Spending time inside liminal space

By Amy Hornsby

Researching a world behind bars offering violent landscapes has been an incongruous summer research project, yet does prison space have to be this way? Are all this way? Do many of us really know or have given it a second thought? And most importantly, is carceral space really only behind bars? This post will discuss briefly my visit to a public open access café at a Category D (low-security) prison – that shall remain unnamed – which includes inmate workers in the café. This post shall lay the ground for exploring the new realm of carceral geographies, an increasingly vibrant subfield of human geography.

10. Amy blog imageImage: View directly opposite the Category D prison (image author’s own).

The carceral geographer Dominique Moran has argued carceral space is everywhere, and increasingly so. The school, factory, office, university, hospital, prison, immigration detention centre, housing estate, are for Moran, all carceral spaces. Carcerality is a term to move beyond perceiving incarceration (being locked away) as the only form of discipline or indeed punishment. Ultimately, Moran highlights the porosity of prison borders. Carcerality follows on from the philosopher Michel Foucault (1977: 304) who identified the “carceral texture of society” operating through restrictive norms of behaviour.

The UK incarcerates more people per 100,000 than any other country in Western Europe and its prison population has doubled in size over the past twenty years (Moran, 2013). In news of overcrowding, underfunding and soaring prisoner suicide rates in the UK, maybe it is time to reattend to the function of a prison, bringing to light the vast number of UK prisons under ‘special measures’. This is such an epidemic there is at present an ongoing case where an inmate of a prison in Holland was called to a prison in the UK but the authorities of Holland say to send the inmate to the UK Prison would be in breach of his human rights. HMP Bristol is, for instance, reported as home to carceral critters: cockroaches and rats.

Within 12 months of release, 40% of prisoners reoffend in the UK (Moran, 2013). Moran discusses the notion of a liminal space, asserting dominant spatial imaginaries plant the prison space as outside ‘our’ own worlds, but certainly a place where one goes ‘inside’, disparate and Other to ‘society’. This operates as an affective binary perpetually reproduced: an instrument of punitive normalisation, Foucault too highlighted. For Foucault, the ethical question does not even concern if we should have prisons or what indeed they should do, but the ethics regards the violence of normalisation itself. Normalisation as a power that seeks to categorise all bodies and shun from ‘society’ in the name of ‘civility’ anything beyond that norm, even fleetingly. Prison borders are not only porous due to advancing technology allowing for the flow of drones to circulate goods, not only due to the flow of bodies and ideas in and out, but in that prisons are not merely a response to crime in society. Carceral geographers posit prisons as a function of our current punitive, unequal and unjust society. Afterall, prisons do not spring up from nowhere, although they are increasingly architected to blend in, appearing as if they are not there at all.

Moran (2013) has explored the long-known fact in traditional criminology and prison sociology that recidivism (ending up back in prison) is less likely for an inmate who experienced greater time in the visitation room engaged with family or friends. This rings true across nations and methodologies and time itself. Yet, this profound positive effect of visitation has long been cited as underexplored. Moran argues carceral geographies, with human geography’s concern with affect and emotion, offers the perfect space to explore this; Moran names the visitation room a ‘liminal space’. Liminality in its original definition did not only mean the inbetween but also a site of transformation. The visitation room offers liminality in multiple forms, one being the visitors themselves are somewhere betwixt prisoner and ‘free’. Comfort (2008) has described female visitors as making their male partners ‘docile bodies’ in completing their sentences with good behaviour, serving as reminders of what the ‘outside’ has to offer, but also goes beyond this, the visiting experience affects in subtler ways. In San Quentin, California, long-visits (3 day visits) can be applied and paid for, reproducing a pseudo-domestic setting. I will not say it prevents prisoners from becoming fully institutionalised in their upkeep of relations that are less hierarchical than prison-guard-inmate, as the prison site is more-than-institutional serving as a point along a single carceral continuum. But within this liminality, between ‘inmate’ and ‘outsider’ the affect experienced is cumulatively transformative with increased chances one will not end up in prison again. This challenges the function of the ‘prison’ itself, if those who spend more time in the area that least resembles it, succeed in staying ‘free’.

The affects the site of a prison orchestrates are architected with precision. The first layout of which may come to mind is Bentham’s Panopticon, a circular structure with the watchtower that is visible from all cells to remind prisoners that someone may always be watching, but you can never tell when. Some prisons, such as HMP Wandsworth maintain this structure and are ‘failing’ by all static measures. Other prisons with dire reports such as the local HMP Bristol are also the products of old architecture, in this case Victorian. A volunteer in prisons I interviewed said they now refuse to work there and referenced the architecture itself resembling an asylum. The US is said to have the worst prisons with extreme security that anticipate inmate violence at every move, operating to some extent as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Norway however, with the lowest recidivism rate in the world, is praised for its architecture which swaps barbed-wire for forestry. It does not anticipate violence from inmates but aims to prevent that at its core, with low-security embodying a greater sense of humanity in its perception of inmates (Wright, n.d.).

As I arrived at the unnamed prison on a summer’s day in a rural, idyllic setting it was as if perhaps they had been inspired by the successful Norwegian model where a low-stone wall followed by grazing cows was the reality. The inmates working at the café could run out in a flash if they wanted to, contesting dominant imaginaries of prison-space. Flower boxes decorated the café. The inmate workers were free to share with me this outside seating space in their breaks too. Yet, was it merely a case of playing pretend? To my right through a glass window there were signs reading ‘no offenders past this point’ and a list on a whiteboard of contraband.

The liminal space of the café was betwixt two systems of the US and Norway still enmeshed in a structural evasive set of processes that teach punishment and violence in the face of wrongdoing. I was in the site the Daily Mail brand ‘the Ritz of prisons’ fuelling the pro-punishment rhetoric that feeds our policy. I was there as part of my research to produce an autoethnographic account of my own feelings in that space and on my way there. This is a response to Moran’s (2013) call that carceral geographies can overcome the main criticisms of affective geographies, instead using affect to prove more-than a conceptual point in recounting the embodied sensations within oppressed sites, but instead delve into something static representation knows as true but not why.

The space was liminal once more, being betwixt the sunshine, flowers, rolling hills, smiles and sugary delights and the heavy veil of intensity. The cited ‘intense atmosphere’ of incarceration was palpable. With the list of contraband visible through a window to my right, labels everywhere, and the long one-storey buildings that I wondered what was happening inside of? The affective geography of the site was something heavy, and I could feel the vulnerability of the bodies serving me to a higher authority and a space prone to disease, violence and even homicide.

[P]risoners tend to wear a ‘mask’ to conceal their ‘true selves’ in the intense atmosphere of the prison. (Liebling, 2004, pages 306 and 353)

The performativity of the prison space is, in the perspective of critical carceral geographers, a heightened manifestation of everyday self-discipline following Foucault’s Panopticism. The architecture of spaces and the woven fabric of society itself must change, if ‘prisoners’ and recidivism rates are to change too. The increased vulnerability of imprisoned bodies under the current system does not lead to changed or healed people.



Comfort, M. (2008) Doing Time Together: Love and Family in the Shadow of the Prison. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Liebling, A. (2004) Prisons and their Moral Performance: A Study of Values, Quality and Prison Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moran, D. (2013) Carceral geography and the spatialities of prison visiting: visitation, recidivism, and hyperincarceration. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31(1), pp.174-190.

Wright, C. (n.d.) The most successful prison system in the world is also the most radically humane. In: Wake Up World [Online]. Available at: <https://wakeup-world.com/2016/08/04/the-most-successful-prison-system-in-the-world-is-also-the-most-radically-humane/> Accessed on 1st August 2019.


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