Tag Archives: Prison

Violent and dangerous places? How do prisons come to be the way they are, and how can that change?

By Dominique Moran, University of Birmingham; Jennifer Turner, University of Brighton and University of Birmingham; and Yvonne Jewkes, University of Brighton


John M Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

John M Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

The first annual report from Peter Clarke, the new Chief Inspector of Prisons warned of a ‘grim situation’ in England and Wales, with prisons ‘unacceptably violent and dangerous places’. Nick Hardwick, the outgoing inspector had previously described the prison system as being in its worse state for a decade. 

Beyond these ‘violent and dangerous’ prisons, these are turbulent times. New Prime Minister Theresa May removed Michael Gove as Justice Secretary, appointing Liz Truss in his place. The departure of Gove, following his prominent and controversial role in Brexit, has drawn additional attention to the criminal justice system, and its challenges in light of this new leadership. Truss says she is under ‘no illusions’ about the scale of the challenge.

Before the EU Referendum in the UK Gove, and the then-Chancellor George Osborne, unveiled a major prison reform programme. It included plans for 9 new prisons ‘fit for purpose’ in the 21st century, and closure old Victorian city centre prisons, selling sites for housing. This was a high-profile policy, championed by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, in the first speech on prison reform by a PM for twenty years, and in the Queen’s Speech, as he announced the ‘biggest shakeup of Britain’s prison system in more than 100 years’. In the post-referendum turmoil, we wait to see how policy will shift, and how much of this momentum will be maintained.

Closely tracking the prison reform programme as it unfolded in parallel with our ESRC-funded project on prison design, we have explored the significance of prison building in relation to geographies of architecture in our recent Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers paper. The paper draws attention to non-iconic, non-utopian, banal buildings – new prisons. It argues that by attending to ‘signature’ buildings, architectural geographies has overlooked the critical and under-explored circumstances and contingencies of more quotidian constructions, neglecting the mundane processes of procurement, commissioning, tendering, project management and bureaucratisation. Advancing scholarship in carceral geography by considering the processes and assemblages that shape (what will become) carceral spaces, it focuses on what happens before a building takes physical form. The paper seeks to move architectural geographies more meaningfully towards a consideration of the bureaucratisation of architectural practice, as underexplored aspects of building ‘events’. It calls for geographers to pay greater attention to the banal geographies of architectural assembly, and to the banalities of production more widely.

There was much to be hopeful about in Michael Gove’s prison reform programme. There was a sense in which Britain had a once-in-150-years opportunity to design a new prison estate with environments that are safe and secure but also sensual and stimulating, for both inmates and staff. In detailing how prisons have been built up to now, our paper pointed out the opportunities that could be presented by working closely with architects to achieve these aims. There is policy flux around Brexit, and economic uncertainty is anticipated, and with our prisons ‘in crisis’, the resolve of government to follow through on prison reform will be tested.

About the authors: Dominique Moran is Reader in Carceral Geography at the University of Birmingham. Jennifer Turner is a Post Doctoral Research Associate in the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Brighton. Jennifer is also an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham. Yvonne Jewkes is Research Professor in Criminology in the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Brighton. 

60-world2 BBC Prisons ‘in worst state for a decade’, inspector warns 14 July 2015

60-world2 Carceral geography: a geographical perspective on spaces and practices of incarceration 

60-world2 HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales Annual Report 2015-16

60-world2 HM Treasury, Ministry of Justice, The Rt hon Michael Gove MP and The Rt Hon George Osborne MP Prison building revolution announced by Chancellor and Justice Secretary 9 November 2015  

books_icon Moran D, Turner J and Jewkes Y 2016 Becoming big things: Building events and the architectural geographies of incarceration in England and Wales Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers doi:10.1111/tran.12140 (open access)

60-world2Wright O 2016 Queen’s Speech: David Cameron to announce biggest UK prisons shakeup in more than 100 years 17 May 2016

60-world2 Prison Spaces: Fear-suffused environments or potential to rehabilitate? 




