development of carceral geography’s concern with the “new punitiveness” (Pratt, Brown, Brown, Hallsworth, & Morrison, 2011), often taken to refer directly to more austere and overcrowded prison conditions, longer sentences, increased criminal sanctions, and humiliating punishments, has been paralleled within human geography more broadly by observations of the impact of increasingly punitive policies, for example, towards the treatment of the homeless (De Verteuil, May, & von Mahs, 2009; Laurenson & Collins, 2007), urban crime (Herbert & Brown, 2006), zero-tolerance policing (Swanson, 2013) and sexual deviance (Craddock, 2000). Much of this work appears under the heading of what Sparke (2006, p. 357) has called “the big ‘N’ of Neoliberalism,” an umbrella term for the “diverse ideologies, policies, and practices associated with liberalizing global markets and expanding entrepreneurial practices and capitalist power relations into whole new areas of social, political, and biophysical life.” Sparke’s (2006) contention, after Barnett (2005), was that the use of the codeword neoliberalism arguably masks and exacerbates the challenges of contemporary political engagement, and he urged geographers to nuance analyses of neoliberalism through analysis of the context-contingent connections between neoliberal governance and neoliberal governmentality.

The emergence of carceral geography at this specific juncture, in relation to the punitive turn and mass incarceration, seems to follow Sparke’s (2006) steer. Drawing direct connections between neoliberal governance and the organized practices and techniques through which subjects are governed via the criminal justice system and the carceral estate, carceral geography has the opportunity to contribute significantly to understandings of governance and the geographies of social control.

Carceral geographies, then, are an emergent and vibrant field of geographical research concerned with the spaces and practices of detention and imprisonment, initially emergent through the focus of scholars such as Jamie Peck (Peck, 2003; Peck & Theodore, 2008), and Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Gilmore, 1999, 2002, 2007), and informed by much longer-standing academic engagements with incarceration, namely criminology, prison sociology, and Critical Legal Studies, and in particular with the increasing concern within these disciplines for an understanding of carceral space.

Although dialogue with criminology and prison sociology initially took the form of learning and borrowing (sometimes through interdisciplinary collaboration), within a more general criminological engagement with spaces and landscapes (Campbell, 2012a, 2012b; Hayward, 2012, 2016; Kindynis, 2014), recent years have seen criminologists increasingly considering and adopting perspectives directly from carceral geography. Crewe et al. (2014), for example, have examined the emotional geographies of carceral spaces drawing explicitly on such scholarship; Pickering (2014, p. 187) sought to examine the micro politics of new carceral spaces at border crossings; and Woolford and Gacek (2016) drew on carceral geography to theorize “genocidal carcerality” in Indian residential schools in Canada. Discussions of carceral geography are now appearing in landmark criminological collections (e.g., Jewkes & Moran, 2017; Jewkes, Slee, & Moran, 2017; Moran, 2017).

Carceral geographies sit at a nexus of interrelated developments in geographical research. These include the immense influence of the engagement between Michel Foucault (1979) and questions of space, place, and geography, particularly the development of the prison and the regulation of space and discipline of the body, as well as Goffman (1961) on the total institution—the prominence within contemporary critical human geography of the ideas of Giorgio Agamben about bare life and spaces of exception, where sovereign power suspends the law, producing a zone of abandonment, and the growing prominence of the work of Loïc Wacquant on hyperincarceration and the punitive turn in the United States and Western Europe. Scholarship embedded in critique of the neoliberal governance of the United States has drawn attention to the essentially racialized character of incarceration in that context, with scholars such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore making connections between race, space, and incarceration a key component of wider carceral scholarship in human geography (e.g., Bonds, 2013; Shabazz, 2015a; Shabazz, 2015b). This perspective allies closely to a strong, but not comprehensive, abolitionist persuasion within this subdiscipline, which in turn extends to its articulation with migrant detention in the United States and in Europe (e.g., Gill, Conlon, Tyler, & Oeppen, 2014; Loyd, Mitchelson, & Burridge, 2013). Carceral geography now considers carceral spaces within and beyond institutions whose distributional geographies, and geographies of internal and external social and spatial relations, should be explored (Gill, Conlon, Moran, & Burridge, 2016; Moran, 2013a; Moran, 2015; Philo, 2012; Shabazz, 2015a; Story, 2016).

