Volume 7, Issue 1
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Disciplinary Engagements with Prisons, Prisoners and the Penal System

First published: 16 January 2013
Citations: 12


This paper reviews changing contemporary approaches to geographies of incarceration, the penal system, and the institution of the prison. Firstly, it suggests a propensity to position spaces of imprisonment within thematics of containment and exclusion, which removes from consideration the particular contextual issues of reform and rehabilitation. By highlighting emerging literature within and beyond the discipline, which focuses upon both the development of the prison as a purposeful form of punishment and the complex interlinkages between prison and society, I have noted geography’s tendency to concentrate upon political economy analyses, with other disciplines providing a different register of interest. This paper concludes by calling for intervention from the repertoire of cultural geography with such things as performance, media, embodiment and spectacle, to open up the political at a more ‘personal’ level.


The study of crime and punishment has traditionally been the preserve of historians, lawyers and criminologists (Franke 1992; Garland 1990; McConville 1981; Morris and Rothman 1995; Radzinowicz 1948; Radzinowicz and Hood 1986; Sharpe 1990, 1998). Yet, in recent years critical human geographers have explored a series of issues pertaining to these, responding in large part to new and complex geopolitical events such as the ‘war on terror’ and its attendant impacts upon the regulation of refugee movements, detention practices and national security (Martin and Mitchelson 2009). Detention centres in particular have become a means of debating and interrogating the everyday politics, as well as the legal framing of, an extended state sovereignty and an accompanying erasure of human rights (Belcher 2008; Bhungalia 2008; Brown 2008; Hall 2008; Manning 2008; Martin 2008; Moran et al. 2009; Nisa 2008; Shabazz 2008). Such an attentiveness, however, stemming primarily from US directives towards the penal state and spaces of exception, as well as a post‐colonial attentiveness to encampment and spaces of confinement, runs the risk of subsuming prison geographies under the thematics of containment and exclusion, thereby eliding more contextually specific issues of reform and rehabilitation. These are very particular ensembles of knowledge and practice that dwell on the inculcation of specific behaviours and embodied traits within particular groups, and which speak to the legitimacy afforded particular sites of incarceration – the prison ‐ and the power relations operative within these.

I am not suggesting that prisons are by definition sites wherein only a reform and rehabilitation‐based incarceration takes place – certainly, prisons have acquired a number of roles over time and over space11 Such fluidity can be seen in the emergence of the prison as a site of incarceration. Geltner, for example, posits that in Europe, prisons were often makeshift structures and usually held people for limited durations. They were also run as independent private institutions, generally for the profit of the principle gaoler. Ireland (2007) argues that prison was defined as the primary punishment, but the penchant for making money from debtors obscured the ability to use it in any productive way, while Dunbabin (2002) offers insight into the varying styles of imprisonment across Europe from 1000–1300.
– but rather that there is a particular geography of reform and rehabilitation associated with the prison that can be usefully drawn out, a geography that speaks to issues of identity construction, and place‐making. In doing so, I first highlight a prevailing tendency to position carceral geographies within a political economic framework, which does much to illuminate the ‘work’ of prisons within societies riven by class and race, and to uncover the myriad relations that firmly weave prisons into all manner of ‘mainstream’ political, economic and cultural debates and practices. Yet, as I go on to show, a more explicitly cultural geographic repertoire can help to flesh out lines of inquiry that locate and address the what, where and how of rehabilitation and reform.

