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Thinking through water

Thinking through water – elemental metaphors in carceral environments

By Anna Schliehe


The connection between water and prisons is by no means straightforward, and even my own COMPEN colleagues have asked me what I could possibly say about this subject. However, over the course of our fieldwork in England & Wales and Norway, many associations with water have arisen from the interviews and informal conversations we have had with prisoners and staff. Reading Jen Turner and Dominique Moran’s recent paper, titled Careful Control: the infrastructure of water in carceral space (2018), has inspired me to collect some of our own material on water in carceral environments.

At once a necessity, a source of well-being, but also something requiring control and management, the element of water offers an analytical basis for thinking in order to uncover mundane, intimate and embodied institutional practices that are mediated by water in its elemental form. This blogpost is an introduction to how carceral relationships with water (and indeed other elements like air) can be ‘variously and simultaneously unruly, restrictive, health-enabling, and therapeutic’ (Turner and Moran 2018). Although much work within prison research has produced data about the impact of incarceration (e.g. Sykes 2007) and the potential pains of infrastructural and design elements of the prison environment (e.g. Jewkes 2018), water has not featured much in these discussions.

Water in carceral spaces does not generally have a history of positive associations. Instead, as Turner and Moran (2018) point out, water has been used to control populations in the history of punishment and imprisonment, for example via prison colonies on remote islands[1], or more recently, the usage of ships to detain unwanted migrants. There is also a more directly embodied way of water usage as punishment, like water cannons being used to control demonstrators or the use of water in techniques of torture in prisons around the world. In everyday prison life water might feature in its scarcity or in its overabundance, e.g. through flooding: it is one of those things that is noticed if there is something wrong, but that we do not think much about otherwise. Taking note of problematic aspects of water in carceral spaces tells us something about detention in general and the way prisoners and staff use water in their everyday language also tells us something about the depth and weight of the prison experience (Crewe 2011). This has also been the case when I looked further into exploring water and water infrastructures in prison environments in the UK and Norway as part of the COMPEN project.

In prison, security and safety are primary concerns, resulting in the implementation of certain design choices both to prevent the escape of prisoners and ensure that they are not physically harmed whilst incarcerated (Turner and Moran 2018). This usually incorporates water infrastructures, since water can pose certain kinds of risks. These could include risk to people’s health through contagion, the risk of an individual flooding their immediate environment, or the risk of an individual causing bodily harm to themselves or others (e.g. through throwing boiling water). Risk reduction, then, means for example to implement a regime in which prisoners use showers rather than baths, and taps and showerheads are restricted in the volume of water flow. This can cause significant frustration among prisoners who have no choice but to use the facilities at hand (see Jewkes 2018; Turner 2016; Douglas 1966). Water infrastructure failing altogether is of more immediate concern, as Ryan points out:

‘Living in shit conditions, like dirty and this – it’s not nice (…) it’s bad, I’ve been in some bad jails. Here it’s bad, I was on B wing when I first got here and that’s really bad. Toilets don’t work, no toilet seat, sink blocked, just damp, just dingy (…) dark, bugs everywhere, it ain’t nice. [Wormwood] Scrubs [is] terrible: rats in the yard, toilet didn’t work for three weeks…yeah…

What do you do then?

You don’t even want to know, it’s bad what they have you doing. It’s inhumane. They have people throwing…

Do they have a bucket?

No not even a bucket. People just chucking things out of the window and that. It’s proper naughty.’

Prisoners and staff alike appreciate functional and clean in-cell washing facilities (like sinks and toilets) because they signify and produce levels of dignity and respect. However, the state of these facilities often become a cause of concern in the close communal living conditions of a shared cell, especially in England & Wales. With long lock-up times, prisoners rely on working running water for essentials like hydration. Showers in cells are a rarity, and considerable issues have been raised by interviewees concerning the perceived (and indeed often real) threat of contagion of communal washing facilities. As a matter of fact, staff members warned me about entering communal showers because of the risk to my health when we took pictures on a wing. Other issues with water in prisons that come to mind range from ‘out of order’ washing machines, control exercised by prisoners in charge of washing clothes to, for example, clothes being returned to certain prisoners smelly and damp. The accessibility of hot water in cells was also a concern (several prisons did not supply kettles for example so flasks become important). The fact that exercise outside could be regularly cancelled in rainy weather because prison officers ‘couldn’t be bothered to get wet’ is another form of water-related impact (fieldnotes AKS E&W). Moran and Turner (2018: 5) mention the frustration that is caused by missing sink plugs (e.g. for shaving) – which may be seen as trivial but in actual fact can have an impact on body image, self- care and dignity.