Recognizing space as more than the surface upon which social practices take place (Gregory & Urry, 1985; Lefebvre, 1991; Massey, 1994), geographers understand it instead as simultaneously the medium and the outcome not only of political or macro-economic practices, but also of everyday social relations and exclusion across all spatial scales (Sibley, 1995; Soja, 1985). This critical human geographical approach draws upon prevalent understandings of space and spatiality as multiplicitous and heterogeneous, both “abstract and concrete, produced and producing, imagined and materialised, structured and lived, relational, relative and absolute” (Merriman, Jones, Olsson, Sheppard, Thrift, & Tuan, 2012). In the study of distribution of carceral spaces, rather than seeing prisons, for example, as spatially fixed and bounded containers for people and imprisonment practices, rolled out across Cartesian space and straightforwardly mappable in scale and distance, carceral geography has tended towards an interpretation of prisons as fluid, geographically anchored sites of connections and relations, seeing them as connected to each other and articulated with wider social processes through mobile, visual, haptic, and embodied practices (Moran, 2015).

Carceral geography therefore brings to the study of prisons and imprisonment an understanding of space as relational. In so doing, it seeks to dissolve the boundaries between objects and space, and it invokes an understanding of objects and processes as space, and of space as objects and processes, each understandable only in relation to the other in a perpetual process of becoming. The advantage of this approach to space is that, rather than treating it as something that can be classified, delimited, and pigeon-holed, “thinking space relationally” presents a challenge to consider space as “encountered, performed and fluid” (Jones, 2009, p. 492). Spaces are seen as “open, discontinuous, relational, and internally diverse” and as “complex and unbounded lattice[s] of articulations” (Allen, Massey, & Cochrane, 1998, pp. 143, 165). This approach has delivered, within carceral geography scholarship, a focus on experience, performance, and mutability of prison space; revealed the porosity of the prison boundary and mobilities within and between institutions; and shown a concern for the ways in which meanings and significations are manifest within fluid and ever-becoming carceral landscapes.

Three themes have emerged within carceral geography scholarship: carceral spaces and experiences within them, the spatial geographies of carceral systems, and the relationship between a notion of the carceral and an increasingly punitive state (Moran, 2013a; Moran, 2015). All are premised on a notion of the carceral as a social construction existing both within and separate from the physical spaces of incarceration—a notion that aligns with the conceptual framework of the “carceral turn” as described by Brown (2014a, p. 178), addressing “human experiences and social practices that involve systems of confinement [which] differ from those that a sociology of punishment can or perhaps should address.” Very recently, Moran, Turner and Schliehe (2017) have explored the conceptualizations of the ‘carceral’, advancing for debate, as a step towards its critical appraisal, a series of ‘carceral conditions’ that bear on the nature and quality of carcerality. They argue that carceral geography has concerned itself with (experiences of) spaces of confinement very broadly conceived and operating at every scale from the global to the personal. Although “incarceration” has conventionally come to refer to the legal confinement of sentenced offenders under the jurisdiction of the state, rather than to the myriad ways in which persons could be, and indeed are, confined by other means (such as unlawful imprisonment, kidnap, abduction, curfew, grounding), or indeed, the means by which people could confine themselves (phobias, cultural practices, competing gang territories, and so on), carceral geographers are pushing at this boundary. While appreciating that these circumstances differ dramatically from each other, taking a more lateral approach enables carceral geography to interpret the “carceral” as not necessarily limited to state-sanctioned legal imprisonment. This interpretation includes the conventional, state-sanctioned spaces of incarceration which hold sentenced prisoners; but it also encompasses spaces of detention of refugees, noncitizens, asylum seekers, the trafficked, and the renditioned, as well as “forms of confinement that burst internment structures and deliver carceral effects without physical immobilization” (Moran, Gill, & Conlon, 2013, p. 240), such as electronic monitoring, surveillance, and securitized public spaces; and also the much more personal and nuanced forms of confinement, which manifest themselves in mobile notions of the carceral inscribed upon the individual, such as embodied stigma and corporeal practices which recall previous (conventional) incarceration. Examples here might include missing teeth that become “a tell-tale sign of having been incarcerated” (Williams, 2007, p. 84), or the “yard face” (Caputo-Levine, 2013, p. 169) maintained by some male released prisoners post-incarceration, which ensure that an element of the carceral adheres to the body of the former prisoner after release from custody (Moran, 2012; Moran, 2014). In this way, carceral geography contributes to an understanding of the carceral subject that “complicates and exceeds categories of criminality, penalty, and victimhood” (Brown, 2014a, p. 178).