Mainstreaming Incarceration

Prisons, and the diverse penal systems which they help make manifest, have entered the geographic imagination as prime exemplars of how seemingly invisible, peripheral sites are integral to the functioning of a purportedly ‘mainstream’ society. Despite their often peripheral physical locations, the interlinkages between prisons and society are numerous and complex. And, much geographical literature has sought to illuminate how the policies and practices that animate prisons are not limited to the physical boundary of the prison walls, thereby demarcating a space cut off from the rest of civilisation, but cut across, undermine and even transform such boundaries (Baer and Ravneberg 2008; Gilmore 2007; Loyd et al. 2009; Pallot 2005; Vergara 1995; Wacquant 2000, 2001a, 2009). Peck, for example, argues that in a neoliberal economy the prison system has become epicentral, as opposed to invisible and distant (2003, p. 223). Indeed, these geographies are registered as ideological obfuscations that serve to ‘hide’ the crucial role of prisons in current society. And, in their 2009 paper, which comments on geography’s engagement with detention and imprisonment, Martin and Mitchelson address these in relation to state responses to “globalization of trade, migration, war and security” (2009, p. 459). Arguably, the prison system has become a key component of a state‐based strategy of regulating a potentially unruly urban poor (Peck 2003, p. 226). Noting the racialisation of this process, Wacquant (2001a) highlights that in north‐eastern USA, for example, around two‐thirds of all African‐American men in their 20s are involved in the penal cycle of prison, probation or parole. This has made prisons (especially US prisons) “warehouses for people of color and victims of poverty, alienation and abuse” (Jacobson‐Hardy 2002, p. 403).

Within political economic analyses, the profit‐generating potential that prisons offer has been stressed, with the prison system representing the world’s seventh or eighth‐largest economy (Gilmore 1999, p. 172). It has been investigated as a “recession‐proof economy,” which is further entrenched by capitalism’s need to enforce pauperism and criminality (Bonds 2006; Dyer 2000; Lemke 2001; Neumann 2000; Venn 2009). Indeed, the prison can be seen to provide a venue for entrepreneurial investment, ‘solving’ the economic problems of depressed regions (Che 2005; Coulibaly and Burayidi 2011; Daniel 1991; Farrington and Parcells 1991; Forest County Conservation District and Planning Commission 1998; Gilmore 2007; Hooks et al. 2010; Millay 1991; Pickren 2011; Rollenhagen 1999), such that prisons now act as “geographical solutions to political economy crises” (Gilmore 2007, p. 26). Penal institutions are not passive institutions, located on the ‘edges’ or ‘outside’, but “perform profoundly active role[s] in (re)making gender, class and race relations and, by the same token, (re)constituting the very ‘markets’ to which they are discursively subordinated” (Peck 2003, p. 227).

Outside of such political economic analyses, discussion of the ‘boundary’ between prison and society has been largely left to criminologists and sociologists. Here, implicit geographies can be discerned, with work exploring, for example, the activism around ‘political’ prisoners, such as the American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier (Mathiessen 1991) or IRA militants (Clarke 1987), thus calling into question the boundary between political opposition and crime; as well as innovative political art, such as the Million Dollar Blocks project produced by the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of Columbia University New York (2006), which places prisons in the context of housing policy and state budgetary priorities more generally. Media reports on gang activity point to strong links between incarcerated gang members and those on the outside, and suggests that prisons are instrumental as recruiting stations (Spergel 1990). Prisons arguably reproduce and often exacerbate social problems (Buntman 2009). For example, as Stern (1998) suggests, an expectation of time spent in prison is high for certain sectors of society, more so if their relatives were incarcerated at some point. In a different register, religious groups, as well, may find rich sources of converts within prison walls (Johnson 2004; Johnson et al. 1997). Ethnographers Marchetti (2002) and Comfort (2002) explore factors such as the forced transfer of prisoners and the performance of certain ‘outside’ behaviours such as kinship gatherings and family celebrations behind bars, respectively. Combessie (2002), also an ethnographer, examines notions of good and evil exhibited in the labelling of officers and inmates, and the stigma of ‘evil’ that can be attached to ex‐convicts on the ‘outside’.

