The Production of Space in Canadian Correctional Institutions
Written by Gihad Nasr
For the past two years, I have been speaking to my brother from behind a glass barrier in jail. Like many siblings, we catch up on our days and tell each other what we have been doing since the last time we’ve talked. But this glass barrier meant that some topics off limits and should not be probed. After all, our conversations through this barrier were being recorded.
While my interest in studying the production of space in Canadian correctional institutions stemmed from my interactions with my brother, it was clear that these encounters would not make for the best data. Instead, I asked people who have or had regular access to a correctional institution in Canada about their experiences. I asked people who could describe what a living unit or associated visiting room looks like. Through referrals from family and friends, I interviewed a correctional officer, visitor, social worker, chaplain, and two ex-prisoners. I asked participants questions about their daily routines and how a regular living unit or associated visitation area looks like.
Andrew, a correctional officer I interviewed, tells me that there are different units assigned to a designated population. For example, three units may hold general population prisoners. General population prisoners are those who are detained awaiting trial. Two units may hold sentenced prisoners. One unit will be designated for prisoners placed in administrative segregation and another for protective custody prisoners. The number of units differs from institution to institution, but this is the general structure.
I recreated Andrew’s sketch of the typical structure of a unit:
This unit has four ranges, a yard, and visitation room.
The architecture and design of each living unit is—for the most part—the same: two showers, one washroom, sixteen jail cells, one TV, and bolted steel stools. Everything is bolted to the floors or walls. Inside the jail cells, the bed, toilet, sink, and table and stool are also bolted to the floors. Each unit also has its own visitation area. If my brother is in unit one, correctional officers in the building will direct me to the visiting room for prisoners on unit one.
This unit at the South West Detention Centre is purple. (Robin 2017).
Each unit and the visiting room has its own colour scheme. For example, let’s say unit one is purple like the image above; then the visitation area would have purple doors, purple window frames, and purple window separators. This colour would run throughout the unit where prisoners resided—purple cell doors and purple window frames. Colour scheme is the distinguishing feature of each unit. In fact, I’ve visited all four general population units—blue, yellow, pink, and green.
This distinguishing mechanism made me curious. Specifically, I wanted to know why it was used and if this made a difference in how people related to the space they were in or visited. Do prisoners appreciate this variety in a rather monotonous space? Does this slight pop of colour amongst gray walls, floors, and furniture exert a different feeling? Do prisoners find joy from this seemingly insignificant design? Colour psychology has in fact been studied widely. Scientific studies have shown that different colours produce different effects on one’s cognition.
Despite having the same architecture and design, each unit had its own character. Mohamed, a black ex-prisoner, had labels for each unit. Throughout the interview, he would tell me “unit nine was the best” whereas “unit eleven was the worst.” He also labelled unit nine as “Black Land” and unit eleven as “White Land.” This further intrigued me. It became clear that prisoners organize and classify each unit according to internal dynamics.
According to French social theorist, Henri Lefebvre, social space is a “multitude of intersections” between social agents, social actions, and symbolic representations. Simply put, social space is produced and reproduced through “social actions, the actions of subjects both individual and collective.” I study carceral space as such. Mohamed’s perceptions and labels of each unit are reflections of the social space which includes interactions between social actions and symbols; in this case, racial dynamics between prisoners.
Mohamed tells me the few black prisoners on unit eleven, a white-majority unit, kept to themselves and did their own thing:
“At eleven where I was, there was a couple of us who was black. We kinda mind our own business.”
Andrew, a correctional officer at another institution, had expressed similar observations:
“[…] we may have a wing where it’s predominately white. Very few black people so those 3-4 individuals are generally quieter and they just do their own thing. And then maybe after several weeks or months the demographic changes. So now it’s predominately black and less white. Now there’s a change. So now you’ll see the television programming changes so now it’s all, what’s that television, it’s geared to…Black Entertainment Network?”
The racial composition of the unit determines how prisoners occupy the space: black prisoners in a white-majority unit take up less social space as they keep to themselves where white prisoners in a white-majority unit occupy more social space whether it be through the forms of entertainment or through body language. The racial composition also produces a racialized space and this racialized space exerts a different experience for each prisoner. Some maximize their presence through subtle ways like controlling the television. Through these examples, we see that prisoners’ practices are a result of their experiences with racialized spaces.
There are also spaces of autonomy and escape. Aaron, a Hispanic ex-prisoner, tells me that fishing takes place after rounds:
“There’s an upper floor and lower floor […] So this guy here needs a light. And this guy here has it. They rip their sheets and tying them and tying them. And then they tie maybe like a book at the end of it. It has weight. Then they throw it out. Then the other guy has to catch it. But you gotta do all this before the guards come around and find the contraband.”
