A Carceral Geographer’s Examination of the Prison Boundary: An Interview with Jennifer Turner

This is part of our special feature on Crime and Punishment.

I first met Jennifer Turner by chance in England as we were both doing a post-doc there. Right away, her field of research intrigued me: carceral geography, from the Latin carcer for prison. For this special feature on crime and punishment, she spoke with me about how she became interested in this emerging research area and what it can do to expand our spatial understanding of the prison, as well as address wider societal questions in connection with cycles of incarceration and welfare philosophy. For people on the outside, prisons remain a vastly unknown, separate, and often feared space. Yet, we have all bonded with the many legendary released convicts, wrongfully imprisoned characters, or heroic prison escapees that literature has produced, as they seek purpose and possibilities in post-incarceration life—from Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, to Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean, or Papillon’s autobiographic narrative. Even today, as I prepared for this interview, French media were enthralled by the recapture of a notorious convict after his second extraordinary escape from prison, transforming the affair into a deeper societal question beyond simple curiosity and sensationalism. Prisons, prisoners, and the transgression of the inside-outside frontier between lawfulness and crime seem to fascinate people who are on the outside (or are they really?). What does the inside of prisons tell us about those residing there, but also about the rest of society? In sharing her research and fieldwork experience on site, Dr. Turner gives us an insider’s take to help us understand that the border between the two worlds has become difficult to place spatially or temporally, as it is constantly being crossed over in a multitude of visible and less obvious ways.

—Hélène B. Ducros for EuropeNow


EuropeNow What is “carceral geography?”

Jennifer Turner Carceral geography comes from incarceration. Geographers are typically interested in space and spatiality. As a human geographer of carceral space, I study the ways in which humans interact with the space of the prison. There are different ways to think about that. Dominique Moran’s work has defined carceral geography along three lines of inquiry that hold together studies of incarceration and examine their implicit geographies and everyday spatial relationships. The first characteristic of carceral geography inquires into what constitutes the nature of incarceration spaces and the experiences occurring there: What is a carceral space? What does it look like? Who experiences it and how? The second line of inquiry focuses on the spatiality of carceral systems, in particular the lived experiences of carceral sites, mobilities, movements within and between carceral institutions, and the relationships across carceral boundaries, between an inside and an outside of a carceral space. The third aspect of scrutiny is the relationship between different forms of carceral spatiality and the punitive state, looking at the rationale behind spaces of imprisonment and how that relates to why a society practices them. Carceral geography is a vibrant research field, although it may be bound by access to sites and institutions. Access can vary depending on where in the world research is being conducted and the stringencies and perspectives of different justice systems. Our research must also account for the vulnerability of carceral individuals who might be involved in it.

EuropeNow What do you mean by “carcerality?” Is there an empirical definition or is it a theoretical framework?

Jennifer Turner What really interests me in this emerging field is that it has pushed geography into a new empirical territory and critical agenda. Thinking spatially through carcerality has stimulated innovative theoretical advances in human geography. Carceral geographers highlight the importance of carceral sites for geographical thinking about space-making, home-making, mobilities, emotions in space, time-space regimes, the role of state power and governance, practices of incarceration, and the design of spaces. Carcerality then becomes a framework within which to interrogate a wide range of empirical processes. I would argue that carceral geography is both empirical and theoretical and thus advances the discipline as a whole. You can trace the idea of the carceral to Foucault’s work in Discipline and Punish with the traditional and typical institution of carcerality being a prison space. But, in the last decade, the carceral has been attached to other types of experiences and spaces, for example detention centers for refugees or asylum seekers. There are also less concrete visions of carcerality, such as the control of youths in urban spaces after dark.

