Tag Archives: prison

New paper… Rethinking mobility in criminology: Beyond horizontal mobilities of prisoner transportation

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new paper in Punishment and Society, co-authored with Dr Kimberley Peters (University of Liverpool).

Rethinking mobility in criminology: Beyond horizontal mobilities of prisoner transportation

Typically, to be incarcerated is to be fixed: limited within specific parameters or boundaries with liberty and agency greatly reduced. Yet, recent literature has attended to the movement (or mobilities) that shape, or are shaped by modes of incarceration. Rather than simply assuming that experiences are inherently ones of immobility, such literature unhinges carceral studies from its framing within a sedentary ontology. However, the potential of mobility studies for unpacking the movements enfolded in carceral space and imprisoned life has yet to be fully exploited. When attending to mobilities, criminologists have investigated the politics of movement through a traditional horizontal frame of motion (between prison spaces, between court and prison, etc.). This paper contends that studies of mobility in criminology could be productively rethought. Drawing on movements of convicts from Britain to Australia aboard prison ships, this paper argues that straightforward, horizontal mobilities at work in regimes of control and practices of resistance marry together with vertical mobilities. Paying attention to the complex mobilities involved in carceral experience leads to a more nuanced understanding of regimes of discipline and practices of resistance that shape how incarcerated individuals move (or are unable to move) within carceral spaces, past and present. Download a copy of the paper here.

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Between Absence and Presence : My First Special Issue!

Check out the latest Special Issue of Space and Polity entitled Between Absence and Presence: Geographies of Hiding, Invisibility and Silence edited by Rhys Dafydd Jones, James Robinson and myself here.

In this issue you can read my article entitled Criminals with ‘Community Spirit’: Practising Citizenship in the Hidden World of the Prison. I’m delighted to finally be in print! 

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Denied the Vote: Prisoners and ‘Civic Death’

In the last few days, Prime Minister David Cameron has said Britain will continue to defy a European Court ruling saying prisoners must be given the right to vote.  It comes after Attorney General Dominic Grieve warned Britain’s reputation would be damaged if it did not follow the European Court ruling.  Most coalition MPs and Labour oppose giving prisoners the vote.  An extended BBC report can be found here.

UK-based organisations, such as UNLOCK, the National Association of Ex-Offenders, and the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) contest the electoral ban on sentenced prisoners voting, arguing that a reform of the law is necessary for several reasons, including the claim that a ban infringes basic human rights that people have died to protect, that it bears no relation to the causes of crime, and can cause minority ethnic groups to be disenfranchised (in particular black men).  Further to this “the notion of civic death for sentenced prisoners isolates still further those who are already on the margins of society and encourages them to be seen as alien to the communities to which they will return on release” (UNLOCK, 2004, p. 1; see also Slapper 2011).  By removing the right to vote, we signal to serving prisoners that, at least for the duration of their sentence, they are dead to society.

Bolstering such arguments are reports that disenfranchisement during incarceration has contributed to a spiral of decline of prisoners having little or no expectation to perform obligations, such as active parenthood or paying attention to financial burdens.  Harman et al. (2007), for example, use evidence sourced from wives of incarcerated prisoners who are affronted and dismayed at the degree of free time and relaxation that their male partners enjoy when in prison, at precisely the time when they are having to manage both the family finances and the children themselves.  Furthermore, May and Woods (2005) demonstrate that many American prisoners would prefer to go to prison than do community service, house arrest or ‘boot camp’ when offered the choice.

American Judge Dennis Challeen (1986, p. 37-39) illustrated a glaring paradox in highlighting that, “We … want people to be responsible, so we take away all responsibility”.  It will be interesting to pay attention to this debate as it continues to develop.


HARMAN, J.J., SMITH, V.E. & EGAN, L.C. (2007) The Impact of Incarceration On Intimate Relationships, Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34 (6), pp. 794-815.

