Post-conference reflections on “Confinement viewed through the prism of the social sciences: Contrasting facilities, confronting approaches,” Pessac, France, 16-19 October 2013

Post by Lauren Martin, Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Geography, University of Oulu

I recently had the pleasure of attending a conference hosted by the TerrFerme Research Project which explores territorial approaches to contemporary political and social control. (Check out the conference program here.) The conference brought together scholars working on, in, and around confinement institutions—not only prisons, but mental health asylums, youth detention and reform institutions, integration housing for migrants, refugee camps, and immigration detention centers. Being a social science conference, methodological approaches tended towards ethnography, with much attention paid to the everyday workings of closed institutions from the perspectives of inmates and staff. The conference organizers provided translation between French and English, and while this brought certain challenges, it showed me how nationally and linguistically insular our research communities continue to be and how necessary it is to create opportunities—like this one—to work across them. For those sharing my interests in mobility, space, and the politics of confinement, there is much to be excited about—and learn.

I won’t attempt to provide a detailed review of each paper or session here, and for that I apologize to my fellow participants. All of the papers were excellent. Instead, I want to reflect on some themes that arose across the sessions. These moments of overlap, synergy, intersection provoke important questions for those of us engaged in on-going research on confinement institutions. I also think these moments showed where research could be, or perhaps should be, heading.

Keynotes from Sarah Curtis and Lorna Rhodes bookended the conference. Curtis’ talk told the story of the building and implementation of a new psychiatric institution in the UK, while Rhodes reflected on how confinement institution policy-makers and social scientists alike tend to cycle through a limited set of options for reforming those institutions. Three ideal institutions, in particular, frame the possibilities for change: the small society, the panopticon, and the camp. Similarly, Curtis showed how the ever-present possibility of a “never event”—inmate suicide, violence, escape—overshadowed therapy in everyday decision-making. As we discussed further in the Q and A, therapy often involves risk-taking, such as trusting patients to make their own food, which means trusting them to use knives and safely use rooms with sharp edges. These dreams and nightmares, of total institutions and catastrophic events, surfaced again and again.

For example, David Scheer compared three Belgian prisons, two existing and one planned. Paying close attention to collective movements within them, Scheer distilled key differences between the prisons’ internal ordering, mobility, and security. In the older facility, inmates circulated more freely and with less visual surveillance, while in the newer one, strict security procedures determined inmate and staff movements. In the planned facility, technical security is assumed to be so embedded in the facility (through geolocating inmates, automatically closing gates) that inmates can be granted gradations of mobility within the prison. As in Curtis’ example, technical security came to dominate rehabilitation as the rationale of confinement.

A shot of Wakefield prison in Yorkshire, UK (Photograph: Gareth Copley/PA | Source: BBC News)
But total security is elusive, and the ethnographic detail of most presenters showed this. And so the nightmares of never-events and the dream of total reform or confinement are active imaginaries. Lilian Ayette-Nyampong and Anna Schliehe made this point in their papers about youth confinement. Both provided close, nuanced readings of Goffman’s “total institution,” arguing hat his rendition of this concept includes porosity between confinement’s interior and exterior, and circulation within institutions (despite the common academic narrative of total institutions as closed). Most importantly, confinement’s permeability appears to challenge the institution but in fact supports it. For Ayette-Nyampong, this showed in the coexistence of formal and informal rules within the institution. For Fleur Guy, her study of youth institutions in France showed a certain necessity to teenagers’ movement beyond the facility. Preparing youth to return to foster homes required certain levels of trust beyond the facilities’ walls, and yet the facilities required closure, as well. At times, these two needs came into conflict. For Emmanuel Chauvin and Marie Morelle, prisoners’ and refugees’ ability to obtain temporary release (through official and unofficial means) served as a pressure valve for tensions within the prison and refugee camp.