Bloodshed Behind Bars: Venezuelan Prison Riots

by Jen Turner

Venezuelan authorities finished removing inmates from one of the country’s biggest prisons last week, after more than two days of gunfights and rioting that left 61 people dead and more than 100 injured. The killings were believed to have been sparked by an attempt to confiscate illegal weapons at the notoriously overcrowded Uribana jail. According to local media reports, the search had been planned for dawn on Friday at the prison complex in the western city of Barquisimeto, but the heavily-armed inmates resisted, sparking one of the deadliest riots in the country’s history. After two days of sporadic shooting and reports of killings by inmates, the authorities declared the prison’s closure. The government has yet to confirm the full list of casualties.

Iris Varela, Venezuela’s penitentiary services minister, said the decision to search and disarm the men had been taken after authorities learned that rival gangs were preparing to confront each other in order to seize control of the facility. She said the element of surprise was lost, however, because reporters gave advance warning of the search. But civil rights activists said the inmates and their relatives had long anticipated the government’s plan. The deeper problem, they said, was that the authorities used a disproportionate amount of force in a prison that was already at breaking point.

Venezuela’s prison system is among the most violent and overcrowded in the world. Originally built for 12,000 inmates, the country’s 33 jails house nearly 47,000 people. Guns and knives are widespread, as is murder. NGOs and human rights watchdogs reported that 560 people were killed in prison in 2011. The Guardian reports that Uribana is one of the worst facilities, known for its weekly “coliseum” contests, where inmates fight scheduled battles as crowds of convicts cheer, jeer and film the bloodshed. For me, this raises interesting questions surrounding how inmates may deal with these tense living environments, and maintain their own personal security and well-being.

A 2009 Area paper by David Sibley and Bettina van Hoven focuses on research carried out with inmates in dormitories in a prison in New Mexico, USA, talking about their every day lives.  This research engages with how prisoners think about space; highlighting a central concern surrounding how they think about definitions of personal space in an environment where boundaries are weak. The paper focuses on anxieties about contamination which serve to define real and imaginary spaces within the prison. In light of these recent violent riots, Sibley and van Hoven’s paper may shed light on how prison inmates may adapt to the material spaces of the prison and to the daily routines – particularly in order to avoid dangerous liaisons.  Inmates have to “learn to make space for themselves” (p.201).  This may involve making decisions about where to be at particular times, or even who to look at. As Sibley and van Hoven explain:

staying safe and avoiding trouble … requires sending the right signals to others, but also inmates suggest that it is important to create a personal space, making use of a minimum of artefacts and considerable imagination. In this process of securing a space in a densely packed dormitory, vision is important in the sense that looking at others and being looked at contribute to the formation of interpersonal relations. An inmate may spend time looking at others in order to establish who it is safe to associate with, whereas being looked at might be interpreted as a threat to the sanctity of personal space.

This paper raises questions surrounding the understanding of space-power relationships in institutional settings.  For many people interested in developing efficient penal systems, maintaining proper surveillance is the key to eradicating problems within prisons.  Jeremy Bentham’s early Panopticon prison design aimed to allow prisoners to be in complete view of prison officials in the hope that it would discourage inappropriate behaviour.  However, what Sibley and van Hoven illustrate is, that beyond carving out ‘dark spaces’ where activity may take place out of view of prison officers, the significance of ‘contamination’ by other inmates is crucial – and in the case of Uribana jail: fatal. Nevertheless, this research also notes that, in spite of everything, inmates were able to make their own spaces – material and imagined; and for me, these types of ethnographic study are crucial to our understanding of the space-power relationships in prisons.


David Sibley and Bettina van Hoven, 2009, The contamination of personal space: boundary construction in a prison environmentArea, 41 (1), 198-206.


Virginia Lopez in Caracas and Jonathan Watts, Venezuela shuts Uribana prison as riot death toll rises, The Guardian, 27 Jan 2013.

Symbols of Art and/or Crime: The Complexities of Prison Tattoos and Other Alternative ‘Art’