Water does not just feature in its elemental form but is often used metaphorically to describe the overall experience of imprisonment and how far removed prisoners feel from the outside world. Interestingly, many prisoners use water metaphors to describe how they feel – like ‘submerged’ or ‘in a well without a ladder’. Others use metaphors like ‘far out at sea’ or ‘like being in a boat on the sea without oars, you have no control, just drifting away..’ (field notes, Norway, KM). One painted example from HMP Littlehey on a wing shows this ‘depth’ really well where the phone booth is painted under water with a diver and circling sharks around it (see pictures). The importance of water can also continue beyond the immediate time of detention as written in our field notes: ‘The first thing he did when they got home was to take a very long shower, and he washed all his clothes.’ (KM, Norway).

Water in carceral environments is not wholly negative though. Recent scholarship has paid particular attention to the impact of ‘blue’ landscapes and specifically embodied experiences of water (Turner et al 2017). Although the possibility for direct bodily immersion is rare in carceral environments in England and Wales, ‘the ability to cleanse oneself of the ‘contagion’ of the prison setting arguably renders even the limited immersion in a cell shower a therapeutic blue experience’ (Turner and Moran 2018: 4). Moreover, I now want to briefly consider the capacity of a view of and usage of blue landscapes to have a health-enabling effect. In Norway where prisoners sometimes have access to these views and also at times direct access to the water (swimming, fishing) many interviewees expressed positive associations with the sea view. At the same time, many prisoners saw water as a natural occurrence and had to be prompted to think about its therapeutic effect upon the body, such as feelings of comfort, ease and relaxation. Even when prompted, many do not speak directly of water but issues around/related to it instead. Blue views being much rarer in England and Wales meant that, for example, one prisoner recounted a story of how getting a glimpse of a lake for the first time in years from the prison van on his way to court was a really special moment for him (worth repeating to me months later) (field notes AKS).

To conclude, water (like other elements) is a means of control but also, in its materiality, it essentially escapes control. This was described by our interviewees - often with a deep sense of exasperation. Excess and scarcity of water can threaten individual prisoners and whole establishments. It is in its metaphorical realm, though, that water expands to affect our imagination and deep descriptions of the nature of imprisonment. New ways to think about blue landscapes and direct (positive) contact with water in its elemental form are crucial if prisons are to serve a caring or healing function in any way.



Crewe, B. (2011) 'Depth, weight, tightness: revisiting the pains of imprisonment', Punishment and Society, 13(5): 509-529.

Douglas, M. (1966 [2002]) Purity and Danger. Routledge, London.

Jewkes, Y. (2018) Just design: Healthy prisons and the architecture of hope. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology Vol. 51(3) 319–338.

NYT (2018) Denmark Plans to Isolate Unwanted Migrants on a Small Island URL: (11/01/2019)

Sykes, G. M. (2007). The society of captives: A study of a maximum security prison. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (Original work published 1958).

Turner, J., Moran, D. (2018) Careful Control: The infrastructure of water in carceral space. Area 2018: 1-8 (

Turner, J., Moran, D., & Jewkes, Y. (2017). Serving Time with a Sea View: Escaping Prison via Therapeutic Blue Space. Paper presented at the at The Annual Conference of the American Association of Geographers, Boston, MA.

Turner, J. (2016).The prison boundary: Between society and carceral space. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Acknowledgments: I want to thank Dominique Moran and Jen Turner for their inspirational work and discussions on the topic.





[1] In fact, there are also contemporary examples: Denmark has just passed a proposition to detain migrants who have been sentenced to deportation, but cannot be deported on a deserted island (NYT 2018).


logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).