With colleagues Dominique Moran and Anna Schliehe, we think of carcerality as a three-pillar system based on spatiality, detriment, and intent. The first pillar is spatial, i.e. a restriction or limitation to movement through space. Then there is detriment, which means that a carceral circumstance results in a negative situation, i.e. the loss of liberty associated with imprisonment. Thirdly, there should be intent, i.e. a deliberate purpose carried out by a particular governance such as the State. Using these pillars, we might expand our consideration of carcerality to spaces and situations beyond the realm of traditionally “carceral” empirical areas. In this respect, we might question whether people with physical disabilities may be considered under this framework. Depending on their circumstances, you might clearly argue that disabilities result in spatial limitations and this could be considered to be a detrimental circumstance. However, we might ask if there is a set of intentions or societal policies behind the experience. For a biological disability, you might be able to argue that it is not the case, but you could also have situations where disability is impacted by societal restrictions, policies, or lack of provisions. In this case, the experiences of this group of people may be considered to be “carceral.” So, this is how carcerality can become a theoretical lens through which to explore different empirical cases.

EuropeNow How do you find your training as a geographer particularly helpful and how did you take this particular direction in your studies and research?

Jennifer Turner In the UK, I was one of the first PhD students to call themselves a carceral geographer. At the time, it was an exploratory area. I was first drawn to the prison as a site of empirical research from my interest in prison governance. My Master’s degree is in political geography. I studied issues of territory, knowledge, and power, especially as exemplified in borders and the material construction of boundaries. As a geographer, I am a border scholar. That led me to think of the boundary of the prison and border relationships between inside-outside of a prison, between the criminal bodies contained within that space and the rest of the population outside the so-called law-abiding society. My doctoral research looked at the prison boundary and things that cross over it, from contraband to clothing, but also less tangible things like the construction of stigma and emotional relationships. I conceptualize the prison boundary as a patchwork of all these spaces, agents and relationships.

EuropeNow Can you talk about different carceral spatialities? What are examples of prison spaces that researchers study?

Jennifer Turner Carceral space is ripe for scrutiny from a range of different scales. An architectural geographer might be interested in various scales in the prison environment, such as micro-architecture, from the placement of an alarm within a cell to the overall aesthetics of the prison site as a whole. Carceral geographers have looked at different spaces within carceral establishments. For example, some have considered the spaces that contain immigrants in removal centers within border camps. Dominique Moran and her colleagues have explored prisons’ visiting rooms as unique border spaces where key critical relationships are shaped between visitors and prisoners. Others have looked at greenspaces inside prisons such as outdoor areas like spaces for exercise; or education spaces; sports facilities; and even very particular spaces such as the “sally port” – a colloquial name in some US prisons for the vehicle entrance or “airlock” between the exterior perimeter and the prison proper. In addition, we cannot ignore carceral spaces both before and after they function as such. In a project with Yvonne Jewkes and Dominique Moran, I spent time looking at prison blueprints, interviewing architects, and charting complicated building processes to understand how prisons come to be before they are even built. In contrast, a number of prisons have closed, but their physical buildings still exist, which led various colleagues around the world and I to look at prison tourism. Lots of prison cells are now hotel rooms or museums. So, aside from scale, time is also a consideration for exploring prison spaces.

EuropeNow When social scientists speak of the “punitive turn,” what do they mean?

Jennifer Turner The punitive turn describes the recourse to more punitive strategies of incarceration and measures that we associate with the criminal justice system, perhaps harking back to the nineteenth century when prisons were really spaces of loss of liberty and were very unpleasant places. This might include an agenda within spaces of incarceration, making the prison itself a harder personal experience. But it also encompasses strategies operating outside the prison environment that aim at punishing particular groups or individuals within a specific society. For example, one could argue that in the US a set of law-making strategies might be directed more towards black urban poor, where social circumstances create the criminalizing of particular individuals. Not every country will experience a punitive turn. Scandinavian countries are prime examples of that. “Scandinavian exceptionalism” expresses the idea that there are countries with different regimes of prison spaces, which are moving away from the punitive strategy, fostering instead one of decency, care, respect, with no desire to make the prison environment a hard punishment. Individuals who are incarcerated are seen as individuals who will once again be back to society.

EuropeNow How have new technologies changed the experience and conceptualization of the carceral environment?