by Jen Turner

By Araminta de Clermont (Araminta de Clermont) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I was recently struck by the incredible images displayed in a recent article online in The Daily Mail.  The images, taken in the early 1990s by photographer Sergei Vasiliev after he gained access to some of Russia’s toughest prisons, illustrated the variety of tattoos that adorned inmates.  This was at the peak of the gang wars that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union.  Margo Demello (2000) explains that the fact that a tattoo is permanent, painful, and macho inscribes layers of meaning much beyond simply the surface of the skin.  Far from a random collection of meaningless drawings and letters, each tattoo has its own meaning and, to those who know, can be read as a curriculum vitae of its bearer’s criminal past.  For prisoners, a tattoo may symbolise membership of a certain group and one’s place in the hierarchy – which, for some, is a powerful one.  In Russian prisons, a star tattoo conveys authority, whereas leaders of Russian prisoners in the Israeli prison, are adorned with a skull impaled on a winged knife, up which a crowned snake climbs (Shoham, 2010, p. 993).  There are many other works discussing similar examples in different contexts (see Phelan and Hunt, 1998). Stripped of their jewellery and clothing, the prisoner’s body therefore becomes a marker of identity – a necessity often created by the nature of the environment they find themselves in.  The skin becomes a site for both identification and proclamation; enforcing difference through symbols that embody wider cultural ideologies.

With this in mind, I turn attention to a 2011 paper in Geography Compass by Cameron McAuliffe and Kurt Iveson.  This paper critically reviews the literature on graffiti and street art – interrogating the common dialectical positions in talk of graffiti.  McAuliffe and Iveson question whether graffiti is art or crime; public or private expression; ephemeral or permanent; cultural practice or economically important? The article goes some way to uncover the complexity of graffiti’s dynamic and contested geographies.  In the context of today’s discussion the ensuing debates are strikingly similar.  With the practising of tattooing prohibited within prisons, the presence of this body graffiti develops interesting parallels with the sub-culture of artwork that finds itself displayed around urban centres.  Thus, in concluding this short piece it appears there may be call for a similar interrogation into the dialectics of other alternative art forms – of which, tattooing is just one amongst many.

books_icon Cameron McAuliffe and Kurt Iveson, 2011, Art and Crime (and Other Things Besides … ): Conceptualising Graffiti in the City, Geography Compass, 128-143

books_icon Margo Demello, 1993, The Convict Body: Tattooing Among Male American PrisonersAnthropology Today, 9 10-13

books_icon Michael P. Phelan and Scott A. Hunt, 1998, Prison Gang Members’ Tattoos as Identity Work: The Visual Communication of Moral CareersSymbolic Interaction 21 277-98

books_icon Shoham, E, 2010, “Signs of Honor” Among Russian Inmates in Israel’s Prisons, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 54 984-1003

GJ book review Symbols of a life of crime: The fading tattoos on Russia’s gangland prisoners that can be read like a criminal underworld CVDaily Mail Online, 5 December 2012

Carceral Geography: Prisons, prisoners and mobilities

by Fiona Ferbrache

Sunday evening, Radio 4 broadcast Dying Inside, a documentary exploring the increase in number of older prisoners (over the age of 50) in UK prisons.  Old prisoners comprise around 9% of approximately 88,000 inmates.  The broadcast exposed some of the realities that older prisoners may face: premature ill health, in particular diabetes and coronary heart disease; and the likelihood of dying behind bars.  One of the key features of this programme was the producer’s (Rex Bloomstein) interviews with older prisoners.  He brought their stories to life by replaying some of these conversations and the rasping voices of elderly men.  The broadcast illustrates a qualitative carceral geography where prisoners are embodied bearers of gender, age and culture.

Carceral geography is also the focus of Moran, Piacentini and Pallot’s (2011) paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Their work draws from empirical research on the Russian Penal system, and mobility theories.  The authors argue that much mobility has been conceptualised in a way that emphasises association with freedom and autonomy.  The downside is that mobility is seldom considered as an instrument of power that disciplines and limits a subject’s agency.  As the authors indicate, the academic question ‘why travel?’ is seldom answered: ‘because I had no choice’.

Addressing this under-theorised area of mobility, Moran at el. explain how carceral geographies can help scholars to acknowledge more disciplined forms of mobility.  In their example, power is fundamentally expressed through the (poor) conditions of transporting prisoners between a remand centre and the prison in which sentences will be served (often hundreds or thousands of kilometers apart).  An association between prison, enclosure and static space that comes (perhaps too easily) to mind, is satisfyingly challenged in this paper through the concept of carceral mobilities.

  Dying Inside, 2012 [Radio broadcast] Radio4, 15 January 2012 1700

 Moran, D., Piacentini, L. & Pallot, J. (2011) Disciplined mobility and carceral geography: prisoner transport in Russia. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2011.00483.x

J. Pallot took part in a discussion on On womens’ prison in Russia – From our Own Correspondent, BBC World Service, Wednesday 11th May 2011.