CrossRef citations to date
Research Article

The prison as a postmilitary landscape

La prisión como paisaje posmilitar

La prison en tant que paysage post-militaire

Received 04 Mar 2021
Accepted 17 Jul 2021
Published online: 15 Oct 2021


This paper extends discussions of military and post-military landscapes, and prior theorisation of the prison-military complex. In so doing it highlights as-yet unresearched synergies between the prison and the military which take form through the repurposing of former military bases as prisons, the creation of carceral landscapes of military memorial, and the imprint left by generations of ex-military personnel occupying the prison (both as prisoners and prison staff) during the post-military phases of their lives. Consideration of these circumstances unveils prisons as postmilitary landscapes and enables a reconceptualization of the potential scope of military and post-military landscapes in general. It concludes by outlining a potential research agenda for carceral and military geographers in relation to military, post-military and postmilitary landscapes, and the prison-military complex.


Este artículo amplía las discusiones sobre paisajes militares y post-militares, y la teorización previa del complejo prisión-militar. Al hacerlo, destaca las sinergias aún no investigadas entre la prisión y el ejército que toman forma a través de la reutilización de antiguas basis militares como cárceles, la creación de paisajes carcelarios de memorial militar y la huella dejada por generaciones de exmilitares ocupando la prisión (tanto como prisioneros como personal penitenciario) durante las fases posmilitares de sus vidas. La consideración de estas circunstancias revela a las prisiones como paisajes posmilitares y permite una reconceptualización del alcance potencial de los paisajes militares y post-militares en general. Concluye delineando una posible agenda de investigación para geógrafos carcelarios y militares en relación con los paisajes militares, post-militares y posmilitares, y el complejo carcelario-militar.


Cet article ajoute aux débats sur les environnements militaires et post-militaires, et la théorisation préalable sur le complexe carcéro-militaire. Ce faisant, il souligne les synergies, qui n’ont fait jusque-là l’objet d’aucune étude, entre la prison et le militaire, qui se manifestent par le biais des reconversions d’anciennes bases militaires en prisons, de la création de cadres carcéraux de commémoration militaire, et de l’empreinte laissée par des générations d’anciens militaires qui occupent les prisons (en tant que prisonniers aussi bien qu’employés) pendant la période de leur vie qui prend place après leur carrière dans l’armée. La prise en compte de ces circonstances présente les prisons comme des environnements post-militaires et permet une reconceptualisation de la portée potentielle des environnements militaires et post-militaires en général. Il conclut en mettant en évidence un programme de recherche potentiel pour les géographes carcéraux et militaires par rapport aux environnements militaires, post-militaires et postmilitaires, et le complexe carcéro-militaire.


In the summer of 2020, young men incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Young Offender Institution (HMYOI) Wetherby in West Yorkshire, UK, were busy with activity packs commemorating the centenary of the end of World War I and the 75th anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe in World War II) Day (HMYOI Wetherby [@HMYOI_Wetherby], 2020a). They worked on these packs in buildings that had previously served as HMS Ceres – a naval shore training establishment for 1000 military personnel – built in 1942 (HMYOI Wetherby [@HMYOI_Wetherby], 2020c). On the anniversary, they and prison staff had ‘a bit of a dress up, a bit of a bake off, and then a dance to Glenn Miller (HMYOI Wetherby [@HMYOI_Wetherby], 2020b, no page) before the young men returned to their normal activities. For some, this included participation in the UK’s only prison-based Army Cadets unit (Forces Network, 2020). These young men housed in former-military buildings, participating in military training, celebrating moments in military history, and supervised by prison personnel who are very likely to include ex-military personnel (Moran & Turner, 2021a, 2021b; Moran et al., 2019; Turner & Moran, 2021), are indicative of ‘the deep-rooted, long-standing, widespread, and diverse connections between prisons and the military’ conceived of as the ‘prison-military complex’ (Moran et al., 2019, p. 221). In this critical intervention, Moran et al. (2019) addressed Foucault’s often-cited observation that ‘prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons’ (1991, p. 228) drawing renewed attention to the assumed similarities between such institutions. Pointing to senior leadership of prisons by ex-military personnel; military contingency planning for prisons; the incarceration of military veterans; military ranks and quasi-military insignia in prisons; ex-military personnel employed as prison staff, and so on, they argued that these phenomena comprise ‘a complex web of connections … that is both under-researched, and whose significance … is underestimated’ (ibid). Critically, they called for a full exegesis of the multidirectional interpenetration of the prison and the military, and the web of practical and conceptual connections between them, through which carceral techniques and practices inform military activities and vice versa. This call echoes the broader concerns of critical scholars and campaigners who have drawn attention to synergies between the military and the carceral more generally. Mountz et al. (2013) and Sudbury (2004) have called for greater attention to the militarized basis of contemporary imprisonment and detention, and long histories of war-making and colonialism underscore the deployment of imprisonment and detention within imperialism and capitalism (Simon, 1998). These works draw attention to the intertwinement of the military and the carceral, pointing out their structural similarities, their interdependencies and the need to consider them as integral parts of capitalist and imperialist structures whilst calling for more attention to be paid to the specific nature of these connections.