Jennifer Turner There are two ways to answer this question. Technology has changed the carceral environment by changing the conceptualization of spaces of incarceration as well as expanding our notion of the carceral. Within the traditional space of incarceration, like the prison, technological innovation has changed the day-to-day living of prison space, which raises a few important questions. For example, one debate today is whether or not prisoners should have access to mobile telephones, since it is the way most people communicate today. Also, there is the question of in-cell tablets, or simple in-cell intranet, used to make systems more efficient inside, from booking a doctor’s appointment to making menu choices from “the comfort of your own cell.” Some would argue that this is a natural way that our society if moving forward and that technological innovations allow prisons to keep up with advancements in the wider society. But others argue that is has also become a way to further control the population. For example, such innovations often reduce staff contact. No longer do you have to turn in a menu on a sheet of paper. You don’t engage with staff anymore. Lots of debates also emerge around increased use of CCTV within prison spaces and the consequent reduction in the number of staff necessary to keep that space safe. Technology has complicated the traditional prison space because it changes the way that space is managed and staff-to-prisoner ratios, in exchange for new lived experiences for prisoners. The second way to think about how technology has changed the conceptualization of the carceral environment is the notion that it may have blurred the boundaries of where the traditional carceral space lies. For instance, electronically tracking individuals means a monitoring system that restricts movement range or timing, for example through curfews. It blurs the boundary of where the prison is, where it begins and ends, as well as when a prison sentence ends. Innovative technology leads to complex tracking mechanisms, through media, online presence, employment records, etc. Conceptually, it expands the notion of traditional carceral space.

EuropeNow Given these developments, let’s backtrack a little. How can the term “prisoner” be explained in light of this blurring of the prison boundary?

Jennifer Turner I would say that first and foremost a prisoner is someone who is confined spatially. But there are nuances. In the US context, there is a difference between “jail” and “prison,” but we use the word “prisoners” for people in either place. For me, the prison is a very particular institution. There have been many attempts to distinguish imprisonment and detention. Often detention is used to describe a situation of confinement or internment. Some people understand imprisonment as having some kind of purpose such as retribution or as a form of rehabilitation. For me, a prisoner is associated with the space of the prison, but I realize that this is complicated by where and when the prison is located. If you ask me about the “carceral subject,” then I would return to my definition of someone experiencing spatial limitation, along with the notions of intention and detriment. These definitions are widely debated. I have colleagues who write about “ex-offenders” and question when someone stops being an offender. At a recent conference I heard a former prisoner presenting her life story. It was explained that somehow when you use the term “ex-offender,” it implies that your history has a line drawn under it where your negative history remains in the present. Some of these terms are imbued with problematic politics. We don’t ever call anyone an “ex-baby,” even though we all are.

EuropeNow When you speak of carceral subjects, do you include all people who are part of the prison space? For example, what do you make of prison guards?

Jennifer Turner There are various actors in prison space. We can speak about staff, police, judges, visitors, and also people who are involved in secondary prisonization, such as the families of prisoners who are detrimentally affected and socially stigmatized by having a relative in prison. There are many situations where you might think of prison staff as carceral subjects. In recent work about architecture, we think of the prison as a working environment, not just as a space for residential containment of individuals who have committed crimes. What is it like as a work place? There are many negative aspects of working in prisons—for example, high stress levels. Also, the physical environment is not always palatable, because of its smells, sounds, and temperature. You can typically add low pay to that as well. So you start to question whether prison staff may indeed have a carceral experience. This is why it’s important to define the carceral and who we include.

EuropeNow What have you worked on and what are you working on at the moment? Tell us about your research.

Jennifer Turner My research has taken many directions. But, since my initial foray into carceral geography where I looked at prison boundary, what still underlies my work is the way we conceptualize the relationship between prison and society. I’ve been involved in a number of projects that address different spatialities and experiences in carceral spaces, as well as prison tourism. I have also specifically focused on carceral mobilities: for example in a historical project about prison ships transporting convicts from the UK to Australia in the nineteenth century. My latest work is about the experience of prison architecture and technology. We interrogate how prisons are designed to perpetuate or erode a welfare philosophy, and how the built environment influences lived experiences and behaviors. This kind of research also draws on psychology and leads to interesting discussions about the cell space, the colors on the walls, and many other facets of architecture, like insulation, lights, movements around spaces, and more. What does the architecture of the prison achieve and why? Right now, still looking back at the prison boundary, I am working on former military personnel as prison staff, in the context of their own transition from military to civilian (with Dominique Moran and Helen Arnold). This comes out of a recent push by our government to recruit new staff among people with a military background. We are interested in understanding why that’s the case; what bearing it will have on staff-prisoner relationships; and how that might perhaps help the transition from military to civilian life for those prison staff themselves.

