Ambiguous publicities: Cultivating doubt at the intersection of competing genres of risk evaluation in Catalan Prisons

AuthorJohanna Römer
Published date01 July 2019
Date01 July 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Ambiguous publicities:
Cultivating doubt at
the intersection of
competing genres
of risk evaluation in
Catalan Prisons
Johanna R
University of Essex, UK
Policymakers in Canada and across Europe have largely embraced the creation of post-
disciplinary systems of punishment. In the autonomous region of Catalonia, Spain, this
meant expanding connections between prisons and communities, expanding the publics
a prison serves. At the same time, in part driven by austerity policies, incarceration in
Spain and Catalonia has become more punitive and bureaucratic. Actuarial risk assess-
ments introduced in Catalan prisons in 2009 are an example of this type of reform—
designed to facilitate the release of low-risk inmates earlier and to control mobility.
Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in Catalan prisons from 2012 to 2014, I
show how both actuarial and clinical risk evaluation involved therapists’ anticipation of
future aggressive acts on the part of inmates. Analyzing risk assessment as a practice
and as an ideological frame, I argue that the short-term focus of risk assessments
reinforced existing forms of interpreting inmates’ actions that therapists attempted
to hold at bay. Risk as an ideological frame in the context of austerity contributes to
a form of publicity that can further isolate inmates rather than facilitating the construc-
tion of community inside and outside of a rehabilitative prison.
doubt, publics, punishment, quantification, rehabilitation, risk, temporality
Corresponding author:
Johanna R
omer, Hunter College, 695 Park Avenue, Room 722, New York, NY 10065-5024, USA.
Punishment & Society
2019, Vol. 21(3) 342–363
!The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1462474518773332
Certainty is a short-term solution: The significance of doubt in
contexts of hypervisibility
This article addresses the significance of risk as both a practice and an ideological
frame in a high-security rehabilitative prison in the autonomous region of
Catalonia, Spain. During the past decade, Spanish and European policymakers
have promoted more open models of punishment, experimenting with new forms
of education, therapy, and recreation in carceral spaces (Chantraine, 2012; Garc
´s and Rivera, 2016; Rivera, 2017). However, as these institutions enable great-
er movement for inmates, they also generate new kinds of documentation and
control that can be equally repressive or equally objectifying (Crewe, 2011).
Inmates are not private individuals: they do not have the same rights to privacy
as other citizens, and they are not completely anonymous. Within a public imag-
ination in the United States or Europe, inmates are numbers that stand in for
something else. They are not public figures with names, but bodies that account
for the biopolitical prowess of a nation. They represent threats contained,
threats quantified, threats recuperated. In Catalonia, the ongoing reorganization
of a program of rehabilitation around the concept of risk highlights its role in
making objects visible and instantly known—while practices of rehabilitation had
been organized around long-term, collective forms of managing inmates’ cases.
Prison staff were presented with the conflicting desires of wanting to circulate
more data about inmates—at the same time as the use of risk
assessments intensified their efforts to refuse the objectification and anonymity it
generated within a repressive institution.
Catalan prisons are marked by high levels of surveillance and supervision in
public spaces within the prison, what I refer to here as hypervisibility. Prison staff
expected a high level of contact between inmates in workshops, patios, classrooms,
cafeterias, and residential areas. Rehabilitation thus operated within an economy
of scarcity on an economic level, and also on a relational level in the prison itself.
The need to cut costs and release low-risk inmates earlier motivated the introduc-
tion of risk-based practices. At the same time, the pressure of an enforced sociality
within a closed and increasingly diverse inmate population meant that inmates
were both saturated by the gaze, but not attention, of others, and often isolated
at the same time. Funding was scarce–one part of the rationale behind the intro-
duction of risk assessments was the need to cut costs by releasing low-risk inmates
earlier. In 2012, the working hours and salaries of civil servants were reduced by
15%. Therapists believed that inmates were constantly competing for their atten-
tion, and the attention of anyone coming from the outside, including myself as an
The central tension I examine in this paper is how the kinds of uncertainty
prevalent in a prison magnified the function of risk discourse as a form of public-
ity. Therapists in the rehabilitative prison I call CPX wanted to create community
in a space permeated by suspicion, in which inmates were constantly on display for
one another and to staff.
I argue here that risk as both a pactice and an ideological
omer 343

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