Taking a lead from Foucault’s discussion (1979) of “the carceral” at the close of Discipline and Punish, empirical research in carceral geography has predominantly been characterized by a focus on institutions. Although spaces of confinement are very broadly conceived, sites of institutional confinement have tended to dominate analysis, albeit with a key area of interest being the relationship between the spaces of the institution and the embodied spaces of the self (Moran, 2015). Scholarship has investigated diverse aspects of the prison, and of other carceral sites that resemble it both in functional form and in mode of operation, such as detention centers (e.g., Hiemstra, 2013; Mountz, Coddington, Catania, & Loyd, 2013) and halfway houses (e.g., Allspach, 2010), with sensitivity to change and difference across space and time, and between cultures and jurisdictions.

Within this institutional focus, there is a breadth of empirical emphasis. A growing body of literature focuses upon carceral spaces such as those of mainstream incarceration of criminals for custodial sentences imposed by prevailing legal systems, or spaces of migrant detention that confine irregular or non-status migrants pending decisions on admittance or removal. Dirsuweit (1999) explored women’s experiences in prison in South Africa; in New Mexico, Sibley and Van Hoven, (2009) and Van Hoven and Sibley (2008) described material and imagined carceral spaces. In the United Kingdom, Baer (2005) identified the personalization of prison space, a notion further developed by Moran, Pallot, and Piacentini (2013) and Milhaud and Moran (2013) in relation to prisoners’ privacy in Russia and France. More recently, Hemsworth (2015) has explored the role of sound in prison and Michalon (2015) has described micro-spaces inside migrant detention facilities in Romania. There is also scholarship of the overlaps and synergies between these spaces. In particular, Loyd, Mitchelson, and Burridge (2013) and Morelle (2015) have influentially demonstrated the interactions between prisons, migration policing, and detention.

Beyond the conventional carceral institution, varieties of domestic, urban, and embodied sites have been theorized as spaces of surveillance and control, with carceral geographers tracing the relationships between the prison as a porous carceral institution and these other spaces. This scholarship has three complementary foci; the first on the ways in which the prison seeps into its surroundings, the second in relation to the porosity of the prison boundary itself, and the third with reference to a mobile and embodied carcerality.

Scholars recognize that techniques and technologies of confinement seep into the everyday, domestic, street, and institutional spaces that former inmates and their loved ones (such as prison visitors) come into contact with. Brown (2014a) and Fishwick and Wearing (2016) have worked on juvenile delinquency and youth justice, and Morin (2016a) on the parallels between the treatment of animals and prisoners. Cuomo’s work clearly demonstrates the ways in which female partners of men imprisoned for violence against them experience both quasi imprisonment, but also deep insecurity, within their own homes (Cuomo, 2013). Examples of work on the prison’s influences on communities both local to, and distant from it, and on the impact of prison siting include Bonds (2006, 2009), Che (2005), and Shabazz (2015a, 2015b); Mitchelson (2014) provides an example of research into prison privatization as part of a wider state economy. Carceral geographers have increasingly described spaces beyond prisons as carceral. Focus has been trained upon sites beyond the traditional, landed prison by Mountz and Loyd (2014) regarding islands; and Peters and Turner (2015) and Turner and Peters (2016) in their historical research on the convict ship. And beyond carceral geography, human geographers have begun to suggest that other institutional settings may have carceral features. Waters and Brooks (2015), for example, have suggested that the separateness and isolation of elite schools bears some comparison to more conventional carceral settings.