This paper extends this inquiry. Specifically, and as a distinct contribution, we consider the ways in which the built environment of prisons, both through their material origins and the ways in which they commemorate military activity, serve to (re)constitute understandings of postmilitary (and post-military) landscapes. We first consider prior scholarship of military and post-military landscapes before situating the prison within this scholarship and noting the lacunae in these literatures in relation to sites of incarceration. We next discuss a series of examples of prisons built on military bases and/or retaining military infrastructure, before considering alternative ways in which prisons might be considered ‘post-military’ landscapes. We think through the ways in which prisons additionally create landscapes of commemoration of past military activity; landscapes which deploy military iconography to recognise the previous military service of many incarcerated individuals; and consider how prisons are shaped and influenced by people inhabiting them during their own ‘post-military’ lives, after military service. Moving toward a conclusion in which we propose ‘postmilitary’ as a descriptor for some of the circumstances we encounter, we suggest that rather than referring simply to what comes ‘after’ a military designation, this period has its own characteristics worthy of further consideration.

First, though, we reflect on some key terminology framing our understanding of these landscapes.

Military, post-military (and postmilitary) landscapes

Our focus is on prisons as landscapes that have a variety of relationships with military pasts and presents. The three terms in this subtitle reflect the complexity in those relationships and how we understand them.

We have been informed by extensive prior scholarship of military and post-military landscapes. Military landscapes have a variety of definitions. For some they are simply the landscapes associated with different military and related activities (Pearson, 2012); different types of military features (Osborne, 2004); or military conflict (Muir, 1999). In setting out a broader definition of military landscapes reflecting ‘in their constitution and expression the imprint of military activities, militarism and militarization’ Woodward (2014, p. 41) opens out the possibility to explore a wide range both of modalities through which this ‘imprint’ might be created, experienced and understood, and of places in which it might be recognised. For example, Woodward (2014, p. 44) posited how landscapes of mourning and remembrance for past military events can also be understood as military landscapes, active in the collective memory and performance of military practice in the present. However, as with memorial landscapes in general, there is a constant interplay of remembrance and forgetting connected with these sites, with multiple and diverse interpretations both between individuals and communities and over time. Just as the (re)interpretation of these sites is contingent upon changing social, economic and political contexts, so memorial landscapes themselves are shaped and reshaped in situ in relation to prevalent notions of nationhood, memory and the military, and in relation to the identity of the communities to whom the monument relates. As such, and as Rech and Yarwood (2019) identify, the interplay between military past and military present is full of temporal ambiguity.

Accordingly, a wealth of emergent literature has harnessed the potential to explore ‘post-military landscapes’: defined as ‘those without a military function in the present, but where the imprint of a former military function remains too pervasive to enable the erasure of their military origins’ (Woodward, 2014, p. 46). Woodward gives examples such as remnants of Cold War defence landscapes still visible across Europe and North America (see Havlick, 2007, 2011); and a multitude of studies explore a variety of cases across the globe, such as remnants of field fortifications like infantry entrenchments in South Moravia (Czech Republic) (Zubalík, 2020). Much of this literature focuses on the (re)use and (trans)formation of former military landscapes. Speer (2016) exemplifies the adaptive reuse of the ‘architecture in uniform’ of New Zealand’s surviving World War II US Navy Magazine stores, which play a crucial role in narrating the island’s history. Tomek (2017) explores the legal (and illegal) use of spaces in Milovice, a Soviet military city in the former Czechoslovakia, for paintball games and as destinations for car club meets, raves and ‘urban explorations’. Lorke (2017) highlights the creation of bodily and sensory tourist experiences following the withdrawal of Russian troops from Wünsdorf in former East Germany in 1994, which included guided tours, hands-on experiences with military vehicles and re-enactment of daily life. Former military bases commonly become destinations for tourists seeking education (and often entertainment) about particular conflicts, or military history in general (Demski, 2017; Strömberg, 2013), and, in these sites, the very materiality of military landscapes is essential to the re-use of these spaces since it is arguably ‘the original military features and aesthetics that attract tourists’ (Seljamaa et al., 2017, p. 13). That said, in many more numerous examples, former sites are left undeveloped – perhaps due to the post-conflict poverty of particular areas – or are left unfulfilled by the ‘broken promises of tourism’ created by a prioritising of development in other areas (ibid, p. 12). Such studies also extend to the biodiversity of historical defence sites (Havlick, 2007, 2011; Svenningsen et al., 2019) and the impact upon insect species in post-military landscapes typically characterised by fewer trees, less canopy cover, and more bare and compacted soils following military activities (Graham et al., 2008). In some places, landscapes that have been invaded by military activity may be considered, perversely, ‘full of life’. For Guo (2018, p. v), these ‘cyborg’ landscapes, ordinarily ‘weaponized, contaminated, protected [environments] … that [deter] regular human activity’ actually facilitate the refuge of certain animal species – rendering these places not just post-military but post-human too.