In addition to the confinement’s dreams and nightmares, ideal subjects haunt prisons’ walls. Many of the papers focused on the lives of confined people, and often revolved around resilience and resistance, on the one hand, and freedom and responsibility on the other hand. Yasmine Bouagga explored how rights are made available (or not) within prisons, and interrogated efforts to introduce contractual elements to sentences. This incentivization of sentencing both individualizes the sentence and makes inmates more responsible for their own release. And yet, her interviewees reported feeling “treated like dogs,” de-individualized and dehumanized. The ideal prisoner (a docile subject) is often incongruous with the ideal citizen (a self-consciously responsible, rights-bearing subject).

St Andrew's psychiatric hospital in Northampton, UK (Source: The Guardian)
Livia Velpry studied two recently constructed psychiatric hospitals, one dubbed a “special security” facility and the other for general psychiatric care. The separation between secured and unsecured zones relied upon distinctions between “responsible criminals” and “irresponsible alienated” patients, who are sent to secured asylums. As she points out, there are always inmates on the boundary of these two categories and this further blurs the boundary between security and care. Defining the boundaries of the responsible subject is critical to defining the purpose of confinement—for therapy or for punishment.

If there is one form of disciplinary power the seemed to permeate all of the papers, it is categorization. Aurore Mottet’s paper compared a waiting zone in France to the Choucha refugee camp in Tunisia. In both places, detainees/refugees were allocated living space by ethnicity, nationality, or regional identity. Staff presumed certain forms of belonging and fixed them in space. And yet people in both places shared legal tactics and narrative strategies to subvert or manage the migration process. Chauvin and Morelle understood this spatialization of ethnicity as a particular logic of differentiation that usually led to hierarchies between prisoners, as well.

Ayette-Nyampong, drawing on Goffman, offered two helpful frames for thinking about resilience and resistance: contained versus radical secondary adjustments. Contained secondary adjustments can be incorporated or coopted by prison procedures. Radical secondary adjustments challenge the institution itself. For example, Lucie Bony traced the ways in which some young prisoners identified prison with their home spaces, while other refused to make prison home-like.

These papers raised key questions about mobility and space in confinement now central carceral geographies and critical criminology literatures, particularly the internal ordering within facilities (epitomized by questions of security and therapy) and the relationship between facilities and surrounding communities (raising questions of porosity and closure).

Early in the conference Kelly Gillepsie asked, what work do prisons do, and how do we move from the details of prison life to social critique? Some of the papers ventured answers to this question by exploring the role of confinement in society, politics, and state territorial control.

Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, UK (Photograph: Tim Ockenden/PA | Source: The Guardian)
For Barbara Bauduin and Nicolas Fischer immigration detention centers have come to serve as their own legal justification. Tracing the emergence of French law on administrative detention, they show how facilities tend to precede law-making, so that the facility necessitates the law and the law legitimates the facility. This lack of specificity is troubling, and for them, indicated an expansion of confinement without punishment, with little attention devoted to the practical functioning of detention centers. But within this circular definition, little else is stipulated, so that administrative detention remains a vague form of confinement—albeit an increasingly common one—in French law. This provides French law enforcement a flexible tool, and yet produces a frightening disjuncture between individual rights and sovereign power.

For Emmanuel Chauvin and Marie Morelle, who analyzed a refugee camp in Chad and an urban prison in Cameroon respectively, imprisonment is a legacy of colonial conquest and continues to represent state efforts to produce territorial authority. In both cases, the “informal” (and yet de facto permitted) ability of inmates and detainees to leave confinement for trade, work, or family visits indicated that confinement does more than confine. Other economic, social, and ethnic hierarchies interlace imprisonment, challenging and yet maintaining these institutions. Moreover, in these cases as in many places around the world, the state does not hold a monopoly on confinement, and so they asked what role confinement plays in sovereign power and governance? They argue that territory becomes more of a networked fabric of overlapping hierarchies, and that this has important implications for how we theorize state power and governance.

For Camille Boutron, Peruvian prisons are not only places of gender-specific punishment, but of political mobilization and, at times, an extension of the frontlines of civil war. Forms of punishment aimed at women, such as removing their children, became a source of political organizing. Motherhood lends a moral imperative prison critique that would otherwise be unavailable, and yet the stigmatization of women in prison is also doubly harsh.

