In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Carceral Geographies

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Defining the Carceral
  • Main Theories of Carceral Geography
  • The Carceral and the Punitive State
  • Related Field of Carceral Studies—Criminology and Prison Sociology
  • An Exemplary Selection of Non-Anglophone Sources and Research beyond the Global North

Geography Carceral Geographies
Anna Schliehe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0255


Carceral geography provides a valuable, spatially informed view on confinement and closed spaces, while at the same time attempting to make efforts toward social change. Carceral geography provides a new angle on wider human-geographical debates and highlights how closed spaces show broad societal issues with a heightened intensity, providing a background for discussions on issues of security, safety, and surveillance. In an attempt to conceptualize carceral geography, Philo described the subfield as one of three strands of geographical security studies dealing with “the spaces set aside for ‘securing’—detaining, locking up or away—problematic populations of one kind or another” (p. 4). While at first many studies in carceral geography have solely focused on prisons, rather than examining different types of closed institutions under the umbrella of carceral geography, research on a wider array of spaces and practices has become increasingly common, such as migrant detention, nursing homes, children’s homes, and the military. Carceral-geographic research touches upon broader issues such as gender, mobility, or the more-than-human aspects, but also wider societal discussions on labor, security, and state power. With a landmark monograph Carceral Geography: Spaces and Practices of Incarceration Dominique Moran defined carceral geography along three lines of investigation that fold together studies of incarceration with an examination of their implicit geographies: (1) the nature and experience of carceral spaces, (2) spatial and distributional characteristics of carceral systems, and (3) the relationship between the carceral system and an increasingly punitive state. These areas within carceral geography overlap with other geographies of security, namely research on landscapes of defense and critical geopolitics. While much carceral-geographic scholarship originates in an Anglophone context, research can be found in many more languages and countries.

General Overview

While individual geographical studies on prisons and other closed institutions go back to the 19th century and the work Kropotkin 1887 on Russian and French prisons, the field of carceral geographies has only emerged more recently. Although there are a few earlier unpublished studies by geographers, Valentine and Longstaff 1998 on the negotiation of power relations within prison through food distribution and Dirsuweit 1999, a case study on carceral spaces in a women’s prison in South Africa, mark the first publications of empirical research that can retrospectively be positioned within the field of carceral geography. The enormous potential of spaces of incarceration for geographical enquiry was highlighted in Philo 2001, which turned a book review on Kantrowitz 1996 into an agenda-setting article. Similarly, Gilmore 2002 was very influential and defined prisons as spaces of ‘state building’ and connecting incarceration with debates around and practices of racism. The term ‘carceral geography’ itself was coined in articles Moran, et al. 2012 and Philo 2012 to describe this increasingly vibrant field of geographical research on closed spaces and practices of confinement. However, it was used in teaching by scholars like Ruth Wilson Gilmore as early as the late 1990s. Since then, many edited collections have been published, for example Loyd, et al. 2012; Moran, et al. 2013; Turner and Peters 2017; Moran and Schliehe 2017; and Morin and Moran 2015, alongside monographs including Turner 2016 and Milhaud 2017 that showcase a wide-ranging array of empirical and theoretical scholarship. Carceral geography is in close dialogue with longer-standing academic engagements with the carceral, most notably criminology and prison sociology. More contemporary scholarship has taken a more nuanced approach to allow carceral geography to emerge as a standalone field of enquiry.

  • Dirsuweit, Theresa. “Carceral Spaces in South Africa: A Case Study of Institutional Power, Sexuality and Transgression in a Women’s Prison.” Geoforum 30.1 (1999): 71–83.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0016-7185(98)00030-X

    This study looks at accounts of South African carceral spaces, including the normative function of the prison linked to its spatial organization. Maintaining a Foucauldian terminology, the article describes the prison environment as a space of omnidisciplinary control that is nonetheless subject to (limited) resistance and a “reclaiming of space.”

  • Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. “Fatal Couplings of Power and Difference: Notes on Racism and Geography.” The Professional Geographer 54.1 (2002): 15–24.

    DOI: 10.1111/0033-0124.00310

    This article not only eloquently contextualizes the connection of political geography and race but also connects these with gender, class, and scale, while also introducing Gilmore’s work on prisons and activism.