But what of the significance of this re-use and spatial transformation? As Strömberg explains, ‘reuse of buildings is not an utterly new phenomenon: temples, fora and amphitheatres, for example, were commonly reused in Rome as dwellings after the fall of the Roman Empire’ (2013, p. 68) and such transformations are often a result of significant social crises or structural change. We can easily find parallels in the dramatic changes to landscapes as a result of industrialisation and deindustrialisation. The prison system is one such institution subject to considerable transformation as a response to societal crises and, in particular, as a result of war. Prison spaces have developed quite clearly (and often quite crucially) within, around, and in conjunction with military activities. Indeed, the prison-military complex clearly posits landscapes of incarceration as sharing common ground with military landscapes (see Moran et al., 2019), demanding consideration of the synergies between the two. Thus far, such works have yet to further unpack the nuances of post-military theorisations in relation to prison space. Although examples of prisons are enabled by and/or utilised during ongoing military activities such as in war, it is more commonly the case that many contemporary prison spaces are a result of the conversion of military bases into prisons, and, as Moran et al. (2019) note, are crucially linked to the military through the presence of ex-military personnel as both prisoners and prison staff. Such realisations of the complex web of interactions between present and former military activities in the present prison landscape query the temporal theorisation of military space itself. Indeed, in their role in setting out an agenda for future research into military landscapes, Woodward identified that post-military landscapes demand interpretative frames which ‘take as their starting point the continuity of military imprint despite the removal of military power and control, and require us to look to their present and future’ (ibid) particularly in relation to use as places of heritage and memorial oriented to ideas of post-conflict resolution (Iversen et al., 2007). The study of post-military and, particularly, post-war sites can be critical for the selection of sites for preservation and heritage management (Van den Berghe et al., 2018), itself a complex and highly politicised task. For Strömberg (2013, p. 79) we may find merit in considering a wider range of the ‘potential benefits in reusing the residual materiality of war and its constant preparations’ such as new development of areas in economic decline (materially, or at least symbolically) in addition to this preservation, heritage and memorialisation activities that such creative reuse may promote.

Whilst this definition undoubtedly enables exploration of the longevity and endurance of military power as a landscaping agent, such as in Cold War sites, it arguably limits the scope of the term to those landscapes which once had (but no longer have) an overtly military function. The current scholarly focus on post-military landscapes seems only to extend to sites where the landscape was once military, but where that military function has now ceased, rendering it ‘post’-military. In this sense, the prefix ‘post’ implies a circumstance that is subsequent to military function, happening after it, but does not describe exactly what relationship the ‘post-military’ holds to the ‘military’, beyond its chronology. However, such a linear, chronological ontology may not capture the complexity of the circumstances of, in particular, the landscapes that comprise the prison-military complex. As Strömberg borrowing from Shaw (1991) continues, ‘just as post-industrialism does not abolish industry, or post-modernism modernity, so post-militarism, while it transforms the military and militarism, does not remove them from central positions in the social structure’. Nielsen and Sveningsen (2018) urge us to look beyond the materiality of conflict to conceptualise military landscapes as belonging to a complex system of social interactions, which are constantly changing in accordance with the practices and performances of a relationship between military and civil society. Returning to Woodward’s discussion of military memorials, we recognise the significance of the military past and its interplay with the very active practices of collective memory and current military performances centralised around such moments in the present day. Accordingly, the monument is both significant in its role in memorialising the after of war but is also, simultaneously, no less indicative of its situation within the current and now of the military landscape, albeit in re-conceived and reconstructed ways.

A debate about the value of such terminology may be an issue of semantics, but it is pertinent nevertheless. We might reasonably ask whether an abandoned military base, for example, ceases entirely to be ‘military’ once no longer under military power and control. Is its ‘military-ness’ defined only by formal military usage? Or is it a more intangible quality that might adhere to the built environment itself, or linger in other ways after military personnel have left? The distinction between ‘military’ and ‘post-military’ requires more consideration. Further, and for us more significantly, the period chronologically subsequent to military usage – i.e. happening after it – might be defined as something more than simply ‘post’, or ‘no longer’ military. This is especially the case in relation to landscapes within the prison-military complex, which are, in many cases, built on the remnants of physical military infrastructure, whose functioning regimes share obvious similarities with the routinised life of military service, and where a significant number of former-military personnel spend their lives as both prisoners and staff. How might the relationship between military past and present be usefully conceptualised? We take up this challenge, drawing further attention to these largely unresearched connections, contributing to the development of the full exegesis of the interpenetration between the prison and the military, and importantly, adding to Moran et al. (2019)’s inventory a set of overtly spatial concerns which relate directly to prisons as landscapes inflected by military influence. We suggest that the deployment of an alternative term might tell us more about what the ‘post-military’ might be, beyond the expiration of its ‘military-ness’. We therefore reconsider the (post)military relationship, proposing the term ‘postmilitary’ as a descriptor for some of the circumstances we encounter. We first take forward these ideas by thinking through prisons as post-military, military and postmilitary landscapes.