Pretoria Central Prison, South Africa (Photo: Barcroft Media | Source: The Telegraph)
For Kelly Gillespie, South Africa’s post-apartheid prison works to extend apartheid-era racial inequalities, in part as imprisonment stepped into the void left by deindustrialization and neoliberalization.  Her archival research traced the construction of Atlantis, an apartheid era township for “coloureds” built astride a white-owned industrial park, alongside the construction of the first post-Apartheid prison.  Many of that prison’s inmates are now from Atlantis, and so, like Chauvin and Morelle, Gillepsie connects the failures of post-apartheid South Africa to the territorialisation of race during previous regimes.

Marine Bobin’s research on a new prison complex inside the Navajo Native American reservation in the US reflected other historical legacies of racialized spatial enclosure. But in this case, Navajo prison advocates sought to shore up sovereignty over reservation land by taking control of imprisonment responsibilities and “modernizing” reservation governance. This move unfolded alongside efforts to institutionalize “peace-making” practices as an alternative to criminal justice, an effort to assert traditional Navajo conceptions of reconciliation against modern prisons. In this case, the debate over imprisonment is interwoven with debates over sovereignty, integration, and modernity within the Navajo community.

Prefabricated 'homes' replace tents at Ħal Far Open Centre, Malta (Source: Times of Malta)
Both Louise Tassin’s analysis of Lampedusa detention centers and Nathalie Bernadie-Tahir’s study of Malta’s centers highlighted the specific spatial impact of island detention. Both islands have long been sites of transit and migration, and only recently have become spaces of confinement. For Bernadie-Tahir, island settings constitute “over-confinement,” as their geographical isolation adds an additional layer of isolation. Malta offers a form of authorized residence to those who do not get asylum, but this status is not recognized beyond the island. But because Malta does not have strong geopolitical relationships with other countries, it doesn’t have the resources to deport, either. And so, confinement follows confinement, another pattern that ran throughout the conference.

Confinement follows confinement, and as Rhodes pointed out, individual facilities tend to cycle through an eerily familiar set of “solutions” to institutional failures. To illustrate, she provided a heuristic set of three models. The “small society” seeks to change individuals by placing them in an ethical environment. The “panopticon” also seeks to reform the individual, but through routinized change. The “camp” draws on panopticism, but does not prepare individuals for a future; it only warehouses them. Each of these models contains a theory of human nature, change, and the social that reflect different sides of an on-going conversation. For Rhodes, these three models are institutional dreams that haunt institutions as possibilities, but in practice they overlap and combine with each other.

And so she asked, why do we see these three options over and over? Why do we never seem to get somewhere new in reforming these institutions? And, as academics, what is the role of theory, particularly when our own social theories emerge from the same genealogies as these institutional dreams? One alternative is abolitionism, but could there be some space of critique between the institution and its annihilation? Her questions aimed at the often understated politics underlying academic research on confinement institutions. Andrew Jefferson also voiced this ambivalence, noting that our own academic work is often judged by standards of dispassionate, objective evaluation very far from our own commitments. How do we, he asked, speak truth to power and do critical scholarship in this context? There are no easy answers to these questions, of course, but they are questions we must continue to ask.

I have underplayed some key contributions, such as the study of prison commodification and studies of professionals in confinement institutions, but these too highlight the complexity of these spaces. Thinking across the presentations, tensions between mobility and confinement—within, amongst, and beyond institutions—provoked creative rethinking of core concepts (enclosure and porosity), key texts (Goffman, Foucault), and actors (inmates, professionals, and policy-makers). Different approaches to common concerns have yet to be dominated by particular thinkers, and so there is room for sustained interdisciplinary collaboration. Particularly for those concerned with the interweaving of borders and confinement, this is an exciting moment to find ways to share research across borders, institutions, and languages.

For another review of the TerrFerme colloquium, see Dominique Moran's summary on her blog Carceral Geography.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Martin L (2013) Spatial Orders, Porous Confinements, and the Role of Critique. Available at: ‎(Accessed [date]).