The terminology of the carceral has been widely borrowed and qualified. Smith (2011) uses the term to describe the microgeographies of occupation in the occupied West Bank. Lock-down urban security around global mega-events (e.g., Coaffee, 2014, p. 208, drawing on Mike Davis’ deployment of the carceral city) and military prisons such as Abu Ghraib (Stevens, 2008, p. 200) are described as hyper-carceral. There are also quasi-carceral spaces, including spaces in which prisoners undertake home visits (Moran & Keinänen, 2012) and day-release prisoners’ workplaces, such as charity shops (Maddrell, 2000). Spaces and institutions that were once prisons, but no longer function as such–such as prisons converted into hotels, or preserved as museum or heritage sites—have also been interrogated as carceral (e.g., Felder, Minca, & Ong, 2014; Morin, 2013, 2016b; Morin & Moran, 2015; Turner & Peters, 2015; Walby & Piché, 2015). Likewise, the conversion of sites constructed for other purposes into places of incarceration has been studied, for example by Medlicott (2015), in her example of the re-purposing of Shaker sites in the United States into prisons.

In relation to the second focus, on tangible and intangible things that cross the prison wall, Moran (2013a, 2013b) and Moran, Hutton, Dixon, and Disney (2016) have worked on the in-between spaces of the prison visiting room, and on liminal spaces of prisoner transportation (Moran, Piacentini, & Pallot, 2012; Moran, Piacentini, & Pallot, 2013). Baer (2005) and Schliehe (2017) have both explored prisoner possessions, their significance and movement in the prison setting, respectively. Baer and Ravneberg (2008) explored the notion of the prison’s inside and outside; Bony (2015) has studied the continuity of social relations beyond the prison wall; Turner (2016) has interrogated the notion of an absolute and Euclidean prison boundary; and Conlon and Hiemstra (2014) outlined the micro-economies in and associated with detention centers.

Pertaining to the third focus on mobile and embodied carcerality, carceral geographers have argued that the carceral does not necessarily require a spatial fix. Increasingly recognizing the carceral as spatial, emplaced, mobile, embodied, and affective, they have studied the experiences of prison time inscribed on the body (Moran, 2012, 2014); and they have paid specific attention to “trans” carceral experiences—that is, embodiment of incarceration for transgender prisoners (Rosenberg & Oswin, 2015). Very much a product of its time, carceral geography has emerged within human geography at the height of the “mobilities turn” and in a context of the prominence of non-representational theory; from the outset, it has been concerned with the mobile and the multi-sensory, and it has sought to draw upon spatial methodologies in research within closed spaces. It is to these approaches that we now turn.

Mobility, the Multi-Sensory, and Methodology

Carceral geography’s emergence as a subdiscipline was heavily influenced by the “new mobilities paradigm” (Sheller & Urry, 2006), such that Martin and Mitchelson’s prescient recognition that “contemporary practices of imprisonment are characterized by [the] tensions between apparent fixity and forced mobility” (2008, p. 461) has been almost a mainstay of geographical research into carceral environments since its inception.