Prisons and the legacies of military architecture

The complex relationship between prison and (post)military landscapes is evident in the material legacies of military architecture. Some prisons are, so to speak, straightforward post-military landscapes, in that they were previously military bases, converted into prisons. The UK prison estate expanded significantly post-WWII and, as Jewkes and Johnston (2007, p. 187) have noted, many new prisons were opened on the site of military bases. Although many of these post-war prisons are now closed, at least 27 prisons currently operating in England and Wales occupy former military facilities. Many retained military buildings and infrastructure for several decades or more.

For example, premises which are now HMP Drake Hall (Staffordshire) provided accommodation for female munitions workers during WWII (Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP), 2020, p. 9). HMP Ford (West Sussex) was the Royal Naval Air Station Ford, with prisoners now housed within the former Non-Commissioned Officers’ accommodation (Doing Time, n.d. -a; Historic England, 2015a). HMP Guys Marsh (Dorset) was a US Military Hospital, opening as a Borstal in 1960 and accommodating prisoners in WWII Nissen huts (Dorset Echo, 2002). Built on military bases, HMPs Haverigg (Cumbria) (Historic England, 2015b), Hewell (Worcestershire), Kirkham (Lancashire) and Wealstun (West Yorkshire) still retain WWII military buildings (Historic England, 2015i; Prison Phone, 2018). HMP Leyhill (Gloucestershire) was a WWII US Army hospital and retains several buildings from this period (Historic England, 2015d). At HMP Lindholme (South Yorkshire), an RAF base used by a US Air Force detachment at the height of the Cold War, RAF buildings are still in use. According to English Heritage:

The prison occupies an almost complete range of wartime buildings around a large parade ground. The buildings have only been altered in limited ways to make them secure and fit for holding inmates. The messes and administration survive, and some camouflage paintwork marks have survived on several buildings. The Officers’ Mess is now a Category D unit … The Military airfield and radar station are visible as structures on air photographs. Features associated with the airfield include: ordnance stores visible as earthworks and structures, aircraft hangars visible as structures, some practice trenches visible as earthworks, [and] an earthwork bank. (Historic England, 2015e, no page)

Similarly, in Lincolnshire WWII pill boxes and gun emplacements survive from HMP North Sea Camp’s history as a military base (Historic England, 2015f).

However, it is not only the case that former military sites serve to house prisons or that buildings are retained and reused; it is also common for military buildings to be deployed in present prison sites in ways that are the same (or very similar) to their original purpose. For example, until the 1980s at HMP Standford Hill (Kent) (previously RAF Eastchurch, an air base during the Battle of Britain), prisoner accommodation was in military huts dating from 1923 to 1945 (Historic England, 2015g). Prisoners at HMP Sudbury (Derbyshire) are still housed in accommodation built as a US Air Force hospital for the D-Day landings (Doing Time, n.d. -b; Historic England, 2015h). HMP The Verne (Dorset) was an infantry barracks and training centre (Historic England, 2015j) and, as noted earlier, HMYOI Wetherby was previously naval station HMS Ceres. RAF Bishopbriggs near Glasgow was initially converted into HMP Low Moss in 1968. Before the redevelopment of the site in the 2000s, prison accommodation comprised eleven Nissen-hut dormitory-style units retained from the military use of the site (Secret Scotland, 2014).

Although World War II provided numerous former military bases which were later occupied by prisons, this type of transfer of infrastructure has also taken place much more recently. For example, HMP Highpoint (Suffolk) occupies the site of the former RAF Stradishall, a military base until 1970, when it was put to use as a transit camp for Ugandan refugees expelled by Idi Amin (Historic England, 2015c). Opened as a prison in 1977, the site retains military buildings such as the officers’ mess, and former RAF billets which serve as accommodation blocks. More recently still, at HMP Bure (Norfolk) (Figure 1), prisoners are held in the accommodation blocks, junior ranks' mess and social club of the former airbase RAF Coltishall (Smith, 2019). Built during World War II as a base for night fighters and ground-attack aircraft, the base was later home to the ‘Jaguar Force’, part of British military operations during the 1991 Gulf War. Following defence cuts and RAF reorganisation, it closed in 2006 and, 3 years later, plans for a new prison on the site were approved. Speaking at the time about the proposed change of use, HMP Bure’s governor-designate described the opportunity to redeploy military buildings as a major advantage: ‘These are very solid buildings. They were built to withstand the Luftwaffe. They make perfect sense for placing prisoners within them’ (BBC News, 2009, no page).