However, whilst these literatures treat rehabilitation as a point of consideration – establishing consequential relationships between penal processes and issues of identity, belonging, economy, and such like – they do not always endeavour to make clear any potential import upon future strategies specific to one of the key means by which prisons are legitimised, namely their role in reform and rehabilitation. In this second section of the paper, I turn to literatures that collectively carve out a distinctive geography, composed of expert knowledges and situated practices, of prisoner reform and rehabilitation.

Rehabilitating the Incarcerated

During the Enlightenment period, the inconsistencies of penal regimes within as well as across states, combined with their brutality, were to become a site for intense criticism; particularly the spectacles of public bodily torture and execution. A Whiggish history contends that the change occurred from the perspective of ‘progress’; that is, there emerged increasing sympathy for the condemned, which in turn fostered a drive to ‘civilize’ punishment (Pratt 2002; Radzinowicz and Hood 1986; Vaughan 2000). Amongst the newly emerging middle‐class intelligentsia, as well as penal reform groups, there was arguably a growing distain for what Spierenburg (1984) terms “spectacles of suffering”.

Incarceration within prisons became the “penalty of the civilized societies” (Foucault 1977/1991; p. 232). And it is to this desire for ‘civilisation’ that Foucault (and other Anglo‐American historians such as Rothman and Ignatieff) attribute the ‘birth of the prison’ between 1760 and 1840, following the abolishment of corporeal public punishment in Britain (Parry 1975; Pratt 2002). Arguments that criminal activity could be prevented by locking people away from their deviant and corrupt families subsided (Gibson 2011, p. 1043). Penal reform “[gave] … another possibility – another way of making and using prisons … A fundamental tenet of penal reform was that under certain circumstances the character of an offender would inevitably shift from vice towards virtue” (Evans 1982, p. 47). Thus, for Rothman, referring to the Anglo‐US context, there was a clear “revolution in social practice in the 1820s” (1971, p. xvii–xviii); prison‐based education, therapy and/or employment became a means of preventing recidivism, changing the very condition of being of the prisoner.

In sum, Foucault (1977/1991) argues that there was a transition from the power of the state, focused on the body, to the power of the state as manifest in the regulatory fabric of society; and, this becomes the relationship between governmentality and state‐building. This latter issue has become the founding premise of much contemporary geographic scholarship on prisons (see Christie 2000; Gilmore 1999, 2002, 2007; Rose 1999; Wacquant 2000, 2001a,b, 2002). Certainly, for Marxist and Neo‐Marxist historians the increase in prisons was very much related to social control, these sites serving to instil a discipline into the working classes through ‘habits of industry’ (Garland 1990). Indeed, many people subscribe to this rhetoric today (British Conservative Party 2008; Westminster Advisers 2010).

It should also be noted, however, that there have emerged explicitly geographical accounts as to why such a change occurred, wherein mobility and place become key. Ireland (2007), for example, notes how previously popular punishments such as whipping and pillory relied on public humiliation to identify offenders and discourage others. This served a moral purpose in an intimate, feudal society, but less so in a society of “flux and dislocation”. The British population, for example, increased from 6.5 million in 1771 to 21.5 million in 1871. For the first time in 1851, an increased desire for employment saw the urban population overtake the rural. These larger urban populations, coupled with parallel developments in canal, road, and most radically, rail infrastructure rendered people more mobile, and less likely to know each other. This made the notion of public reputation redundant. These punishments became simply pain, “stripping punishment of its social meaning” (Ireland 2007, p. 24). The rapid development in international trade and ship networks allowed transportation as a punishment, but consequently also increased emigration. The ‘shrinkage of the world’ was contrary to transportation as a punishment because people simply found their way back (Durston 2005; Morgan and Rushton 2003), thus bolstering the argument for imprisonment as a widespread response to crime. As Ireland explains, “the more that criminality became perceived as mobile, the more that punishment comes to be redefined as fixative” (2007, p. 30). The prison now functioned as the primary method of punishment for offenders; and, in 1877, a government‐funded, regulated and standardised prison system was formed in England and Wales. A penal regime linked each offender to a central authority, not only fixing them in one place, but formally recognising their criminality if they travelled outside of their locality.

