Tag Archives: rehabilitation

‘Private’ lives, ‘public’ space: focus on prisons and conjugal visits

A few weeks ago, the Howard League for Penal Reform released a press statement which announced that it will undertake the first ever review of sex inside prison.  As prison cells are deemed to be public places, sex is therefore an unlawful activity within them.  An Independent Commission consisting of academics, former prisoner governors and health experts will focus on consensual and coercive sex in prisons, as well as the healthy sexual development among young people in prisons. 

The outcome of the review will indeed be interesting for geographers with interest in examining the relationships between sex, identity and spaces of confinement.  These themes have indeed been dominant in previous scholarship.  For example, Teresa Dirsuweit’s (1999) paper based on research in South African women’s prisons revealed the way in which prisoners have transgressed the normal expectations of sexuality.  In order to perform some of the basic human instincts of intimacy and interaction, some women revealed a participation in homosexual relationships and inmate ‘families’ – practices not necessarily associated with their previous lives outside of prison. 

The acknowledgement of the importance of maintaining some form of sexual relationship during incarceration has provided some serious pressure on UK policy-makers to consider allowing prisoners to have conjugal visits – a practice currently denied to prisoners in the UK, though facilitated in other countries such as the USA, Germany and Denmark.  For decades prisoners have expressed their desire to access the same benefits enjoyed by these other countries.  In 2010, Christopher Pollock, an inmate at HMP Birmingham, argued that conjugal visits should be given as a reward for good behaviour, and that partners on the ‘outside’ also suffer greatly without the conventional functions of a sexual relationship. 

Other advocates have illustrated their help in maintaining stronger relationships with the outside world; a factor which is widely considered key to reducing recidivism.  Ethnographer Megan Comfort (2002) conducted a study which focused upon California’s San Quentin State Prison.  Here she interviewed the partners of 50 inmates, some of whom take part in ‘family visits’ where prisoners can have their immediate family stay with them overnight in purpose-built bungalows.   The couples or families could talk, cook for themselves, and of course be physical, in their own company.  One woman named Tee revealed that the main benefit was that ‘you got a little sense of, ‘Hey, we’re really married! We’re really a couple! We’re really, we’re intimate,’ you know, we got to be intimate and everything. (Comfort 2002, 487).

However, conjugal visits have been fiercely contested by organisation such as the UK Independence Party, whose recent statement claimed that the Howard League’s study is a ‘waste of time and money’.  The Party’s Deputy Leader Paul Nuttall MEP argued that ‘imprisonment is supposed to be a punishment – though we all know already that many such institutions are more like holiday camps’.  Although the statement acknowledges that conjugal visits may decrease the level of coercive sexual activity behind bars, Nuttall furthered added: ‘the public, quite rightly, want prisoners to be punished for their crimes – not rewarded with TVs, computers and gyms – and certainly not romantic liaisons with their partners’. 

Other perspectives have also revealed additional opposition.  Comfort’s study also revealed the ‘institutionalising’ of families being forced to conduct relationships under the strict prison regime, which augmented their behaviour – the impact of conducting private lives in public spaces.  To me, this seems to be a key concern and one which was highlighted by prisoner’s wife ‘Julie’ in a phone-in conducted by BBC 5 Live Breakfast.  ‘Julie’ said that she ‘couldn’t think of anything worse than going off into a little room to have sex with [her] husband.  The lack of dignity, it would just be awful … and I know my husband wouldn’t want me to do it anyway.’  This raises the question about the kind of institutional restrictions that would be placed on the intimate relationships between couples, particularly relating to public and prison security and control of contraband items. 

These restrictions appear to exemplify the concerns of the National Offender Management Service surrounding the cultural and organisational changes which would be required to implement conjugal visits.  Suitable visitation areas, some form of surveillance and potentially family planning advice would all have to be provided and budgeted for.  ‘Julie’s’ final comment is that she ‘simply wouldn’t trust the Prison Service to handle this sensitively’. 

In any case, the Howard League report will no doubt provide some reading surrounding such a serious, yet sensitive subject, particularly for academics working in this notoriously-difficult-to-access environment.  However, much more I hope that it is also one which, if the UK is ever to facilitate conjugal visitation rights, could help authorities to implement changes fairly and well. 


Comfort, M L 2002 ‘Papa’s house’: the prison as domestic and social satellite. Ethnography 3 467-99.

Dirsuweit, T 1999 Carceral spaces in South Africa: a case study of institutional power, sexuality and transgression in a women’s prison. Geoforum 30 71-83.

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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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