Dominique Moran Introduces You to Carceral Geographies

This review was originally published in The Canadian Geographer published by the Canadian Association of Geographers and is available here. Read this and more at AustinKocher.com.

Dominique Moran’s book, Carceral Geography: Spaces and Practices of Incarceration, is a significant contribution to the academic investigation of the explosive growth of incarceration. Carceral Geographies astutely interrogates the ways in which power over bodies becomes institutionalized in the form of prison spaces by reviewing the complex array of practices, individual experiences, and forms of mobility that make prisons possible and even palatable. Moran accomplishes this by drawing upon a carefully selected and quickly expanding body of literature, within which Moran is, unquestionably, a trailblazer.

Over the past few decades, states in the developed world have abandoned the classical reformist mentality that drove early prison reforms and experimented with mass incarceration as a way of regulating growing populations who have been abandoned by neoliberal public policies. This transformation in police power is what many now call the “punitive turn.” Carceral geography emerges at this moment as a way of understanding how prison spaces are “spatial, emplaced, mobile, embodied, and affective” (p. 1). Moran’s text is a useful counterbalance to much of the literature on the punitive turn, which, due to the influence of quantitative methods from criminal justice and police sociology, tends to represent incarceration as a statistical problem rather than problematizing the practice of incarceration itself. Carceral geography’s largely ethnographic approach challenges the notion that prisons are about containment and exclusion, but rather demonstrates that prisons are “fluid, geographically-anchored sites of connections and relations” (p. 150): they mark the body with tattoos and missing teeth, and they are marked by mobility networks within, between, and beyond institutions.

The book is divided into three sections — Carceral Space, Geographies of Carceral Systems, and The Carceral and Punitive State — which advance, roughly speaking, from the scale of the body and of the everyday, to the broader social spectacle of incarceration. Each chapter introduces an analytic lens of carceral geography — prison transport, carceral space-time, and prison architecture, to take just three examples — which provide an indispensable springboard to graduate students and researchers seeking to grasp key literature in the field. For example, Chapter 8 challenges the stability of prison boundaries, first by demonstrating the many ways in which prison boundaries are powerful precisely because they are permeable spaces in which forms of subjectivity and discipline are enacted, and second, by showing how the carceral follows the body beyond the prison walls through constant surveillance, probation, and the “carceral churn” (106) of recidivism. Although the book does not contain an overarching theoretical argument, it is replete with theoretical inspiration and provocation, while being entirely readable.

Although the book is strong overall, there is no review of the role of race in incarceration, which is surprising since mass incarceration is widely understood through the lens of slavery and racial control (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow). Furthermore, although much of the research in this sub-discipline is motivated by prison abolitionism, there is no sustained discussion of spaces of carceral resistance. Any text which boldly attempts to review all of the relevant literature on prison spaces is bound to leave someone disappointed, but these absences felt significant in light of the growing chorus of criticisms of incarceration.

I highly recommend the Carceral Geographies working group website that Moran helps run, https://carceralgeography.com, as a resource and one of the best examples of online academic citizenship done well.

Alexander, Michelle 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.

Austin Kocher, PhD

Critical geographer studying immigration, policing, and courts. Visit AustinKocher.com for more on the current state of the US immigration system.

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