Prisoners “fish” through the food slots of their cell doors. (Zinger, Office of the Correctional Investigator 2017)
Prisoners make use of their understandings of time and surveillance to trade, thus producing a space for autonomy. A space of autonomy is a space for prisoners to determine their own decisions, practices, and experiences. Prisoners produce a space of autonomy through the practice of fishing. Fishing is an innovative means of trading contraband from within the cells. First, prisoners perceive their space regarding time and surveillance—time and surveillance determine social space. However, Aaron understands that surveillance falls within the boundary of time.
Correctional officers perform rounds every twenty to thirty minutes where they walk around the range, peer through the windows of each cell, and ensure prisoners’ safety. Fishing then often takes place right after rounds where prisoners are guaranteed twenty to thirty minutes of no surveillance. Therefore, the absence of surveillance aids in the reproduction of space. Prisoners create their own social space by participating in practices – such as fishing – that deviate from prison rules.
The reproduction of space also aids in prisoners’ escapes from the realities of incarceration. Omar, a prison chaplain, tells me that the chapel is “considered a safe space for inmates.”
“And then in your cell, the reality of incarceration hits you. But when you’re in the chapel, you’re in the presence of God, and so you feel like even the chapel doesn’t really look like prison, so it’s considered a safe space for inmates. So we always had you know wonderful discussions. Usually coming into the chapel, I always had snacks, I brought cookies.”
Inside the chapel, Omar and the prisoners “eat, sip tea, hang out, [and] just chit-chat until [the prisoners] have to go back to their cells.” In fact, “many of them [should] be working […], but they’ll just come. ‘Let’s go check out Imam Omar.’ […] ‘Hey. Omar. Got any cookies?’”
In addition to a worship space, the chapel is a safe social space. Omar aids in the reproduction of the chapel into a social space by bringing snacks and cookies thus welcoming prisoners to use the chapel as a space for escape from the “routines” of prison.
In both Aaron and Omar’s statements, we see the intersections between social agents, social actions, and symbols in reproducing space. Aaron and Omar reproduce space through their perceived and attached meanings to the space they occupy. In Aaron’s case, space is understood in terms of time and surveillance and space is reproduced in the absence of surveillance. On the other hand, Omar understands space in terms of safety and socialization where prisoners can escape the realities of prison for a short period of time and experience a sense of dignity. Prisoners’ and staffs’ perceptions of space determines social actions. These social actions, in turn, reproduce the space and reshapes prisoners’ sense of self.
However, prisoners’ sense of self is also influenced by the physical structures of prison as well. In prison, windows are used to generate a sense of alienation within prisoners. Alienation refers to how people may experience a sense of being “the other.” Distance and the lack of interaction between prisoners and staff produce a sense of alienation within the prisoner. Andrew admits that when he “looks at [the prisoners] strictly behind a glass, he just becomes a number.”
Omar explains the significance behind windows on cell-doors in administrative segregation units:
“They’re putting windows at the bottom because what would happen is that many inmates dealing with some sort of crisis . . . they might sit by the door but under the window and maybe self-harm […] Like those who need […] acute care. Those who are in some sort of like maybe a mental health crisis or they’re on alert, suicide alert, suicide watch . . . they put windows at the bottom so they can make sure everything is okay.”
Omar’s observation suggests that the placement of windows on cell doors determines the form of interaction that will take place between prisoners and staff. When windows are placed at the bottom, there is greater staff-prisoner interaction where staff can crouch down to the level of a prisoner who may be in crisis and communicate with them. On the other hand, windows placed higher up on the door reduces this form of interaction as staff would only be able to peer through the window at the prisoner dealing with a crisis “[sitting] by the door but under the window” without being able to communicate properly with them. In other words, the placement of windows can further alienate the prisoner or facilitate interaction thus building prisoners’ sense of self.
Colours may affect the mood of an environment, but the character of a place moves beyond the colour scheme and design. My research suggests that the character of a place is determined by and reproduced through the constant activity and social actions that take place within the boundaries that demarcate the space. For Mohamed, unit eleven is the worst among the others; as such, when he spent time there, he kept to himself and purposely occupied less space. The labels he attached to each unit spoke to how he occupied the space. Social agents reshape space through their attached meanings and associated social actions as is evident in Aaron and Omar’s experiences.
Nonetheless, space shapes social agents. In prison, windows shape both social agents’ actions and sense of self. Windows can either facilitate or inhibit staff-prisoner interactions. In turn, interactions with staff can either alienate and dehumanize prisoners or provide them with a sense of meaning and self-worth. Space is constantly in the workings. It is both being produced and produces thus reflecting Lefebvre’s concept of social space consisting of multiplex interactions between social forces.
Gihad is specializing in criminology and majoring in professional writing and communication at the University of Toronto. She wishes to continue down the path of academia and pursue graduate research on corrections and the criminal justice system.