Figure 1. Aerial photograph of HMP Bure, formerly RAF Coltishall. The prison comprises the cluster of original military buildings (including H blocks) at bottom left, enclosed within a new perimeter wall, and centred around the original parade ground (now a sports field). Military aircraft hangars and the airfield itself are clearly visible, beyond the prison complex, at the top and centre

Source: John Fielding (CC BY 2.0)

Thus far we have considered the ways in which prisons are entangled with military landscapes through the redeployment of military bases and the retention of military structures and infrastructure (for purposes both similar to and different from their intended military function). At sites such as HMPs Bure, Highpoint and Sudbury, the imprint of a former military function remains, but very little is known about the extent to which this military legacy is either recognised by current occupants, or obvious enough to be noticed by those unaware of their military histories. Further research could explore the experience of these post-military landscapes and any lasting effects of the imprint of military activity. Yet, although we may know little about how residents and staff engage with the military history of these buildings, there are numerous indications that the prison-military complex takes form both in the preservation of military and post-military landscapes within prisons, and in their conscious creation. Such conscious landscape creations also demand reconsideration of military landscapes in their past and present form. Sites that were once, but are no longer, used by military organisations, but which retain their original functions and purpose – such as sleeping accommodation – blur the boundaries of what could be considered discretely as either military or post-military landscapes.

Prisons as sites of military memory

The social interactions around (post)military landscapes also permeate the prison and complicate these temporal relationships in their existence and performance as sites of military memory. Whether or not they were themselves constructed out of military bases, many prisons now feature military landscapes of commemoration. War memorials of various types are very common, often honouring prison staff (and occasionally prisoners) who lost their lives in military conflict. Although military memorial landscapes in general have been extensively researched,1 to the best of our knowledge there have been no prior studies of such landscapes within prisons. Research access to such sites is challenging, but our preliminary investigations suggest that in the UK alone there are a range of memorials of varying age and scale, whose construction and preservation offer insights into the prison-military complex.

At HMP Whitemoor, Cambridgeshire, memorial trees planted in 2020 commemorate military personnel from nearby RAF Marham, killed when their aircraft crashed into the prison grounds during a 1941 training flight (Mason, 2020). The war memorial at HMP Glenochil (Southern Scotland) (Stirling Observer, 2017) won a prize from Legion Scotland, and is the focus of annual commemorations (Connor, 2019). Just as major banks and railway operators erected memorials to fallen employees at branches where they had worked (Barnes & Newton, 2018), so did the Prison Service. A small number of these are listed in national inventories of war memorials, such as a framed board in the chapel at HMP Wandsworth (London) (War Memorials Online, n.d.-c), and brass plaques at HMP Isle of Wight commemorating prisoners from the former HMPs Parkhurst and Camp Hill, who died on active service whilst on release as volunteers (Memorials & Monuments on the Isle of Wight, 2021a, 2021b; War Memorials Online, n.d.-a, n.d.-b). In the Governor’s Corridor at HMP Pentonville (London), a framed copper plaque remembers prison officers killed in the Great War (Imperial War Museum, n.d.-a), and at HMP Bullingdon (Oxfordshire), a roll of honour relocated from now-closed HMP Oxford is framed in the main entrance foyer (Imperial War Museum, n.d.-b). In many cases, these memorials perform the same role as those in many workplaces across the country.

There are several notable examples of war memorials within prisons, one dating back more than a century, and others created relatively recently.

HMP Dartmoor (Devon) has a hexagonal granite gateway recollecting the main prison entrance, memorializing 271 Americans who died there as Prisoners of War (PoWs) during the Anglo-American War 1812–5. They had been buried in unmarked fields outside the prison walls alongside 1200 French PoWs also held at Dartmoor during the 1809–16 Napoleonic Wars. In the 1860s, after human remains had repeatedly resurfaced during the cultivation of these fields, the prison governor had the bodies exhumed and reinterred in two separate cemeteries, each with a stone commemorative obelisk made by contemporary prisoners. In 1928 the ‘United States Daughters of 1812', an organisation active in commemoration of historic sites, presented the gateway for the American cemetery, to which cast iron gates presented by members of the US Navy were later added. In 2003, at the instigation of American Naval personnel based at St. Mawgan in nearby Cornwall, the American cemetery was cleared of vegetation and debris, both obelisks were cleaned and restored, and a flagpole and seats were added. This work was completed by the prison’s own Works department (James, 2013). Two further marble memorials were erected behind the American obelisk, inscribed with the names of the American PoWs (Historic England., 2016), with funds raised in part from UK-based US service personnel, organised by a US Naval Veteran. A dedication service was attended by representatives of all three American armed services alongside prison officials. The American cemetery is now the setting for services and reenactments, most recently marking the 200th anniversary of the Americans’ march from Plymouth, where they had been captured, to Dartmoor prison (BBC News, 2013). These events, the active role taken by military organisations in pressing for and funding the gateway and the more recent commemorative features, indicate that this site has become a site of negotiation and cooperation between the US military and military personnel, as well as US civilian organisations commemorating military history, with successive prison governors, and prison staff and prisoners who at various times have contributed to the construction and maintenance of the site.

