Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Penal Boundaries Workshop: Considering the Excesses, Limits, and the Production of Inequality



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Post by Sarah Turnbull, postdoctoral research fellow, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford.

On April 10 and 11, 2014, I attended the workshop Penal Boundaries: Excesses, Limits, and the Production of Inequality at the University of Toronto's Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies. Convened by Kelly Hannah-Moffat, Paula Maurutto, Phil Goodman, and Mona Lynch, this event brought together an international group of scholars working in the area of punishment to consider the ‘boundaries’ of contemporary penality, including the expansion of penal practices to new spaces, practices, and subjects.

The purpose of the workshop was to expand and invigorate the theory and substance of ‘punishment and society’ scholarship through the inclusion of papers that:

  • challenge the objects, subjects, and levels of analysis that define most criminological work in contemporary penality;
  • examine the hybrids that blur the lines between criminal punishment, administrative laws, and community mobilisations; and
  • consider the othering processes that are too often central to the practice of punishment.
Colnbrook IRC (Photo: S. Turnbull)
Participants were asked to examine whether punishment and society scholarship is/should be going, the ‘boundaries’ in relation to the ‘core’ of punishment, and the degree to which the lines between criminal punishment, administrative law, and community regulation are becoming blurry. Within the literature, punishment is typically understood as a response to criminal wrongdoing as enacted by the state (and/or other actors on the state's behalf) and directed towards citizen-subjects to produce a variety of aims (e.g., desistance, moral order, incapacitation, etc.). Yet, with the apparent expansion of penal power into administrative realms, and with shifts in the targets of punishment (e.g., foreign nationals), the boundaries of scholarship in this area need to change as well.

At the Workshop, I presented work-in-progress based on my fieldwork to-date at two immigration removal centres (IRCs) in the UK: Campsfield House and Yarl’s Wood. Drawing on participants’ narratives, I considered the blurred boundaries between detention as an administrative state practice related to immigration control and one that is lived by detainees as largely punitive, unfair, and illegitimate. Although detention is not a sanction for criminal wrongdoing, the technical boundaries separating administrative and criminal justice power feel irrelevant to those enduring it. My presentation highlighted three aspects of immigration detention which detainees experience as punitive: uncertainty, indignity, and identity.

Although outside the legal category of punishment, which remains limited to criminal law, the experiences of the women and men I have interviewed reveal that immigration detention properly fits within research and scholarship in the field of punishment and society. It not only reveals the increasingly blurred boundaries between administrative and penal power, but immigration detention and the incarceration of foreign nationals more broadly challenges the punishment and society scholarship by drawing attention to issues of nationality, security, and migration in the exercise of penal power. The confinement of a growing number of non-citizens within quasi-penal institutions like detention centres necessitates thinking about the extension of penality to administrative areas, especially as the targets of penal power in such cases aren’t the ‘normal’ (i.e., citizen) subjects of criminal punishment. Here at Border Criminologies, we’re interested in sparking a reconsideration of the typical objects, subjects, and fields of research and theorising of penality. In this regard, it’s hoped that the Workshop is the first among many events that bring scholars together to push these boundaries.

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