MAY, D.C. & WOOD, P. B. (2005) What Influences Offenders’ Willingness to Serve Alternative Sanctions?, The Prison Journal, 85 (2), pp. 145-167.

CHALLEEN, D. (1986) Making it right: a common sense approach to criminal justice Melius & Peterson, Aberdeen, S.D.

SLAPPER, G (2011) Opinion: The Ballot Box and the Jail Cell,. The Journal of Criminal Law 75 1-3.

UNLOCK (2004) Barred From Voting: The right to vote for sentenced prisoners

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‘Brands of honour’, or ‘marks of shame’?

A few days ago, I was struck by an article in The Guardian which reports how Tess Morgan’s 21-year-old son came home from University brandishing a tattooed arm.  In her disgust, Tess subjected   the poor son to everything from crying to shouting and insults.  Her over-reaction, she believes, is the upset of realising her son is growing   up.  Tess uses some pretty powerful (and quite subjective) arguments to convey her disappointment about this tattoo.  However,  one particular comment she offers is that:

“Tattoos used to be the preserve of criminals and toffs. And sailors. In the 1850s, the corpses of seamen washed  up on the coast of north Cornwall were “strangely decorated” with blue …”

This practice amongst sailors, the article continues, was so that bodies   could more easily be identified if the men were lost at sea.  Morgan concludes that “tattoos, then, were intensely practical, like brightly coloured smit marks on sheep”.  This particular comment got    me thinking.  I’m currently working on a thesis chapter which focuses on prisoner art – a category into which prison tattoos has more  recently come to fall.  Although by no means the primary concentration of my chapter, the subject has left me pondering enough to dig a bit deeper.

The proceedings of the court of the Old Bailey in London, reveal that branding of criminals was a common occurrence in the 17th and 18th  centuries.  Convicts found guilty of manslaughter but not murder were often branded on the thumb (with a “T” for theft, “F” for felon, or “M” for murder), so that they would be unable to receive this benefit more than once.  According to the Old Bailey (online), between 1699 and January 1707, convicted thieves were branded on the cheek in order to increase the deterrent effect of the punishment.  However, the stigma of this made convicts unemployable and in 1707 the practice reverted to branding on the thumb.

In a similar vein, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, some prisoners at Auschwitz concentration camp were forcefully tattooed with a serial number marking their identity. Originally, numbers were sewn into clothing, but this proved pointless as most clothing was removed on execution.  Aside from a certain practicality, individuals were de-humanised, existing only as numbers in a list.  Various starting numbers indicated different types of prisoners.  In addition, Gypsy prisoners were given the letter Z (“Zigeuner” is German for Gypsy) in addition to the serial number.  The tattoos could be found on the chest, but moved to the outer side of the left forearm.

Thus, tattoos have come to be seen as a mark of segregation.  Shoham (2010) states that:

“In the criminal world, tattoos have always constituted a metaphor for difference, segregation, and something set apart from the whole. The tattoo represents the different … They symbolize nonconformity … Furthermore, the tattoo attracts the eye to the other, the different, which is inscribed in color on the skin” (p. 987-988).

 Thus, perhaps Tess Morgan can be forgiven for recalling the practices of the past where tattoos and other such skin-scarring techniques have deliberately imposed shame upon the individual who bears them.  However, modern times have rendered the tattoo a much more complex entity.

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.  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.  An interesting piece by writer Megan Buskey explains the significance of tattoos in post-World War II Russia, when those who had served in the Soviet army streamed back into prisons, sparking a conflict with prisoners who had remained incarcerated.  She describes how “the inmates who volunteered to fight were seen as traitors … Tattoos signaled whether a prisoner was vory v zakone – part of the original criminal elite – or a suka – a bitch – as the criminals who had fought in the war were known”.

Similarly, 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 Baldaev, et al., various; Lambert, 2003; Phelan and Hunt, 1998).