Although relatively little is known about the erection of the 1860s Dartmoor obelisks, the participation of prisoners is a recurring theme in the creation of military landscapes of commemoration. In some prisons, memorials are erected with an express purpose of bringing together the rehabilitative function of the prison with the act of commemoration itself. As part of national remembrance of the 2018 centenary of the end of the Great War, at HMP Northumberland (North East England), incarcerated men training in construction, creativity, English and mathematics worked together to design and create a permanent war memorial to veterans and those who had previously worked at the former RAF Acklington, on whose site HMPs Acklington and Castington (the two prisons which later merged into HMP Northumberland) had been opened. The prison director commented that the memorial had ‘special significance’ given the history of the site, and a press release highlighted the contribution of an incarcerated veteran training to become a bricklayer. Members of an Armed Forces charity attended a dedication ceremony led by an RAF chaplain, alongside veterans and local dignitaries (Novus, 2018, February).

In the same year, at HMP Erlestoke, Wiltshire, incarcerated men also designed a war memorial, this time crafted by stonemasons from nearby Salisbury Cathedral. Local press coverage described it thus:

The badges of the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force have been carved on the monument – with the words land, sea and air inscribed beneath. A gun with a helmet is on the fourth side of the structure, under the quotation: “Now listen, For a moment, The world is silent, Peace be with you”. (Press Association, 2018, no page)

The memorial was reportedly part of a wider centenary initiative, which saw prisoners create a magazine of poetry and artwork (Press Association, 2018).

Whereas we know very little about how prisoners and staff experience post-military landscapes in the shape of former military buildings, the sources discussed here tell us much more about how they (have) create(d) and engage(d) with military landscapes of memorial, sometimes in collaboration with contemporary military organisations and personnel. The individual and the local – in the form of memorials to former employees and prisoners, and to military deaths happening proximate to the prison (as at Whitemoor) – merge with the broader sweep of military history and commemoration in another form of spatial expression of the prison-military complex.

Prisons as spaces for life beyond the military

Thus far we have considered the complexities of the prisons as (post)military landscapes in terms of material infrastructure (occupying previous military bases, and/or housing military memorialisation) and the performances that are predicated on such materiality. Next, we consider the possibility that prisons may also exhibit relationships with military landscapes as settings in which individuals live out their (post)military lives. We focus first on the incarceration of military veterans, or Veterans-in-Custodys (VICs), before considering the experience of military veterans working as prison staff.

It is estimated that there are 3.8 million ex-Service personnel in England (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), 2014, p. 4, drawing on 2007 data from the ONS), equating to 9.1% of the population. The post-military period, commonly termed ‘military-civilian transition’, is recognised to be challenging, and the spectrum of potential outcomes ranges from ‘success’ (i.e. transitioning into functioning civilian citizenship, having a job, paying taxes, etc.) to ‘failure’ (which can include unemployment, homelessness and incarceration). Leavers are told to expect the return to civilian life to be ‘stressful’, and to require some ‘personal adjustment’ (British Army, 2018, no page), reflecting the fact that being in the military will inevitably have influenced the development of their identities (Cowen, 2005; Riley & Bateman, 1987; Walker, 2013). Extensive research has demonstrated that military veterans commonly experience ‘significant cultural, social and spatial changes’ (Herman & Yarwood, 2014, pp. 41–2, 49), with some facing feelings of abandonment and dislocation, and sometimes mental health and physical health problems (see Brewin et al., 2011; Buckman et al., 2012; Hatch et al., 2013; Iversen & Greenberg, 2009; Iversen et al., 2007). Even many years after leaving the military, as Ruth Jolly (1996) noted, identity will often be tied to a notion of the self as ex-military. Whilst most ex-military personnel experience military–civilian transition relatively seamlessly, require no assistance with employment, debt, homelessness, relationship breakdown or poor health (Ashcroft, 2014, p. 125) and go on to have second careers (Herman & Yarwood, 2014, pp. 41–2; Walker, 2013) these apparent ‘success’ stories go largely unquestioned, with most research effort understandably focused on experiences of, and reasons for, ‘failure’ in transition.

The majority of ex-military personnel do not become involved with the criminal justice system as offenders (Moran et al., 2019). That said, although ex-military personnel may be less likely to offend than the general population, they make up the largest known occupational group in prison (Wainwright et al., 2017, p. 741), representing 7% of the prisoner population of England and Wales (HMIP, 2014). Studies suggest that when ex-military personnel do offend, their offences re more serious, and they receive longer sentences, served in higher security facilities, and more often exhibit mental health or substance abuse problems (HMIP, 2014, p. 5; Iversen & Greenberg, 2009, p. 657; Wainwright et al., 2017, p. 741).