The mobilities turn tended to draw a connection between mobility, autonomy, and freedom, and in so doing, inadequately explored and theorized coerced mobility (Moran, Piacentini, & Pallot, 2012). Described as an “evocative keyword” (Hannan, Sheller, & Urry, 2006, p. 1) for the 21st century, a wide-ranging discourse developed around mobility, covering the actual or virtual movements of people through space (Sheller & Urry, 2006; Silvey, 2004; Urry, 2007). Urry (2002) posed the fundamental question, “why travel?” but despite the breadth and diversity of responses, one sphere of mobility remained under-researched. Implicit or explicit in the majority of empirical and conceptual literature has been a sense that mobility is connected with autonomy, the realization of potentials, and ultimately, freedom (Moran, Piacentini, & Pallot, 2012). Dunn (1998, p. 43) described mobility as “the potential for movement,” to a greater or lesser extent presuming that an individual has the agency to determine their own mobility. Observing that these definitions and stances on mobility reveal two “contrasting facets of mobilities,” Uteng (2009, p. 1057) identified both the positive associations with progress and freedom, and the “issues of restricted movement, vigilance, and control.” Hannan et al. (2006, p. 3), drawing upon Massey (1994), described mobilities as “caught up in the power geometries of everyday life.” The focus here is on power, and [access to] mobility, and as Skeggs argued (2004, p. 49), “[m]obility and control over mobility both reflect and reinforce power. Mobility is a resource to which not everyone has an equal relationship.”

Despite these nuanced conceptualizations of mobility as reflecting and reinforcing power, the focus of early empirical work tended to be on access to and exclusion from it, as manifestations of power, with mobility understood as a specific kind of ontological object, rather than as a quality or characteristic. Far less attention was paid to mobility as an instrument of power. Although involuntary mobility was acknowledged and labeled, for example by Hannan et al. (2006, p. 10) as “obligatory” travel, or “coerced” movement, (such as that of refugees, or of forced migrants (Indra, 1998)), with few exceptions, early literatures on mobility had a tendency to elide the involuntary, obligatory, or coerced nature of mobility, with the result that consideration of coercion—what might be described as forced or disciplined mobility—was missing from the mobilities discourse. This omission was perhaps because coerced movements, which could include trafficking, extraordinary rendition, or kidnap, for example, had not yet been adequately theorized within the “new mobilities paradigm” (Hannan et al., 2006; Sheller & Urry, 2006), even during the emergence of a “politics of mobility” (Cresswell, 2010).

Recent scholarship of the contemporary spaces of incarceration and carceral practice, notably within carceral geography, has offered a new perspective on, and empirical examples of, forced, coerced, punitive, disciplined, or governmental mobility. While carceral geography has increasingly focused attention on the mobilities inherent in carceral practices, a recent call to pursue this line of enquiry in greater depth (Moran, 2015) has been dynamically addressed in a collection focusing specifically on carceral mobilities (Turner & Peters, 2016). This scholarship demonstrates the ways in which carceral geographers view the spaces and practices of confinement, illustrating the richness of interpretation and analysis that is enabled by considering both the mobilities inherent in the carceral and the carceral features of mobility and mobilization. Critically, it speaks back to mobilities scholarship from a research context whose exploration has already challenged the seemingly innate connection drawn between mobility, rights, and autonomy (Gill, 2009; Moran, Piacentini, & Pallot, 2012; Moran, Piacentini, & Pallot, 2013).

Concern for mobility in the carceral context is by no means new to criminologists. Although prisons seem spatially fixed, and prisoners immobile, criminology has long been aware that mobility is a constant practical concern in the management of penal systems, with prisoner transport identified as an issue in relation to overcrowding (Wooldredge, 1991), a risk environment for the transfer of infectious diseases (Levy, Quilty, Young, Hunt, Matthews, & Robertson, 2003), for sexual coercion, taunts, and verbal abuse (Scraton & Moore, 2005). There have also been concerns to reduce the costs and inconvenience of inmate movement in connection with healthcare provision. Follis (2015) has also studied the coerced mobility and contradictory logics inherent in the movement of prisoners within the British prison estate. But whereas concern for mobility within criminology has arguably been largely pragmatic and logistical, drawing on these understandings, carceral geographers have considered the mobilities inherent within, between, to, from, and outside carceral spaces, with a particular focus on the lived experience of this mobility and mobilization. They have explored the cartography of imprisonment through a focus on the mobilities inherent in carceral practices, both within and between institutions, through work that traces the (restricted) movements of prisoners within institutions, and that maps the coerced mobilization of captives of carceral systems as they are moved to and between institutions.