It is clear that “status symbols certainly hold a place of honor and value in the cultural codes of the underworld” (Shoham, 2010, p. 988).  Stripped of their jewellery and clothing, prisoners’ body therefore becomes a marker of identity – a necessity often created by the nature of the environment they find themselves in.  By way of conclusion, it is an interesting point to note how the skin becomes a site for both identification and proclamation; enforcing difference through symbols which embody wider cultural ideologies.  For Tess Morgan’s son, the tattoo may have been a cosmetic addition … or it could have been an indelible mark upon the one thing that his mother cannot control.


Baldaev, D., Murray, D., Sorrell, S. and Vasiliev, S. (eds.) (various) Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia (various volumes). London: FUEL.

Demello, M. (1993) The Convict Body: Tattooing Among Male American Prisoners, Anthropology Today 9:10-3.

Lambert, A. (2003) Russian Prison Tattoos: Codes of Authority, Domination and Struggle. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing.

Phelan, M. P. and Hunt, S. A. (1998) Prison Gang Members’ Tattoos as Identity Work: The Visual Communication of Moral Careers, Symbolic Interaction 21:277-98.

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

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Gordon Behind Bars – the true cost of reducing the cost of imprisonment?

Tonight, 26 June 2012, Channel 4 screened their highly-publicised documentary Gordon Behind Bars where Chef Gordon Ramsey aimed to develop a stand-alone kitchen within HMP Brixton to generate income for the prison itself.  Throughout the programme, Ramsey’s clear ethos is of ‘making prisoners pay’ something towards their £38 000 per year upkeep.  After recruiting and training a team of inmates, Ramsey aimed to make food in the prison, to sell on the outside.  Their first task – I’m sure a purposeful choice designed to directly juxtapose the stereotypical masculinity of the ‘Bad Boy Brigade’ – was to bake and decorate fairycakes.  


Aside from the interesting voice-over, which Ramsey himself litters with phrases such as ‘reprobates’ who are ‘committing GBH on fairycakes’, the programme could have a highly interesting deconstruction carried out upon it; particularly relating to the language used to describe the prisoners and their attitudes.  However, it is the commercial aspect of the programme that becomes my focus for today.  With the prison system being a heavy expenditure for the UK taxpayer, Gordan Ramsey’s idea of putting prisoners to use for economic purpose is a valid one.  However, it clearly raises questions surrounding the employment opportunities available for law-abiding citizens. 


Right back in 1811, the Holford Committee was established to discuss what form the first central prisons should take.  The question of whether government should fund imprisonment was no longer debated – only the style and method of the prison.  They considered two models.  Firstly, Bentham’s Panopticon (designed in the 1780s/90s) saw the prison as a machine to manufacture goodness – based on total supervision.  Bentham was very keen on the idea that prisons should pay for themselves and introduced the idea of prison labour.  This was rejected by the Holford Committee who had difficulty with the idea of prison as a commercial enterprise.  One of the criticisms John Howard recognised in his (1777) State of the Prisons was gaolers making money.  Holford thus saw Panopticon open to abuse.  Furthermore, prison labour undercuts free labour in the market so it was therefore not a suitable ‘fix’ in 19th century times of extreme poverty.  They went for the rival proposal – the Penitentiary Act proposals of 1779[1] which outlines the model for Gloucester Penitentiary – a regime based on ideas of solitude, labour and religion. 


Nevertheless, other prisons have employed similar tactics.  The Clink is a Michelin-standard restaurant located inside the prison at HMP High Down in London.  Visitors enter the prison, are advised on contraband items and are ‘locked in’ the restaurant.  Soon to be rolled out across other prisons, including HMP Cardiff, all the staff at the restaurant share one thing in common – their criminality.  Developed by professional chef Alberto Crisci, The Clink offers training in cookery and hospitality as a way of rehabilitating prisoners. Whilst any profits contribute to directly reimbursing the project, the focus is upon developing the skills and reducing the recidivism of inmates released back into the community.  The Clink does not generally market its product in competition with outside restaurants and its main customers include associates with the prison system.  The restaurant also acts as a canteen for prison staff wishing to purchase items such as those from the high-quality salad bar during their lunch break.  According to their facilitators, The Clink (in combination with a team of post-release mentors) is achieving 100% success rates.