As a result, support schemes for VICs are increasingly common (Bonnett et al., 2014; HMIP, 2014; Iversen & Greenberg, 2009; Murray, 2013, 2014, 2016; Wright, 2012), as are specialist units accommodating only veterans. Although UK source material is scarce, anecdotal observations suggest that where these units exist, they often display military iconography (e.g., military insignia, military helicopters) on wall murals hand-painted by residents. Similar US examples detail military emblems deployed alongside specific spatial layouts and modes of organisation to recall a military landscape familiar to those who have left military service. This report on a specialist veterans unit at Indian Creek Correctional Center in southern Chesapeake, US, is typical:

The white tile floors, cinder-block walls and rows of steel bunks remind Raymond Riddick of the barracks he stayed in during boot camp in the mid-1980s … The logos of every service branch are painted above the entrance of the dorm. The men are supervised by prison guards with military backgrounds, and they are required to keep their beds and clothing shipshape. Each is assigned a job with a military-themed title: The mess crew serves in the kitchen, the hazmat team is responsible for cleaning up spills, and the intel coordinator gathers information on veterans programs that might help inmates once they are released. The voluntary program is open to veterans who have been honorably discharged, have shown good behavior and have fewer than two years left to serve. Beyond the military-themed murals painted on the walls and the neatly made beds, signs that this isn’t a typical prison facility can be heard in the nighttime screams of former soldiers struggling with PTSD, and seen in the bullet scars hidden underneath light-blue uniforms. (Hixenbaugh, 2012, no page)

At Indian Creek, the post-military landscape consists not only of military logos and murals and ‘shipshape’ dorms, but also of post-military bodies, both incarcerated and employed as prison staff, which carry the imprint of military service through bullet scars and the nocturnal trauma of PTSD, but also through a certain military comportment and demeanour, encouraged through familiar drills and organisational style. Overt military comportment and demeanour are readily recognised and encouraged among veteran prisoners, living in spaces emblazoned with military insignia. Units such as Indian Creek may not occur in every establishment, but the simple fact is that there are a lot of ex-military personnel in prisons, and that the influence of military experience is not widely appreciated or understood.

In addition to the presence of former-military personnel as prisoners, a significant number of prison staff also have a military background and are living out their post-military lives in prison space. Data are not routinely collected for staff, but in the UK it is claimed that they were preferred prison recruits in the 1960s (King, 2013), constituting ‘the vast majority’ of staff by the 1980s (Crawley, 2004, p. 14). They apparently sought camaraderie, discipline and job security (Morris & Morris, 1963; Tait, 2011) in the prison system, and it valued their punctuality, obedience and smart appearance (Crawley, 2004). And today, the UK government targets recruits with ‘a sense of duty and discipline’ from the armed forces (Ministry of Justice, 2016, p. 6). Whether finding themselves incarcerated as a result of an inability to cope with civilian life, or working in prison as a new career, for these individuals the post-military period is arguably characterised by a postmilitary milieu of communal spaces, uniforms, regimes, tight schedules, a clear hierarchy of control, a focus on security, and many other ex-military personnel in proximity (Moran & Turner, 2021a, 2021b; Turner & Moran, 2021). In this vein, it is pertinent to consider whether the presence of military structures, symbols and persistent identities serve to materialise a more complex manifestation of the (post)military landscape.

Conclusion and future directions

We highlight three ways in which remnants of military pasts have complex social interactions with landscapes of the prison in the present: the material legacies of military infrastructures, the performance of military memorialisation within prison spaces, and the complex (re)construction of military identities among prisoners and staff with military backgrounds. We argue that the persistence of multiple military pasts in the contemporary prison-military complex demands reconsideration of conceptualisations of post-military landscapes as those which simply exist after that which is military, and which no longer fulfil a military purpose. In the prison system in particular, the materiality of military infrastructure and memorialisation, the subtleties of militarised regimes and the presence of former-military staff and prisoners with persisting military identities tether the afterlives of military landscapes to contemporary performances.

We therefore propose ‘postmilitary’ as a descriptor for some of these circumstances. Removal of a hyphen may seem an inconsequential alteration, but much as ‘post-modern’ differs from ‘postmodern’ – in that one is a historical periodiation and the other conveys an epistemological or theoretical perspective – ‘postmilitary’ differs from ‘post-military’ in that rather than referring to a chronological period ‘after’ military-ness, it suggests that this period has its own characteristics, rather than being defined simply as succeeding something else. Importantly, this term also spans across to parallel scholarly considerations of the lives of military veterans, wherein the period after military service has its own set of characteristics – partially but not entirely defined by the conclusion of military service itself. For these individuals, the post-military period is not just the period of time which comes next; the challenge of (re)integration into civilian life (Higate, 2001) is a thing in and of itself, and indeed in some cases the term postmilitary is deployed to describe it.