For Martin and Mitchelson, imprisonment is analytically separate from detention by virtue of the fact that prisons punish those who have been convicted of crimes, whereas detention “refers to the use of incarceration by states to contain people who are not necessarily charged with crimes” (2009, p. 465). However, I would suggest, if we continue to build our prison geographies upon Foucauldian constructions of a rehabilitative ‘birth’, then such terms can be usefully specified to capture the notion of reform or purposeful change of behaviour, as compared with detention per se. Martin and Mitchelson argue that “ ‘imprisonment’ and ‘detention’ [are] intentional practices that (i) restrict individuals’ ability to move from one place to another and (ii) impose orders of space and time so that individual mobility is highly constrained, if not eliminated. In short, detention and imprisonment refer to human beings ‘held’ without consent by other human beings. Violence distinguishes these practices from more banal or irritating events” (2009, p. 460). Such definitional terms pay minimal attention to the concept of imprisonment as a useful project for rehabilitation, I want to suggest, as well as broader issues of identity formation. This would lead me to consider a clarification of terminology; to consider ‘detention’ sites as those which merely detain and confine, as opposed to those sites of ‘imprisonment’ in the Foucauldian sense – those that purposefully encompass some kind of method to ensure a positive alteration of the behaviour of those it incarcerates.

An empirical diversity, to be sure renders attempts to clarify terminology problematic. Yet, I want to suggest, such discussions can open up debate around the specificity of penal regimes, wherein particular state‐led practices are tied into differing forms of biopolitics. And, the importance of specificity has been stressed by scholars working on prison systems in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, focusing on the critical import of colonialism and racism. For example, Super (2011) illustrates the relationship between punishment and the body in South Africa as highly separate from the Anglo‐American/European discourse; here the emergence of a more humanistic era of prison policy follows on from post‐apartheid conditions. In similar vein, Birkbeck (2011) recognises key differences between North and Latin America in terms of attitudes and functions of prisons. North American prisons are said to be much aligned with the traditional Foucauldian ideas of spatially concentrated disciplinary technologies, which aim to reform the prisoner. In contrast, he finds that prison life in Latin America is characterised by a much harsher, more makeshift regime of unrest and inmate governance, with too much focus on containment (internment). Indeed, for Birkbeck, projects for ‘doing something’ represent a crucial difference between imprisonment and detention.

Pratt (2011) observes that the civilising process and prison reform is highly contingent even within nation‐states such as the US, with chain gangs, vigilantism and the use of the death penalty widely continuing in southern states. There has also been a ‘recourse’ to the more expressive and severe penalties such as the Supermax prison or examples such as the stiffer sentences for gang members and drug‐related crimes (made notorious by New York governor Nelson Rockefeller), driven by public opinion rather than any expert knowledge. In contrast, Scandinavian countries such as Sweden (Pratt 2002, 2008, 2011; Pratt and Eriksson 2011) and Norway (Baer and Ravneberg 2008) experienced at least a de facto cessation of the death penalty in the nineteenth century, and are renowned for both the lowest levels of imprisonment in the West and for humane ‘civilised’ prison conditions (Pratt 2011, p. 228). Wicker argues that “most American inmates would regard … Sweden’s maximum security penitentiary – as a country club” (1975, p. 14). Furthermore, the matter is complicated by the phenomena of ‘crimmigration’. This process, often stimulated by processes of globalisation or law‐changes, results in the criminalisation of immigration (Pakes 2012; Stumpf 2011; Ugelvik and Hudson 2012). This sees illegal immigrants detained in ‘mainstream’ prisons and subjected to the same ‘corrective’ regimes as ‘mainstream’ prisoners, regardless of whether they have committed the same kind of crimes.