Gordon Behind Bars does raise an important point – the clear lack of full-time jobs for prison inmates (although it does not elaborate on any logistical reasons why this may be the case).  The repercussions of this provide the main grounding for Ramsey’s concern – that unemployed prisoners live an ‘easy’ lifestyle in a kind of prison ‘hotel’ which generates a general malaise and unwillingness to lead a productive life, both in prison and upon release.   However, despite its clearly weighted terminology and narrative, the programme does provide a glimmer of positivity in its presentation of the prison population.  Typical to other programmes where television chefs have ‘transformed’ their novice trainees into skilled workmen, the potential of the prisoners is highlighted.  The ‘Bad Boy Brigade’ successfully created fairycakes for sale to prison staff (for £20 profit) and prepared a five-option evening meal for the rest of the 800-strong inmate populate of HMP Brixton.   It may indeed be the case, that like The Clink, Ramsey’s project can have high success rates.  The practicality and sustainability of the project remains to be seen, and I’m confident the rest of the series will answer these concerns.  However, what will be more interesting to question, is if making a scheme such as this profitable will have any impact upon the sustainability of other services and employment beyond the walls of the prison.     


Howard, J. (1777). The state of the prisons. Abingdon, Professional Books.

[1] Penitentiary Act 1779, Held at London Metropolitan Archives, ref: ACC/3648. 

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Married to a Murderer: letters as courtship

On the 31st May 2012, Channel 4 broadcast the documentary Married to the Moonies which provided a vantage point on the little known, but controversial world of the Unification Church, known to outsiders as the Moonies.  The film followed three British youngsters as they travelled to Korea to take part in one of the movement’s eye-opening mass weddings, where thousands of couples are blessed simultaneously. 

Prior to the ceremony, courtship is highly condensed, with relationships developed across social networking sites and through virtual means such as Skype.  Couples are usually matched by parents, and owing to the desire to marry within the movement, partners can be found in different countries and sometimes do not speak the same languages.  In many instances, couples may meet for the first time days before their wedding, and begin married life separately in different continents until their respective circumstances allow them to live together.    Twenty one year old Reamonn was matched with a girl from Argentina and engaged for 18 months before the cameras followed him to the airport as he met his future bride for the first time.  In an event quite shocking to the outsider, 20-year-old Naomi from south London was matched with her future husband just days before the ceremony.  Furthermore, as pre-marital sexual activity is prohibited by the movement, and frowned upon for 40 days after the ceremony, couples largely conduct their engagements without so much as holding hands or a kiss.

Whilst Married to the Moonies firstly made me think about the scandal of marrying a partner that you’ve never met before, it occurred to me that this kind of activity has been going on under my nose in my field of interest for years.  Media reports have scandalised the cases of many individuals involved in relationships with prisoners, some of whom are incarcerated in maximum security institutions.  Cases where life sentence or death row prisoners are involved have attracted the most attention, such as that of Tim McDonald who married 34-year-old ‘lifer without parole’ Teresa Harris in Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.  The couple have never lived together or had any kind of physical relationship other than what McDonald described as “an airport hug”, and indeed comparisons could be drawn with spouses who work away such as in the Forces or those long distance relationships, such as in the case of the Moonie marriages. 

