Not without Irony: Carceral Geography in Birmingham

I recently came across this paper which I presented at the 2017 Carceral Geography conference held in Birmingham. I had meant to get it published, but never got around to it.  So to make it available, here it is:


Last year, at the first carceral geography conference held here in Birmingham, I was struck by the irony, of locating carceral geography in this city. 

Geography first emerged institutionally in Britain with the establishment of the Geographical Society of London (later the Royal Geographical Society) in 1830. It was formed by a merger of the African Association and the Raleigh Club and its early focus was on exploration. This was not ideal curiosity. From its foundation the RGS was about the pursuit of knowledge in the service of power. Its early activities reflect this. The search for the North-West passage was motivated by trade and the exploration of the African interior reflected a new phase in European colonialism seeking to identify new opportunities for exploitation, beyond the coastal forts from which it had previously operated the Atlantic slave trade.

At its founding meeting the RGS appointed Alexander Maconochie as its founding secretary. Maconochie, also became the founding editor of the Journal of the Geographical Society of London, first published in 1831, and subsequently, with support from leading members of the RGS, was appointed in 1833 as Professor of Geography at UCL, the first such post in Britain (Ward 1960). Maconochie was a retired naval officer well qualified for theses posts. In 1818 he had published a 365 page monograph A Summary View of the Statistics and Existing Commerce of the Principal Shores of the Pacific Ocean which was subtitled: ‘With a Sketch of the Advantages, Political and Commercial, which Would Result from the Establishment of a Central Free Port Within Its Limits; and Also of One in the Southern Atlantic’. Like other early geographers Maconochie described himself as a political geographer and the book’s subtitle and its focus emphasises why this description was apt. Indeed, two years earlier Maconochie had published Considerations on the propriety of establishing a colony in one of the Sandwich Islands in which he argued for the annexing of the islands, now known as Hawaii, in anticipation of the strategic advantage which would follow the construction of ‘a free passage for commerce over the isthmus of Panama’ (p.6).

A Summary View had also including a critique of transportation to New South Wales, arguing that using the colony as a place of punishment stopped it developing into the ‘nourishing commercial establishment’ that British interests required in the region (p.250). He argued for the abandonment of transportation and its replacement by penitentiaries in Britain (p.183).

So how does this link to Birmingham?

At the same time as Geography was being institutionally established as a ‘discipline’ significant refinements in carceral techniques were taking place. Birmingham had had lock ups for centuries; John Howard (1777: 275) had visited one in Birmingham in 1774 and again in 1776 finding it ‘very offensive’. But it was only in 1845 that construction started on what we would recognise as a prison. Indeed, it is the prison that still operates in the city. The new prison at Winson Green was very different from its predecessors, something that was apparent to the author of The Pictorial Guide to Birmingham who described the new prison in 1849, the year it opened, as being ‘of vast extent’ with a ‘Gothic and imposing’ façade; organised around an internal design based on ‘the Model Prison at Pentonville’ (pp. 98-99).

As the construction of prison was nearing completion the local magistrates met to discuss the appointment of its senior officers. At the suggestion of Matthew Davenport Hill, the Recorder of Birmingham, the justices unanimously agreed to invite Alexander Maconochie – who we met previously as the first Secretary of the RGS – to take up the post as Birmingham prison’s first governor.

Maconochie has left his posts at the RGS and UCL a decade previously to accompany his friend, the famous explorer and senior member of the RGS, John Franklin, to Van Diemen’s Land where Franklin has been appointed as Lieutenant Governor. Van Diemen’s Land, or as it is known today, Tasmania, was then a convict colony. On his arrival Maconochie set about drafting a report for the Prison Disciplinary Society of London on the operation of the transportation system. Protocol required Maconochie’s report to be submitted via the Colonial Office and Maconochie also sent a summary to Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary. The reports arrived in London as Molesworth’s parliamentary committee was reviewing transportation and both of Maconochie’s dispatches from Van Diemen’s Island were published as parliamentary papers for the committee’s consideration (Home Office, 1838; Colonial Office, 1838). As well as critiquing transportation, Maconochie had taken the opportunity to develop his own proposed penal system, that was subsequently to become known as the ‘mark system’. As a direct result of his reports Maconochie not only became a recognised expert on penal matters in the metropole but was subsequently appointed as Superintendent of the Norfolk Island penal settlement, where between 1841 and 1843 he carried out an experiment of his ‘mark system’.

On his return to London Maconochie continued to campaign for penal reform and argued for a more scientific approach to the infliction of punishment. He argued in particular that reformation should be the principal aim of penal sanctions and that labour should be the mechanism for achieving this. For a local prison like Birmingham seeking a progressive governor, Maconochie was the ideal choice. 