EuropeNow What wider societal questions can the study of prisons help address?

Jennifer Turner Intrinsically, carceral geography enables empirical studies about the criminal justice system, about how we construct and manage law-making, the kinds of spaces we build to incarcerate people, how we punish people and for what particular crimes. Beyond that, what comes out of my work on prison as boundary is that the criminal justice system in any country is not just about law-making or law-breaking, but it is also related to systems of welfare, education, health, employment, and increasingly also aging. Studies of carcerality are always to some degree studies about societal practices in other influencing areas. Who is excluded and on what ground? Countries differ in their views on law-making and law-breaking, so questions arise about lasting legacies of how prison identity shapes further behavior and lived experiences. Hence, carceral geography is very useful both as empirical tool and as theoretical lens through which to explore a number of societal issues.

EuropeNow Can you speak comparatively about how carceral environments might vary in different places and why?

Jennifer Turner There is a caveat here, because it’s very difficult to compare the carceral globally. It depends on the rationale behind the comparison. For example, when comparing crime rates across different countries, we know that there are many reasons why those might be different: population size, welfare philosophy, GDP, physical structures, and more. Likely it’s difficult to discern a direct comparison across prison systems. But this is not to say that you can’t highlight differences. For example, in a country with a large population, the prison system might typically be overcrowded. If a country has an extremely low GDP, the physical prison infrastructure might not be in a good state. In the US, the last count shows that there are over 2 million prisoners there. That number creates increased pressures on the prison space and limits spending per head as well as the diversity of carceralities, with a trend towards more punitive practices. In the US, the problem is one of managing large numbers of prisoners and older prisons. There are different rhetorics to explain the high incarceration rate in the US and the states of prisons. What constitutes a crime is often surrounded by a certain philosophy of law-making and law-breaking, which can be seen, for example, in the three strikes policy. It is easy to compare that to a country like, Norway, which enjoys a very high GDP and a much lower number of prisoners, allowing for high budget spending on quality prison spaces, staffing, and infrastructures. The UK sits somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, we do have a high number of prisoners here. The budget does not always allow things to be as innovative and progressive as administrators wish. A direct comparison between the UK and Norway reveals that in Norway the most recent prison built cost the equivalent of 250 million British pounds to hold 250 prisoners. While in the UK, we also built a prison for 250 million pounds, but it holds 2000 prisoners. So, it is related to numbers, but also the public appetite for spending in the criminal justice sector. Many politicians would make a case as to whether we should invest infrastructurally for the welfare of individuals who committed crimes. Depending on what side of the fence you stand, this could be very influential rhetoric.

EuropeNow What about the EU? Does it provide regulations that pertain to prisons? If so, do you anticipate that Brexit might change things for UK prisons?

Jennifer Turner That is a good question. In the UK, the National Prison and Probation Service is completely run under the UK government. The guidelines that we adhere to are born out of our government’s prison rules and regulations. However, we also abide by advisory guidelines, such as those of UN conventions on human rights, the international committee of the Red Cross on sanitation, and the European Prison Rules. These are deemed to be good practices, but are often not legally binding. Certain European regulations surrounding the criminal justice system more widely also come to bear. For example, the way that people come to be in prison might be dictated by actions of the Court of Justice of the EU. In addition to this, thinking back to our example of prison planning, we might see how there are also practical laws and regulations at a European level that are enforced within the prison system. I am thinking here about standard building regulations or carbon footprints. We have yet to hear about the implications of Britain’s exit from the EU in relation to such matters. However, what is clear is that Brexit might change the scope and nature of how we deal with individuals who come to us seeking asylum. Depending on how closed our borders become, it will be interesting to see if spaces like detention centers come under pressure or become redundant. There is a lot of attention in carceral geography brought on “crimmigration,” i.e. the criminalizing of immigration and its variances in terms of jobs, housing, families with children, in spaces that are essentially prisons.