The particular emphasis placed on the lived experience of carceral mobility facilitated consideration of this experience as affective, embodied, and multi-sensory. With much contemporary geographical research emphasizing affective, haptic, olfactory, auditory, and emotional sensory impressions, carceral geographers such as Hemsworth (2015) have cautioned against ocularcentrism; Hemsworth challenged the assumption that eyewitnessing is in some way more dependable than “earwitnessing.” Through examination of “carceral acoustemologies,” in her historical study of the Kingston penitentiary in Canada, Hemsworth argued for enhanced understanding of the “sonic materiality” of carceral landscapes (Hemsworth, 2015, p. 17). Tracing other kinds of mobilities, through and within, (and indeed in the organizational development of) spaces of non-citizen detention, Gill (2017), Hall (2017), Lowen (2017), and Kynsilehto and Puumala (2017) discuss, respectively, unwanted heteronormative intimacy, watching and looking at detainees, deprivation and violence, and the corporeal and material realities of detention. In each case, the emphasis is on the intimacy of research carried out via deep familiarity and proximity to the highly personal and micro-scale practices of detention.

The often close-up and “intimate” research methodologies through which carceral geographers develop these studies overlap significantly with the work of qualitative criminologists and prison ethnographers. Qualitative methods typically found in criminological studies, such as ethnographic observation, in-depth interviews, and focus group discussions, are familiar to carceral geographers. However a nuanced distinction perhaps lies in the fact that, coming to carceral environments as geographers rather than criminologists, carceral geographers are conceivably less reticent to divulge the personal and emotional experience of conducting such research. As Jewkes (2012) argued, criminologists perhaps become familiar with the alien prison environment over time and become accustomed, or expect to become accustomed, to the prison in a way that means their own positionality as a researcher rarely makes its way onto the published page. As she put it, much published criminological work “neutralizes the complex human relationships, potentially dangerous situations, and emotionally charged topics we frequently engage with” (Jewkes, 2012, p. 63).

While carceral geographers are not intrinsically any better at bringing this experience to light, the longstanding recognition with human geography that geographical knowledge is situated—that the sort of knowledge made depends on who its makers are—has colored much feminist and critical geographical thinking since the early 1990s (e.g., Haraway, 1991; Madge, 1993), with longstanding acceptance of a reflexivity that insists that the researcher has multiple selves in different situations (in terms of race, nationality, age, gender, social and economic status, sexuality, and so on), which influence data generation and thus the information that becomes coded as knowledge. It is also the case, however, that this reflexivity is not transparent—the researcher cannot necessarily know how they are viewed and cannot predict their reception—and that the ensuing uncertainties of research practice themselves offer a model of feminist reflexivity that also effectively questions the researcher’s practice of knowledge production; in other words, this reflexivity inscribes into research practices “some absences and fallibilities while recognizing that the significance of this does not rest entirely in our own hands” (Rose, 1997, p. 319). Against this backdrop, as is the case in human geography more widely, carceral geography contains evocative accounts of the “messy” business of doing research, in which “the many and complex emotional feelings and experiences” (Jewkes, 2014, p. 387) of fieldwork are disclosed. An apposite example is the work of Mitchelson (2016), who candidly discussed his first-hand experiences interviewing former prisoners to critique the notion of “vulnerable” populations. He argues that vulnerability itself is a spatially and temporally contingent process, and that it is fundamentally relational, involving the researcher, the researched, collaborators, and (often distant) people and social structures not necessarily directly involved in the research process itself.