In this way, then, we argue that categories of ‘military’ and ‘post-military’ are not mutually exclusive; i.e. that a site could be simultaneously military and post-military. And further, we contend that whether a landscape was ever ‘military’ – in that it was under military power and control – it might still be possible for it to be ‘postmilitary’, in that it is in some way characterised by qualities fundamental to life after the military. And further, it might also be possible for a landscape, such as a prison, to be military, post-military and postmilitary at the same time. Consider again the 2020 VE Day celebrations. HMYOI Wetherby accommodates only young men, meaning that, unlike most prisons in England and Wales, it is likely to have many more military veterans on the staff than within the incarcerated population. We do not know whether it hosts a permanent military memorial, although given the history of the site, this seems likely. Nevertheless, at Wetherby, veterans living out their postmilitary lives in the post-military landscape of the buildings of the former HMP Ceres, assisted incarcerated young men in creating a temporary military landscape of memorial – and probably these scenes were repeated at countless prisons across the country.

These reflections suggest that there is scope for a critical temporality in consideration of the range of connections between the prison and the military embraced by the prison-military complex (Moran et al., 2019). The landscapes identified here are variously suggestive of both the everyday and extraordinary regularities of prison-military interpenetrations. Former-military buildings become everyday prison spaces, inhabited by both ex-military and non-military staff and prisoners, whereas monuments become foci for ceremonial events, interrupting ordinary prison life and revealing the proximity of these ostensibly distinct institutions – not least through their heightened significance for VICs and ex-military personnel.

This paper has made three significant contributions to extant scholarship. First, it has extended our understanding of the under-researched prison-military complex (Moran et al., 2019), offering new insights into the ways in which prisons are articulated with military personnel, military organisations and notions of military history and values. Second, it has identified the potential for prisons to be interpreted as more than simply ‘carceral’ landscapes, but also as landscapes inflected by military influence in a range of different ways; as former military sites, sites of military commemoration, and sites in which significant numbers of former military personnel are collected together, variously recreating quasi-military routines and environments. Thirdly, by thinking through the different ways in which the prison could be a military and/or post-military landscape, and by putting forward an additional category of postmilitary, intended to capture something more than simply the expiration of ‘military-ness’, it has proposed that there is productive tension in considering both how the post(-)military is conceptualised, and how these categorisations might co-exist and interrelate. Our exploration of prisons as military, post-military and/or postmilitary landscapes identifies the enormous potential for further research to interrogate and illuminate both the histories and the lived experiences of these sites, in ways which would both enhance understandings not just of military/post-military/postmilitary landscapes but also of carceral landscapes, and which could motivate much-needed dialogue between military and carceral geography.

Further research might explore the legacies of military architecture within the prison estate, unpacking the processes through which military facilities were selected for use as prisons and interrogating the political, economic and social contexts for those selections at scales from the supranational (such as geopolitical shifts leading to military downsizing and closure of military bases) to the material and personal (such as the local lived experience of closing down, securing, converting and reopening a facility). Work on the memorialisation of military activity could be extended through research into commemorative sites and acts within and related to prisons. And, drawing in the notion of postmilitary lives lived in and through prison, there is scope for further research to trace the ways in which post-military(-base) prisons are lived and worked by post(-)military staff, and the significance of military memorial for them, in such settings. We limit the scope of our analysis here to military bases which become prisons, but military bases also become migrant detention centres (Giannacopoulos & Loughnan, 2020; Lemaire, 2014; Loyd & Mountz, 2018) and there are clearly parallels with the repurposing of military barracks as immigration detention facilities.

Although we situate these concerns primarily in the British context, the prison-military complex defined by Moran et al. (2019) also takes form elsewhere. For example, military bases have also become prisons in the US (McMahon, 1992; Pagel, 1989) and the circumstances of these conversions are similarly under-researched. Although they reflect, in part, the specific histories of the UK military and carceral institutions (which themselves could be better understood), the structural reasons for the patterns and relationships we identify here will have corollaries in other jurisdictions. There is potential for further research both to explore the circumstances under which military bases become prisons in different contexts, and to draw out relationships between these narratives. One such possibility is in relation to shared (post-)colonial military histories and governance systems, as well as more contemporary international military alliances and international networks for exchange of ‘best practice’ in prison management.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).


1 The wealth of literature in this area is too broad to detail here, but see Woodward (2014) for direction towards a range of work in military geographies, in particular.


Alternative formats


Related research

People also read lists articles that other readers of this article have read.

Recommended articles lists articles that we recommend and is powered by our AI driven recommendation engine.

Cited by lists all citing articles based on Crossref citations.
Articles with the Crossref icon will open in a new tab.