EuropeNow As someone outside this field of research, I tend to think of prisons as largely male-dominated spaces. As a woman working in that masculine world, how do you fare? What opportunities does this bring, or hindrances? Or does it not matter at all?

Jennifer Turner The male-oriented nature of the prison space comes with the territory. In the UK, there are more incarcerated men than women. Any prison researcher going into a prison for the first time, regardless of gender, would feel some apprehension. There are individuals there who have been incarcerated for challenging reasons—challenging because it makes you think about your own conception of what is right and wrong. Does my gender make a difference? I think that any researcher can ask the same question in relation to any research context. What I am most conscious of in prison environment when I do research is that I am neither a prison officer, nor a member of staff (like a psychologist, health professional, or counselor). In that respect, I find that prisoners respond well to me because I suppose I am a voice that is not trying to assess, control, or restrict them. I am aware that people will sign up to do interviews because they want to have a conversation with someone that is not one of those two things. Can it be seen as coercive? It’s difficult because ethically-minded researchers cannot coerce people to participate. For the same reason, when I do interviews in prisons, I cannot provide biscuits because that would be incentivizing in an environment where people don’t usually get those snacks. I suppose that speaking to a female researcher might be seen as incentivizing. I don’t ask them that question. But overall, I think it’s less about gender than about being a different person to talk to, one who is hopefully promising that their voices will be recognized.

EuropeNow Let me ask you a personal question perhaps. Can you remember what you thought when you entered a prison for the first time? How did it make you feel? How did you know “I want to come back and I want to study this?”

Jennifer Turner The first prison I visited for a prolonged amount of time for research was a small women’s prison in Northern Ireland. There are very few prisons of that nature, so it was exceptional. My overall thought was how unlike it was from all media portrayals of the prison, although “normal” would be the wrong word. When I came out of that prison for the first time, I remember thinking how unexceptional a space I found it, notwithstanding of course the fences and security. As it’s often the case in small prisons, there seemed to be a positive relationship between staff and prisoners. What I mostly took away was how, but for circumstances, I could have been just one of those people in prison. These people were not people I should be afraid of or pity. They were not that different from me, except obviously they had committed a crime and had been sentenced by the courts to be held securely. Some degree of curiosity always drives research, but mostly I felt committed to try to ensure that prison spaces were decent, humane, consistent, and productive. If they are going to be there at all, there should be a purpose to them. They should achieve something and not be something that just exists because there is no better plan. When I go to prisons, I reflect a lot about what I would do; about what I feel if I were there to stay. The truth is that even after all these experiences in prison spaces, I would not be fine. You can be in the world’s most expensive prison and it’s still a prison. It’s still about loss of liberty, loss of freedom, loss of control over your body and your individuality. I am passionate about a purposeful strategy for incarceration.

EuropeNow What is the legacy of having been imprisoned? Do people in the end internalize those limitations beyond their time in prison? Do we know what happens to them after prison?

Jennifer Turner There are many colleagues, particularly in the US, who look at cycles of carcerality and what is called the “revolving door” and the reasons why certain groups of people are caught in cycles of crime and imprisonment. For example, research shows that if you have a parent that has been incarcerated, you might wind up in that cycle. Mapping stories of personal imprisonment is very tricky for two reasons. First, we seldom capture the success stories. If someone is released from prison and they go on to live a “law-abiding” life, if they are not part of the welfare infrastructure, we may not hear about what they go on to do. They are not captured in the dataset, unless, perhaps, they are in a program for six months after being released. Secondly, the logistics of post-release life is complex. Individuals may be housed in temporary accommodations, such as hostels. Very often there is no place they go back to, where you can return mail to, or locate these people and monitor their progress. Often, things we take for granted are not accessible, like a mobile phone contract. In the UK, that would involve conducting a credit check. Often you find people using temporary addresses and borrowing phone numbers where it’s a friend of a friend and so on. So people released from prison often become caught in a cycle and these stories are hard to grasp. There is also a wider epistemological consideration of how you determine the cause and effect of post-release successes. For example, it could be because of a) the experience these individuals had while they were in prison, or b) the post-release environment, or c) d) e) f) something else. It’s quite difficult to tell.