Moving away a little from the theorization of research, situated knowledge, and reflexivity to consider some of the practical methodological approaches taken, recent methodological innovation in human geography offers to carceral geographers additional mobile tools, perhaps underutilized by criminologists, such as spatial activity mapping and walked interviews.

Walked interviews, whose value was recognized by Kindynis (2014) in relation to experiences of crime in urban space, are profoundly informed by the spaces in which they take place, and contrast starkly with sedentary interviews in their production of rich place-narratives (Evans & Jones, 2011). Widely used by geographers in a range of institutional and non-institutional contexts, they are often highly effective at eliciting deep reflection on place and environment. Isakjee (2016), for example, found them very successful for discussing the experience of exclusion for young Muslim men in the United Kingdom. Walked interviews are, undoubtedly, much more challenging to deploy, (at least with prisoners) in highly controlled spaces like prisons. The commonplace scenario of the interviewee taking the interviewer “for a walk” around a route, through spaces of their own choosing relevant for the interview (in the case of Isakjee, 2016, areas of their home city), is difficult to achieve in a secure setting, where prisoner mobility is limited and recording equipment (dictaphones) cannot easily or securely be used while in motion. And the usual security restrictions on GPS devices and equipment that broadcasts signals (such as mobile phones) preclude against the GPS tracking that Hein, Evans, and Jones, (2008) used to geolocate and map walked interview recordings. That said, carceral geographers have deployed these methods outside prisons, in particular in relation to research into the experience of proximity to a prison for members of a local community. Slee (2016), for example, used walked interviews for her research with local residents, using nearness to the prison walls and unavoidable sighting of the prison itself to elicit responses to the prison that were much richer than those achieved in sedentary interviews in a traditional interview space, such as a coffee shop or participant’s home. In a twist on the autoethnographic methods familiar to criminologists, Slee’s research diaries, which detailed her own responses to prison exteriors while mobile in their vicinity, could also be interpreted as a mobile methodology (Jewkes, Slee, & Moran, 2017).

Although mobile methodologies such as walked interviews are not always possible within secure settings, methodological proxies for movement are more easily deployed. Photo elicitation, and arts-based methods (in which participants are shown photographs of particular places or spaces, or are encouraged to sketch or draw plans of specific spaces, where they feel comfortable doing so) enable an element of mimicry of the effect of walking through spaces that are of research interest. Although again the restrictions of the research setting mean that respondents are seldom able (legally) to generate the imagery under discussion themselves (in the way that respondents outside secure settings might be asked to capture images on their mobile phone camera, or by using a loaned digital camera, for later reflection and discussion at interview), these methods are still effective. And the quasi-mobile methodology of spatial and temporal movement mapping, initiated by Hägerstrand (1970), which enables the tracing of movement in time and space, is useful for ascertaining the carceral spaces accessible to and used by respondents, to inform further qualitative and ethnographic study.

Spatial and Carceral Turns

The concurrence of the spatial turn in criminology with a carceral turn in geography has prepared the ground for a fruitful dialogue between criminology and carceral geography, one in which, in the best traditions of interdisciplinary engagement and collaboration, there is mutual learning and exchange of ideas, as well as productive challenge. This article intends to locate the emergence of carceral geography in relation to the spatial turn in criminology and carceral studies, to survey its progress thus far, and to briefly consider the characteristics of carceral geography, which, owing to the timing of its development, tend toward a particular perspective on incarceration. With emphasis in particular on mobility, the multi-sensory, and innovative methodology, highlighting recent scholarship in this field has indicated some ways in which carceral geography, although differing from spatial criminology offers some useful avenues for advancement and collaboration. As carceral geography develops as subdiscipline, its task is clearly to remain relevant to human geography more widely, while continuing to produce knowledge and insight that contributes creatively to criminological discourse.

Further Reading

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Kindyni, T. (2014). Ripping up the map: Criminology and cartography reconsidered. British Journal of Criminology, 54, 222–243.Find this resource:

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Moran, D. (2015). Carceral geography: Spaces and practices of incarceration. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate.Find this resource:


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