It is not in scandal of the context that I find commonalities between Moonie- and inside/outside prison-marriages, more so the methods through which the meetings of the individuals occur.  The importance of the letter in creating and maintaining relationships with prisoners was highlighted in the 2005 article by Richard Tewksbury.  Although it is true that inmates can become seriously involved with someone they knew before their imprisonment, there are, however, an increasing number of programmes organised by those such an anti-death penalty groups, or religious and local communities that encourage letter-writing to inmates.  Tewksbury exemplifies WriteAPrisoner.com as one such organisation, which exists alongside others in the UK like Bridging The Gap (BTG).  Although the focus of these schemes is upon providing a listening ear and link to outside life, relationships have developed.   “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez, awaiting execution for a string of brutal murders in California in 1985, married a pen pal in 1996.  In the USA, prisoners can advertise their desire for a pen pal, here exemplified by 56-year-old Adele in Texas:

 I am an orchid in boots and Levis. … Fun lover with morals. Clean mind, mouth and body. I’ll bring you smiles and warmth and a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen to you. … You get this little bit of pure sunshine for a U.S. postage stamp. That’s cheaper than a dinner date. Satisfaction guaranteed or I’ll return your undamaged heart to you.” (ABC News, 2005)

The letter is one of the most tangible connections for the inmate to the outside environment.  Unlike the betrothed couples of the Unification Church, prisoners do not have access to the communications infrastructure that the former find intrinsic to the development of their relationship, due to security reasons.  It seems that prisoners now conduct their condensed courtships in means which were common to the Moonie unifications of the 1970s when the movement first began.  With the UK government providing one free stamp per week, the frequency of these letters can be costly for the inmate in relation to their meagre earnings and therefore sporadic. 

Clearly, the prison environment serves to provide a vantage point for critically engaging with the methods of communication and interaction taken for granted by members of liberal society.  In an age of social networking and intense media interaction, which can often foster strong relationships as demonstrated by the Moonie marriages, the prisoner remains tied to paper and envelope.  


Tewksbury, R. 2005. Personal Ads from Prisoners: Do Inmates Tell the Truth about Themselves, Federal Probation 69 (2) 32-34.

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‘Breaking’ out: remand on Ward Block H

I’ve escaped! Literally.  From prison? Not exactly. Actually, from a week stay in my local hospital following an operation to repair my tibia and fibula, shattered at the knee joint by an overly-vigorous tackle on the rugby pitch.  That moment of my life, based on choices I made, resulting in actions I could have prevented.  Aside from a week’s sentence in the maximum security of the orthopaedic ward, my right leg is now being further punished by three months incarceration in a plaster cast … unless of course all goes extraordinarily well and I’m let off early on good behaviour.  Once released, my leg will never be the same again, visibly scarred by my experience.  Furthermore, my hospital record now excludes me from ever playing contact sports again. 

You can see what I’ve done here, there’s nothing subtle about my analogy.  My hospital stay did exhibit similarities to that of a prisoner confined to his cell.  At night, with the curtains drawn to create a cubicle, alerting outside agency by pressing the bed bell I was powerless to move beyond my bed prison, despite the fact that the ‘walls’ were merely fabric and the prison gate, a double door, only a few steps away.  Obviously for me, my broken leg was the ball and chain between myself and freedom, and there were others, much older, equally hampered by joints and bones no longer able to carry their bodies around with the same ease they once did.  And it is here I got to thinking about other very vernacular conceptualisations of carceral spaces. 

Frequently, the global media has raised interest in the parallel that populations such as the elderly in nursing homes experience life in a ‘prison-like’ state – with their immobility often the cause of this.  And it is easy for geographers to develop links between incarceration, mobility and agency.  Indeed a forthcoming volume edited by Moran, Gill and Conlon (2013) seeks to examine these factors in relation to both prisons and other detention spaces.  But there are other avenues of interest in which the prison can be used to develop existing geographical themes and theorisations.  For example, the criminal record, much like my bionic leg documented in my hospital notes, often renders the individual changed, and often unable to function in the same way as they did before.  Research which I presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers developed the notion of a ‘prisoner diaspora’; considering how a criminal record and the experience of prison itself comes to inscribe itself both mentally and physically upon the identity of the ex-offender.  Through the process of incarceration, prisoners undergo a transformation of their everyday lives, often forcing belonging to a kind of ‘nation’ with allegiance to a prison homeland

I’ll make no suggestion here that following my hospital experiences I have truly learned about life in prison.  Neither do I make the assertion that the ward I stayed on should realistically be compared to a punitive system.  However, what is clear to me is that academic consideration of spatial relationships in spaces such as prisons can be applied in other surroundings, thus bringing theories developed in the emerging sub-discipline of carceral geography into universal relevance.   