EuropeNow What other disciplines are you brought to work with in your work? What do they bring to complement your approach?

Jennifer Turner Obviously, criminology is the discipline that shares much of its empirical alignment with what I am trying to do. Geography is well-received in the criminology scope because of our spatial agenda. In my early days during the PhD, when there was not a lot of carceral geography literature, I went to empirical studies in criminology frequently. In the current work on military personnel transitioning to prison staff, we draw a lot on the fields of psychology and mental health. The work on architecture was heavily influenced by Richard Wener, an environmental psychologist. My work on mobility rested on sociologist John Urry’s work. As a discipline, geography has many overlaps anyway, and even more when you add to that the particular nature of the carceral space, which calls for extremely interconnected disciplinary structures. This is something I really enjoy about doing this type of research. I might call myself a “geo-criminologist.” Can any contemporary academic scholar these days deny that they have been influenced by other disciplines?

EuropeNow What do you think are your field’s most salient debates today? How can research on carceral spaces inform policy-makers? Are there ways for you to share your research to implement change?

Jennifer Turner There are many big issues: high incarceration rates, overcrowding of prison structures, welfare, and more. There are also more discrete topics. Today, climate change is a big concern. We can add that layer to the prison, for example when talking about the challenges of developing green prisons or environmentally-friendly prisons. Through relations forged in getting access to prison space and the network built through the participants who engage in the research, you start seeing who is making decisions about carceral spaces. As an example, the work on prison architecture involved interviewing a range of architects and managers within the Ministry of Justice who are involved in prison design, people who commission and build new prisons. We were able to take on a role of consultancy around the final stages of the construction of the most recent prison in the UK. Based on the research, we could tell them that we thought they should include x, y and z. The research process and the production of knowledge themselves bring ad hoc relationships where we can pass along good ethical research in ways that can be useful to our participants. There are opportunities to give direct feedback. Many carceral geographers are also involved with organizations that support change and action around carceral spaces, for example the Prison Reform Trust. There are many ways to engage with actors who are influential. But all prison research brings with it an inherent tension that we need to grapple with. Colleagues who read this in the US context, who take a fierce abolitionist stance to prisons, do not engage with in-prison research because the institution is not suitable. There is the belief that researching in the prison – and producing a report about what you find, for example – might improve the prison, and therefore further legitimize its existence. On the one hand, our research might be seen as taking action to improve the situation in the setting of imprisonment, but it also arguably legitimizes it.

EuropeNow How do you see the future of the field?

Jennifer Turner My particular interest is to push the understanding of where carcerality begins and ends. In my paper with Dominique Moran and Anna Schliehe on reconceptualizing the carceral, we made a plea to push out the boundaries to question the way we have been defining the subject. It’s not only important to me as a scholar in an academic discussion, but also because seeing the carceral as a circuit of crime and punishment and extending the boundaries of the “where” and “how” of the system gives us scope to delve into other areas that might not have been previously considered. It gives us a much broader and richer picture of what leads people into criminal activity and critically asks why and where the prison features as an important institution within a state. It leads us to a more nuanced and hopefully productive way to view our criminal justice landscape.


Jennifer Turner is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Liverpool. Her research is concerned with spaces, practices, and representations of incarceration, past and present. Jennifer has published widely in the fields of carceral geography and criminology. She is the author of The Prison Boundary: Between Society and Carceral Space (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and co-editor of Carceral Mobilities: Interrogating Movement in Incarceration (Routledge, 2017).

Hélène B. Ducros holds a law degree (JD) and PhD in geography from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. She is interested in place-making and landscape perception. At EuropeNow, she is Chair of Research and Pedagogy.

Published on November 8, 2018.


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