I have used the biography of an individual, Maconochie, to link Geography and the carceral, but was this link a mere coincidence? Michel Foucault (2002) has mapped out how the organisation of “knowledge” into “disciplines” was structured to facilitate power. In particular he identified that ‘the historical emergence of each one of the human sciences was occasioned by a problem, a requirement, an obstacle of a theoretical or practical order’ (ibid: 376). Place and space obviously existed before institutional geography but the discipline sought to know them in new ways. The problem or requirement that necessitated this way of knowing was the advancement of Europe’s colonial, liberal, and capitalist project. Geography, along with all the emerging disciplines, sought, as Edward Said (2003: xiv) pointed out, to know not ‘for purposes of co-existence and (the) humanistic enlargement of horizons,’ but with ‘the will to dominate for the purposes of control and external domination’.  To read the work of Maconochie, the RGS’s founding Secretary, or indeed any of the early editions of its Journal is to see Said’s point unashamedly confirmed by the founders of institutional geography in Britain.

As I have argued elsewhere the prison and carceral project should also be understood in terms of power and domination. Whereas institutional geography set out to facilitate the domination at the colonial periphery, penology – the carceral science – was initially about domination in the metropole. Both facilitated dramatic changes to social structures – the destruction of moral economies and their replacement by political economies – changes required by liberalism to facilitate capitalism. 

Before coming to a conclusion, I want to look at how Maconochie, the original carceral geographer, fared when he was given the opportunity to run a prison. I have written about his regime in detail elsewhere, highlighting how although it started out with reformative aspirations it rapidly degenerated into a corporal regime characterised by the regular deployment of the whip, humiliation, physical restraints and a range of other illegal punishments.  For example, faced with an ‘obstinate’ and ‘self willed’ boy called Bedford, Maconochie told a Royal Commission (1854: 213) in 1853 that:

I requested … the visiting justices to authorise me to flog him by instalments. He stood the first flogging without being in the least overcome by it, and I requested that they would allow me to give it to him by instalments, that is to say, to give him a certain moderate flogging one day, and then, when he was brought up to do his work, if he again refused, to give him a few cuts more; the same the third day or fourth or fifth. I would do it myself to any extent, …

(Royal Commission, 1854: 213)

A child who resisted Maconochie was subjected to the cat-o-nine-tails ‘by instatements’ until the required submission was achieved. Women, were not spared the corporal with Maconochie advising the same Royal Commission: ‘I strapped [in a straight-jacket] a woman up to the railing in the centre hall of her own side’. He visited her regularly during the day and on each occasion, he claimed, told her ‘Now Scott, when you are quiet I will release you, but not till you are quiet’ (Ibid: 213).

As we meet in Birmingham it is sobering to know that less than three miles away is the site where Maconochie, the original carceral geographer, failed so abysmally to put his reformative ideals into practice within a carceral space. Michel Foucault (1980a: 65) advised that 

It’s up to you, who are directly involved with what goes on in geography, faced with all the conflicts of power which traverse it, to confront them and construct the instruments which will enable you to fight on that terrain.’ 

In taking geography into the carceral it is imperative that it is recognised that all sites of confinement are places of domination and power, spaces design to deliver pain. It is a dangerous terrain and I was struck at the conference last year by how some contributors were willingly making their skills and expertise available to serve the interests of the carceral state – actively collaborating with regimes of pain infliction. When I raised the ethical implications in one panel the presenter was unable to answer, as the question was pounced on by a self-confessed “administrative” criminologist, who felt compelled to defend collaboration with penal inflictors. Such a position has characterised criminology throughout its history, provoking Foucault (1980b: 47) to exclaim:

Have you ever read any criminology texts? They are staggering … One has the impression that it is of such utility, is needed so urgently and rendered so vital for the working of the system, that it does not even need to seek a theoretical justification for itself, or even simply a coherent framework. It is entirely utilitarian. 

Does carceral geography have higher expectations for itself?

Carceral spaces are not neutral. Those subject to their regimes experience them primarily as pain. They are spaces of violence. However, they are also places which have throughout history suffered severe legitimacy deficits. To overcome these deficits, they have sought allies, but whatever the intentions of these reformers and academics – often good, but on other occasions less honourable – their interventions have never changed the fundamental purpose of prisons and other sites of confinement. As George Dendrickson and Frederick Thomas (1954:11), two former Dartmoor prisoners, observed in the mid-twentieth century 

Cruelty and good intentions often go hand in hand. So, it is perhaps not very surprising that many of the least tolerable aspects of life in Dartmoor and other English prisons are the result of the godly and humanitarian zeal of past reformers.

Let that be a warning to any zealous carceral geographers.

Unlinked references

Colonial Office (1838) ‘Dispatch from Lieutenant Governor Sir J. Franklin, October 1837, relative to present System of Convict Discipline in Van Diemen’s Land’, (Parliamentary Papers 1837-1838 [309]).

Dendrickson, G. and Thomas, F. (1954), The Truth About Dartmoor, London: Victor Gollancz

Foucault, M. (1980a) ‘Questions on Geography’ in Power/knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf

Foucault, M. (1980b) ‘Prison Talk’ in Power/knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf

Foucault, M. (2002) The Order of Things. London: Routledge

Home Office (1838) ‘Report on State of Prison Discipline in Van Diemen’s Land, &c By Captain Maconochie’. (Parliamentary Papers 1837-38 [121]).

Royal Commission (1854) Royal Commission to Inquire into Condition and Treatment of Prisoners in Birmingham Borough Prison. (Parliamentary. Papers 1854 [1809])

Said, E.W. (2003) Orientalism. London: Penguin

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