Post by Sarah Turnbull, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford.

Review of Carceral Spaces: Mobility and Agency in Imprisonment and Migrant Detention edited by Dominique Moran, Nick Gill, and Deirdre Conlon (Ashgate, 2013).

Although the study of incarceration has typically been dominated by the disciplines of criminology and sociology, there’s a growing interest in this topic within human geography. Carceral Spaces aims to address this curiosity by marking out ‘a new field in geographical research,’ that of ‘carceral geography,’ which the editors define as ‘the geographical engagement with the practices of imprisonment and migration detention’ (p. 1). The collection brings together scholarship related to the key themes of mobility, space, and agency in consideration of these practices.

The volume consists of sixteen chapters, including an introduction and a conclusion by the editors. The chapters are divided into two parts, the first on ‘mobility,’ and the second on ‘space and agency,’ each of which has a dedicated chapter that prefaces the section’s contributions. The chapters cover several jurisdictions beyond the United Kingdom and United States, including Russia, Romania, France, and Colombia. Additionally, most of the contributions draw on empirical research to engage with the analytical and conceptual themes of mobility, space, and agency. The penal settings under study in the contributions are diverse, reflecting the editors’ view that carceral spaces aren’t simply ‘traditional’ prison spaces, but ‘all the grades and varieties of confinement that are possible outside formal prison systems’ (p. 239-240). This is an important point as it helps unsettle the false assumption that ‘freedom’ exists outside prison or detention centre walls.

The book’s first part on mobility includes a range of substantive topics: electronic monitoring, migrant detention, deportation, census counting practices, inmate labour, and prisoner transportation. What connects these chapters is the authors’ focus on problematising the mobility/immobility and inside/outside binaries that studies of incarceration often presume. The chapter by Nick Gill points to the ways in which governmental power operates in and through mobility, showing how electronic monitoring works as a form of ‘punitive mobility.’ Bénédicte Michalon’s chapter underscores the integral role of movement (both voluntary and forced) in systems of confinement in her work on migrant detention in Romania. An interesting chapter by Dominique Moran, Laura Piacentini, and Judith Pallot draws on qualitative interview data to understand women’s experiences of prison transportation in Russia, highlighting the limitations of the inside/outside dichotomy. Nancy Hiemstra’s contribution on the production of ‘chaotic geographies’ of migrant detention and deportation through detainee transfers highlights the consequences for migrants of this spatialised practice.

The second part of the book on space and agency has chapters on hunger strikes by asylum seekers, migrant detention visitation programs, privacy in prison, the Americanisation of Colombian prisons, prisoners’ poetry, and televised representations of prison life. The chapters are united by the shared concern as to the ways in which prisoners and detainees exercise their agency within different carceral settings. The chapter by Lauren Martin offers a unique consideration of visitation in migrant detention centres as a particular tactic for destabilising the spatial practices of the US detention system that keep these spaces and their occupants isolated and hidden from the broader community. Olivier Milhaud and Dominique Moran’s contribution presents a thoughtful comparison of the experiences of penal space through the lens of privacy, showing how prisoners in French and Russian prisons differently react to and make sense of their environments.

Importantly, Carceral Spaces brings together studies of migrant detention with those of ‘traditional’ forms of imprisonment, highlighting the ways in which these practices differ as well as coalesce. The editors present a strong case for considering detention and imprisonment in a ‘holistic carceral framework’ (p. 239) as several of the chapters underscore the blurring of the boundaries between these two practices. In addition, the focus on mobility―or the ‘circuitry of the incarcerated’ (p. 241)―is an especially important aspect of the collection as it draws attention to lesser known practices that are integral parts of migrant detention and imprisonment systems: detainee and prisoner transfers and transport, and electronic monitoring. What is notably absent from the collection, however, is a consideration of the ways in which carceral spaces are gendered and racialised.

Although the book is aimed at developing the field of carceral geography, it would be of interest to those outside of human geography, including criminologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and migration scholars. Overall, the collection is a valuable contribution to the study of confinement in its many forms.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Turnbull, S. (2015) Book Review: Carceral Spaces: Mobility and Agency in Imprisonment and Migrant Detention. Available at: (Accessed [date]).