It is becoming clear, Pratt concludes, that “the civilizing process as it related to prison and penal development … should be understood as a continuum rather than some uniform standard”(2011, p. 228). As I go on to argue below, if we acknowledge the salience of this critique, then it is possible to introduce a welter of concepts and ideas from the cultural geography repertoire into the study of prisoner reform and rehabilitation.

The Future of Prison Geographies: Cultural Geographies and Interdisciplinary Relationships

Reform and rehabilitation, I want to note here, are crucial issues not only in regard to the design and implementation of prison policy and practice, as well as the prison experience, but also in regard to how prisons interact with the ‘outside’ world. Researchers’ access to prisons, for example, is very much shaped by concerns around how such work will impede/buttress the work of rehabilitation (Liebling 1999; Quina et al. 2007), whilst concerns around the media representations of prison life often dwell on the perception of rehabilitation programmes funded by tax payers (Applegate et al. 1997; Berlin and Malin 1991; Cavender 2004; Cheliotis 2010; Lenz 2002).

Nevertheless, it is encouraging to note that increasing numbers of cultural geographers are negotiating access and beginning to engage with the prison environment. An attempt to document the mundane activities of prison life – and their symbolic as well as affective importance – is increasingly visible. This can be seen in the focus on such things as the significance of displaying toiletries and air fresheners in cells (Baer 2005); the role of vision in the production of spaces (Van Hoven and Sibley 2008); and the link between imposed penal architecture and public ideas about prison agendas (Jewkes 2010). Other work concerns the apparent complexity of personal attachments to the prison environment, and the potential impact this has for rehabilitative activities. Cohen (2012), for example, calls for a renewed attention to the processes which create a sense of place in the arguably ‘placeless’ prison. He assesses the transformation of prison space that can occur in the classroom, the visiting room, the clinic, the workplace, and the studio, and demonstrates their potential for constructive engagement, and therefore recidivism. In this, we find a wealth of opportunity to consider how (variously accessible) vernacular aspects of everyday life – a current discourse for cultural geographers – become a reservoir for the performance of appropriate prisoner behaviours. A lead could be taken from Bosworth (2007), who discusses how everyday language used in prisoner information pamphlets may have an impact upon social rehabilitation. She writes that their corporate style “once translated into the mundane and the banal, have, in turn, become the values inscribed in, and underpinning, the experience of prison itself” (Bosworth 2007, p. 68).

Moran et al. (2009), discuss how institutional activities are assigned according to strict gender stereotypes, reflecting wider societal ideologies as to appropriate behaviour. Such work builds on Burchell’s account of the making of the responsible citizen, wherein, “the promotion in the governed population of specific techniques of the self around such questions as, for example, saving and ‘providentialism’, the acquisition of ways of performing roles like father or mother, the development of habits of cleanliness, sobriety, fidelity, self‐improvement, responsibility and so on”(1996, p. 25). Other recent work has considered governmentality and technologies of citizenship within prisons (Turner 2012). Here, rehabilitation programmes stimulate the constuction of prisoners who reflect the ‘ideal citizen’ in liberal society by encouraging useful employment or reinforcing bonds with children.

There has also emerged a line of inquiry into the paradoxical status of the prisoner, as both outside of the fabric of society, and aspirant for re‐integration (Gill 2010, 2011; Lowen 2011; Michalon and Clochard 2010; Mitchelson 2010; Moran 2012). Rose (2000) describes a situation wherein incarceration has been used to detain members of society who detract from the ideal, even though these ‘incorrigible individuals’ are then supposed to conform to the concept of the responsible, modern citizen. Rehabilitation strategies used in order to create this condition, he argues, are a form of ‘work experience’ in this regard (Rose 2000, p. 330). The intent here is to ‘remoralize’ and ‘responsibilize’ individuals such that they are able to work without benefit and further support: in short, “to reconstruct self‐reliance in those who are excluded” (Rose 2000, p. 334). Isin and Nielsen refer to these as ‘acts of citizenship’; that is, situations that empower people enough to be able to claim their rights as well as perform their obligations (2008, p. 2). Similar examples of projects designed to help prisoners gain a sense of ‘giving something back’ through purposeful endeavours includes such things as the US ‘Puppies behind Bars project’ where prisoners raise guide dogs for the blind (Cheakalos 2004) or ‘strengths‐based’ or ‘restorative’ activities with ‘worthy causes’ including repair of wheelchairs and community regeneration schemes (Burnett and Maruna 2006), and helping the elderly (Toch 2000).

