Carceral Spaces – Female Offenders and the Prison Environment

13 Jun

My research explores the relationship between gender, space and punishment grounding my analysis in the words of women in prison, their experiences, as well as contemporary feminist theories of agency and identity.   In so doing I aim to illustrate one of the many dimensions of exclusion, by examining a space designed by the state for the excluded i.e.: female offenders. My current work is drawn from research conducted at HMP Styal Prison in 2009, and other female establishments across England.

Throughout my work I have argued that any analysis of ‘women’s conformity, law-breaking and punishment must engage with the ‘ideological and material circumstances’ within which they are criminalised. Carlen holds that women lawbreakers exercise volition in a socio-political sense, ‘not only because  they ‘find themselves’ outwith conventional class and  gender controls, but also they choose criminal means  in attempts to apply  individualist  remedies to the social inequalities  stemming from class exploitation, sexism and racism’ (1983:17 emphasis in original). Accordingly, women’s recourse to crime must be seen as a response to the magnitude of social conditions which produce offending.  The appropriate objects for penological analysis therefore, are the material relationships of class, gender, cultural  and racial domination,  ‘which  we have to remember are [neither] reducible to each other’, nor separable  from the multifaceted  realities of women’s punishment (ibid)

In understanding the role of prisons the work of Foucault is crucial in providing an understanding of the nature of the capillaries of power in prisons. These capillaries affect the identities of the incarcerated as the power to shape the embodied subject is visible and invisibly dispersed. It results from the whole spectrum of routines, forms of treatment, disciplines, attitudes of staff, other prisoners and  the women themselves. The effect is the re-construction of the subject as opposed to the mere punishment of the illegal act.

Capillaries are a biological metaphor used by Foucault to denote a kind of power which reaches into every part of the ‘body’ of society. Capillaries (literally are a multitude of small intersecting fibrous channels (the word comes from ‘hairs’) through which the blood circulates, and this idea is meant to shift our attention away from large-scale centralized power of the state towards the less visible operation of decentralized networks. Foucault says this is the most important kind of power characteristic of modern societies, which he illustrates by, among other things, the discourses and practical knowledge of various professions and academic disciplines, etc’.

The techniques of disciplinary power attempts to erode the disordered identity of the incarcerated. This movement is denoted by the transition from the corporeal to carceral punishment, normalisation and individualisation creating, ‘a whole domain of knowledges and types of power’ (Foucault 1977: 185). Punishment is no longer addressed to the ‘body of the criminal but to the soul’ (Foucault, 1977: 16).  Thus the use of power ‘seems all the less ‘corporal’ in that it is more subtly ‘physical’’ (Rabinow, 1991:193).

By drawing on HMP Styal I examine the changing social structure of the institution, the changes in the participants’ identity and the relationship between space and place within the prison environment. In the creation of new identities, new spaces are formed and new identities are created in response to shifts in meaning.  Moreover, these new identities open up further possibilities and new landscapes within the carceral space are produced.

Azrini Wahidin –  is a Reader in the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work. She is giving a paper entitled: Carceral Spaces – Female Offenders and the Prison Environment at Oxford University on the 22nd June, 2010. The conference has developed from an ESRC funded research project co-ordinated by Professor Judith Pallot, Dr Laura Piacentini and Dr Dominique Moran.


Carlen, P (1983), Women’s imprisonment; A study in social control. London Routledge & K.P.Foucault, M (1977), Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. London: Allen Lane

Rabinow, P. (1991) The Foucault Reader. London: Penguin


One Response to “Carceral Spaces – Female Offenders and the Prison Environment”


  1. Women in the Criminal Justice System « Irish Criminology Research Network - September 28, 2010

    […] Dr Azrini Wahidin: Older Women in Prison: Issues and Challenges […]

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