But as for my leg, it’s literally and metaphorically screwed…


Moran, D., Gill, N. and Conlon, D. 2013 Eds. Carceral Spaces: Mobility and Agency in Imprisonment and Migrant Detention. London: Ashgate.

Turner, J. 2012 ‘The ‘where’ and the ‘what’ of prison life’ at The Annual Conference of the Association of American Geographers, New York, NY, 24-28th February.

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‘More-than-human’ pathways to rehabilitation?

On May 3rd 2012, the Washington Post reported on an innovative new programme being launched in Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt, WA.  Inmates at this minimum level security prison have been given the opportunity to adopt a homeless or badly-behaved cat.  A cat rescue organization called Cuddly Catz currently has two cats at Larch, who are cared for by two offenders who live with the cat in a 10-by-12-foot room.  Local businesses and organisations have supplied the food and equipment needed, and volunteers have helped train prisoners in pet care. 

The clear benefits of the scheme are two-fold.  Firstly, the cat themselves have gained a second chance in life – sometimes literally.  “With all of her behaviour problems, she would most likely be euthanized,” said offender Joseph Contreras. “And I just couldn’t imagine that.”  Secondly, in taking care of and interacting with the cats, the prisoners have experienced some huge benefits of their own, particularly in fostering a sense of care and compassion within the wider community of the Corrections Center.  Furthermore, once the cats are deemed healthy and happy, they are hoped to be eligible for outside adoption.  That way, Larch hopes to expand the programme to having long-term benefits for feline re-homing charities more widely – thus reducing the number of unwanted and abandoned cats in the local area.  According to Counsellor Monique Camacho, “The offenders don’t get a lot of chances to do right by the community … It gives them an opportunity to directly impact the community.” 

In other prisons, similar examples of other 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).

Practices which transform the relationship between the prisoner and carceral environments continue to sit at the top of the agenda for geographers carrying out research on spaces of imprisonment.  However, in recent years, ‘non-human’ things have been the focus of these transforming practices.  In one of the earliest geographical interactions with the prison space, Valentine and Longstaff (1998) recognised the importance of food in shaping prison perceptions and interactions with space.  Lenny Baer (2005) recently conducted a study of how empty toiletry bottles became ornaments to display in prison cells, and contributed to a unique network of value and exchange.  However, in their recent AREA paper, Katrina Brown and Rachel Dilley (2012) reiterate current scholarship within the discipline which focuses upon how knowledges count in human/nonhuman relations.  Animals in prison environments have received little attention, despite tales of both legitimate (and often illegal) adopted pets.  Clearly, in the seemingly closed-off space of the prison, interactions with non-human agents highlight themselves as a new avenue for the carceral geographer.  


Baer, L D 2005 Visual imprints on the prison landscape: A study on the decorations in prison cells. Tijdschrift Voor Economische En Sociale Geografie 96 209-217.

Brown, K & Dilley, R 2012 Ways of knowing for ‘response-ability’ in more-than-human encounters: the role of anticipatory knowledges in outdoor access with dogs. Area 44 37-45.

Burnett, R & Maruna, S 2006 The kindness of prisoners. Criminology and Criminal Justice 6 83-106.

Cheakalos, C 2004 New leash on life – In an innovative program, prison inmates find that raising puppies for the blind makes a difference. Smithsonian 35 62-68.

Valentine, G & Longstaff, B 1998 Doing porridge – Food and social relations in a male prison. Journal of Material Culture 3 131-152.

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