To date, these interventions do not as yet parallel the breadth of issues tackled in other disciplines, particularly sociology, anthropology and performance studies, wherein we can find, for example, work on the vital and damaging links between families and their incarcerated relatives (Christian and Kennedy 2011; Dunning‐Lozano 2011; Leverentz 2011; Novero et al. 2011), and the study of prison officers and how their particular work ethics can influence behaviour and individuals’ motivation for reform (Nielsen 2011; Tait 2011). Recent work here goes beyond the construction of the incarcerated individual as a ‘passive’ subject, noting instead the agency of the prisoner in shaping research carried out upon them (Edens et al. 2011; Fraser et al. 2010); or prisoners taking direct action to prevent themselves becoming associated with negative identity constructions (Sloan 2012). Thus, if we consider rehabilitation to involve offenders actively making choices about and changes to their lives, there are clear pathways which would create a demand for research which engages with the prison as an affective environment. Scholars comment upon such things as the better access to healthcare within some prisons (Moffic 2010); to the changing ‘sense of well‐being’ (O’Callaghan et al. 2009); or indeed, the friendships that may occur from time spent in prison (Bronson 2008; Caine 2006). These findings point to a more complex, sometimes positive, experience of prison life, wherein rehabilitation, for example, becomes a means of animating feelings of trust, friendship and so on.


In view of the above, I want to conclude by calling for a renewed interest in the relational, fluid, contradictory and nuanced spaces of imprisonment. The repertoire of cultural geography is well‐placed to theorise imprisonment in alternative ways, particularly in regard to the affective nature of imprisonment via, for example, carceral spectacles and the media; or the embodiment and performance of relationships between prison and society. These avenues are being tentatively explored by Gould (2011), who questions our individual perceptions of the prison world in relation to the performance of media spectacle, and Cohen (2011), who dwells on the importance of acknowledging an embodied, penal experience; as well as McWatters (2010) and Mitchelson (2010), who emphasise the narrativisation of prisoners. In considering a more cultural attention to spaces of imprisonment, I want to argue, there is much here to inspire future efforts.


  • * Correspondence address: Jennifer Turner, Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University, Aberystwyth, SY23 3DB. E‐mail: jet08@aber.ac.uk
  • 1 Such fluidity can be seen in the emergence of the prison as a site of incarceration. Geltner, for example, posits that in Europe, prisons were often makeshift structures and usually held people for limited durations. They were also run as independent private institutions, generally for the profit of the principle gaoler. Ireland (2007) argues that prison was defined as the primary punishment, but the penchant for making money from debtors obscured the ability to use it in any productive way, while Dunbabin (2002) offers insight into the varying styles of imprisonment across Europe from 1000–1300.
  • Short Biography

    Jennifer Turner is a Doctoral student at Aberystwyth University where her research focuses upon the emergence and transformation of the political‐cultural formations associated with the penal system in the Twenty‐first Century; concentrating more implicitly on the personal relationships that exist between offenders on the inside and the communities on the outside. Underpinning this is an interest in how everyday performances of these connections construct, reinforce and transgress the boundary between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of society. She has also authored papers for Aether: the media geography journal and Space and Polity as well as joining recent conference proceedings around the area of ‘carceral geographies’. She holds a BA in Geography and an MA in Space, Place and Politics from Aberystwyth University.

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