  • Kantrowitz, Nathan. Close Control: Managing a Maximum Security Prison: The Story of Ragen’s Stateville Penitentiary. Albany, NY: Harrow & Heston, 1996.

    Kantrowitz’s work provides an extraordinary account of how different forms of control work in a high-security setting and how control of time and space is used as a means to manage a maximum security prison. The author wrote an early manuscript of the book when he was a resident sociologist at Ragen’s Stateville Penitentiary.

  • Kropotkin, Peter A. In Russian and French Prisons. Ward and Downey, London, 1887.

    In 1887 Kropotkin published this comprehensive study on Russian and French prisons, providing plans of the St. Petersburg Fortress with detailed accounts of prison spaces and exile colonies. The author also raised concerns about young people’s detention in Mettray and the reformatory colony of Porquerolles.

  • Loyd, Jenna, Matt Mitchelson, and Andrew Burridge, eds. Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2012.

    Offers scholarly and activist perspectives on the crisis of borders and prisons, understanding international borders as increasingly militarized places embedded within domestic policing and imprisonment and entwined with expanding prison-industrial complexes. Working at a range of geographic scales and locations, contributors examine concrete and ideological connections among prisons, migration policing and detention, border fortification, and militarization.

  • Milhaud, Olivier. Séparer et punir: Une géographie des prisons françaises. Paris: CNRS, 2017.

    This book is a major contribution to French carceral geography and explores the geographies of prison spaces in a French context.

  • Moran, Dominique, Nick Gill, and Deirdre Conlon, eds. Carceral Spaces: Mobility and Agency in Imprisonment and Migrant Detention. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013.

    This book draws together the work of a new community of scholars with a growing interest in carceral geography: the geographical study of practices of imprisonment and detention. It combines work by geographers on ‘mainstream’ penal establishments where people are incarcerated by the prevailing legal system with geographers’ recent work on migrant detention centers, where irregular migrants and ‘refused’ asylum seekers are detained.

  • Moran, Dominique, Laura Piacentini, and Judith Pallot. “Disciplined Mobility and Carceral Geography: Prisoner Transport in Russia.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37.3 (2012): 446–460.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2011.00483.x

    This article introduces carceral geography as a field that includes many individual research projects and studies and connects carceral geography with literature on mobility by connecting concepts of mobility and power in prisoner transport in Russia.

  • Moran, Dominique, and Anna K. Schliehe, eds. Carceral Spatialities: Dialogues between Geography and Criminology. London: Palgrave, 2017.

    This edited collection speaks to and expands on existing debates around incarceration. Rather than focusing on the bricks and mortar of institutional spaces, this volume’s inventive engagements in “thinking through carcerality” touch on more elusive concepts of identity, memory, and internal—as well as physical—walls and bars.

  • Morin, Karen M., and Dominique Moran, eds. Historical Geographies of Prisons: Unlocking the Usable Carceral Past. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2015.

    This is the first book to provide a comprehensive historical-geographical lens to the development and evolution of correctional institutions as a specific subset of carceral geographies. As an edited collection it analyzes and critiques global practices of incarceration, regimes of punishment, and their corresponding spaces of “corrections” from the 18th to 21st centuries.

  • Philo, Christopher. “Accumulating Populations: Bodies, Institutions and Space.” In Special Issue: (Re)theorising Population Geography. Edited by Elspeth Graham and Paul Boyle. International Journal of Population Geography 7 (2001): 473–490.

    DOI: 10.1002/ijpg.243

    Philo’s account of Kantrowitz’s work provides an example of how the simplification of prison space and time regime is an essential task in order to control and to intervene in the prison’s “ecology” and basic geography. Far from describing a “static geography,” Philo points toward Kantrowitz’s focus on mobility within prison space.

  • Turner, Jennifer. The Prison Boundary: Between Society and Carceral Space. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-53242-8

    This book explores the idea of the prison boundary, identifying where it is located, which processes and performances help construct and animate it, and who takes part in them. The book adds to the field by exploring the complexity of the material and symbolic connections that exist between society and carceral space.

  • Valentine, Gill, and Beth Longstaff. “Doing Porridge: Food and Social Relations in a Male Prison.” Journal of Material Culture 3.2 (July 1998): 131–152.

    DOI: 10.1177/135918359800300201

    This article studies the negotiation of power relations within prison through food distribution. In an environment where prisoners have limited access to money or material goods, food assumes immense value.

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